It just became a little harder for every Jewish college student to visit Israel.
Founded in 1999, the Birthright Israel Foundation, which funds educational trips to Israel for approximately 50,000 young Jewish adults each year, announced in late November that due to budget issues it will be forced to cut up to one-third of its participants beginning in 2023.
The news came after the Adelson Family Foundation, which is the largest supporter of Birthright, announced plans to reduce its funding.
The Adelson foundation has given between $35 million to $40 million annually to Birthright, according to Haaretz. This year’s donation will be for just half that amount, or $20 million. The foundation told Birthright to expect another 50% cut in 2023, reducing its contribution to $10 million.
Birthright announced at the beginning of the year that it was lowering the maximum age of participants to 26. For the last five years, the program was capped at the age of 32. Birthright said at the time that it was reducing the age limit because young adults were delaying trips.
While the Adelson foundation cuts have hurt, Birthright also cited inflation and rising travel expenses that have increased the per-person cost of the experience to $4,500, as drivers of its decision to cut back on the number of participants.
Birthright is planning to seek contributions from the wider American Jewish community, officials said.
The Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that Birthright’s fundraising is expected to increase from 2022 to 2023, but that growth won’t be enough to make up for the rise in expenses and inflation.
In July, Birthright celebrated sending 800,000 young adults from 68 countries to Israel since its inception.
Both Hillel JUC of Pittsburgh and Chabad at Pitt send students twice a year to Israel through Birthright.
For Rabbi Shmuli Rothstein, the news that Chabad at Pitt won’t get its usual number of buses or seats for its trip stings.
“Registration hasn’t even opened, and we have already filled up 85% of our seats, with people still asking if they can reserve one,” he said. “We didn’t even advertise anything yet.”
He said the cuts are going to have an impact, explaining that often several students want to travel together in a group and be among friends on the same bus. That might not be possible now.
“They’re all going to feel it,” Rothstein said. “It’s a bummer. It’s a big bummer.”
Hillel JUC Executive Director and CEO Daniel Marcus is mindful of the strain Birthright is under.
“We appreciate and understand the economic realities, and we know that Birthright is doing all they can to provide students and young adults with the opportunity to go to Israel,” he said. “However, Hillel will continue to strive in our objective of ensuring every Jewish student has the opportunity to travel to Israel.”
Marcus said that an immersive Israel experience provides a transformative opportunity for students.
Rothstein agreed, saying that one way to combat the disinformation American students see in the media about Israel is to visit the country. He noted that, often, the bus drivers on the tours are Israeli Arabs living as full-fledged members of Israeli society.
“When you go there, it’s not the speeches that make the difference,” Rothstein said. “It’s the one-on-ones that you get.”
Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark acknowledged the impact of the cuts.
“We know that those who miss out on a Birthright trip are unlikely to travel to Israel at all,” he said in a prepared statement.
Mark also spoke of the effects the cuts will have on Jewish institutions.
“Without a major immediate increase in fundraising, we will be hard-pressed to have the positive effect we’ve had on many individuals — and that will inevitably impact American Jewish organizations that are used to seeing enthusiastic young adults return from Israel and take major roles in the Jewish community. On average, nearly 60% of communal professionals in the U.S. are Birthright alumni.”
Both Marcus and Rothstein remain committed to finding ways to send every Jewish student who wants to go to Israel on a trip. For the moment, though, neither is sure how they will accommodate the need.
“There’s always the possibility that donors will step up and say, ‘How much do you need?’ but it’s not my money and this is business,” Rothstein said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.