Jewish Journal

Birthright israel in big funding trouble

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 29, 2008 | 3:16 pm

In my cover story this week about Hard Times in the Jewish community, I mentioned how the dropping dollar was killing internationally oriented organizations, particularly the American Jewish Joint Distribution Comittee, which cut 60 jobs, including 52 in Israel.

Others, like the United Jewish Communities, Hadassah, the New Israel Fund, pretty much anybody with operations overseas, have been hard hit.

“We grant in dollars,” Bennett Samson, national development director of the New Israel Fund, tells me. “So if we are giving a $1,000 grant, last year they were able to do 4,000 shekels worth of something with that. This year we give them $1,000, a flat renewal, and they are only able to do 3,200 shekels worth with that. We are giving our grants in dollars, but we know they can do less with that. And we are in the same boat; we’ve got 100 staffers in Israel.”

Now you can add Taglit-birthright israel, the wildly successful charity that since 2000 has taken 200,000 Jews, age 18-26, on their first trip to the Jewish state. Birthright’s not broke—how could an organization with an $80 million budget and sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson as its biggest benefactor be broke?—but co-founder Michael Steinhardt says that the dollar’s devaluation is crippling its resources and 2,000 fewer participants would be included on trips this winter.

Steinhardt speaks with the Fundermentalist after the jump:

Steinhardt insisted that talk of a Birthright budget crunch was not a ploy, saying that several factors came into play in terms of the program’sneed for more money. “It is true that the airline cost is really difficult this year because El Al is charging a lot more,” he said. “And because Israeli tourism has been so successful, the hotels have really increased their prices.”

The call for increased dollars, Steinhardt said, is directed across the board — not just at the Israeli government and the federation system. Specifically, he added, Birthright needs more private philanthropists involved.

“I have pushed the Jewish Agency for a long time to step up. And it is not secret that I am not a friend of theirs,” he said. “My hope of their stepping up is gone. I still have a faint hope of getting more money from the federations. But the major source of funds are firstly the philanthropists and secondly the government. We really need to make an effort to seek more philanthropic involvement.”

Birthright has been incredibly important to strengthening Jewish identity and, particularly, interest in Israel among my generation of Jews. This, obviously, is not the end. But the impact of any reductions—this would not be the first time—would not be insignificant.

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