Chuck Boxenbaum had never made a donation to Birthright Israel — until he was asked. And then he came through with a six-figure gift, making the program that sends young people on a free trip to Israel one of his top funding priorities.
“I always thought it was a wonderful program, but I had never been asked,” said Boxenbaum, a past chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last spring, Charles Bronfman, a Birthright founder and megasupporter, invited Boxenbaum to lunch. “He told me if they had more money they could do a better, bigger job, and I agreed,” Boxenbaum said.
Last week Birthright launched a $50 million campaign that will rely more on gifts like Boxenbaum’s — significant but smaller than the multimillion-dollar gifts from founders and major donors like Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Sheldon Adelson. Widely recognized as one of the most successful philanthropic ventures aimed at building Jewish identity, Birthright, like other organizations, is nevertheless battling the fallout of the battered economy. When registration opens for summer trips on Feb. 19, Birthright will offer just one-third of the all-expenses-paid trips to Israel it made available last year. And these will be tough to come by: During the first 72 hours of online registration for the summer of 2008, 40,000 applied for one of 24,000 spots. This summer there are only 8,000 spots for North Americans.
“It’s very mathematical,” said Boxenbaum. “The more money they have, the more kids can go.”
Research shows that Birthright, entering its 10th year, substantially boosts Jewish identity and involvement for participants years after the trip.
The organization has been laying the groundwork for a push to increase giving by region. In 2007, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies set up a grant to seed local federations with development professionals focused on Birthright.
That approach is paying off, with eight professionals having raised $3.5 million so far. Jami Bachrad, who was hired by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles through that grant — and who set up the meeting between Boxenbaum and Bronfman — has raised about $775,000 for Birthright. She says that even in these challenging economic times, no one has backed out of pledges. On top of what Bachrad raised, the L.A. Federation allocates $550,000 a year to pay for trips — the second largest contribution of a federation nationally.
“The Los Angeles Federation has been a true partner in this relationship and has done a remarkable job,” said Jason Soloway, vice president of Bronfman Philanthropies.
Soloway says most federations at first were hesitant to allow in fundraisers that might pull dollars from their own annual campaign. Thus, the Birthright fundraisers embedded in federations are allowed to approach donors only after the annual federation pledge is secured. Plus, Soloway said, federations have found that the Birthright professionals have been able to tap some of the 160,000 North American alumni and their parents, most of them previously unconnected to federations, and to strengthen the perception that federations are partnered with the highly recognized and respected Birthright brand.
Soloway said he believes this approach will continue to increase North American federations’ contributions to Birthright’s budget.
Birthright’s 2009 budget is about $80 million. About a quarter of that comes from North American federations, a quarter from the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel and about half from private donors through the Birthright Israel Foundation.
Birthright’s budget for 2008 was $110 million, a record year with 45,000 participants, thanks to a fundraising push for Israel’s 60th anniversary. But the financial downturn crushed that momentum, and this year the budget is back at about the 2006 level, making about 24,000 trips available (the exact number of trips depends on unpredictable factors, like changing fuel prices, the fluctuating dollar and hotel and excursion costs).
“Our situation is very stable and very good, although we could always use more money,” said Gideon Mark, CEO of Birthright Israel. “In the last four or five years, we have had to turn back tens of thousands of applicants because the demand is much, much higher than what we can afford.”
Birthright officials say neither Birthright nor any of its major supporters were significantly affected by the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme that has blindsided so many other Jewish organizations. None of Birthright’s funds sit in investment pools; any money that comes in goes directly out to pay for trips.
Nevertheless, the economic crisis has been brutal for Birthright supporter Adelson, a casino magnate who Forbes magazine reported in January lost up to 95 percent of his $28 billion in holdings (on paper). In 2007 and 2008 combined, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave Birthright almost $70 million — in cash, not pledges. For 2009, the Adelsons will donate up to $20 million, matching $2 for every $1 collected from a new donor. The Adelsons have pledged $10 million for 2010.
Before the details of Adelson’s donation were ironed out, Birthright was going forward on the assumption that it would only be able to send 4,000 North Americans to Israel this summer, instead of the 8,000 it can now send.
That prospect was particularly troubling to Birthright professionals, because applicants who are turned away once often don’t try again — perhaps because they are no longer students with vacation time or because their fleeting window of Jewish curiosity closed.
This year, Birthright is offering priority registration to anyone who was wait-listed in the past, with a two-day window before general enrollment begins. Applicants are chosen by a formula that allots a number of spots to each community, based on the number of applicants and the amount of money that community has put into the collective Birthright pool. Each applicant is screened in writing and in a phone interview to verify eligibility — they must self-identify as Jews, be 18 to 26 years old and cannot have been on an organized trip to Israel before. Older applicants are given priority before they age out, and applicants must choose a trip provider that has contracted with Birthright to run the trips. If that provider is fully booked, they can try another provider or might be out of luck.
An estimated 12,500 Birthright alumni live in the L.A. area, and they are served by Rabbi Rick Brody, director of NextGen Engagement and Birthright alumni programming at The L.A. Federation. Brody puts on several programs a month, and two full-time alumni coordinators personally connect with the alumni, helping them find their place in the larger Los Angeles Jewish community.
A Birthright grant of $125,000, matched by $125,000 from the L.A. Federation, pays for programming, not including Brody’s salary, which is covered separately by the federation.
Brody say the alumni come back with a heightened enthusiasm for things Jewish, whether that means getting involved in Israel advocacy or embarking on a spiritual journey.
“It really is a shot in the arm to the L.A. Jewish community to have so many young people who are identifying positively as Jews, with a connection to Israel and a desire to be involved in the Jewish community,” Brody said.