For much of his life, Lawrence Mudgett didn't need Judaism. He had football. But when the 6-foot-6, 250-pound sophomore was declared ineligible for the NCAA at the beginning of the school year, he began searching for another niche.
As a participant on Birthright Israel's 2002-2003 winter programs, Mudgett found what he was looking for.
"Going to Israel changed me. It's opened up so many doors," said the UCSB sophomore. "Just being part of the Jewish community and being involved in Hillel helps fill the void of not being on a team and not having that camaraderie."
Mudgett is one of many previously unaffiliated Jewish students who have connected with their Judaism through Birthright Israel, a partnership between the Israeli government, local Jewish communities, and leading Jewish philanthropists, that provides a free gift of first-time peer group educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults between the ages of 18-26. Based on Birthright's registration material from January 2002, 21 percent of participants identified themselves as "Just Jewish," a figure that increased dramatically this year according to Gidi Mark, international director of marketing & development for Birthright Israel.
"These are people who don't want to identify with Jewish institutional life when they come. But most of them change their attitudes over the ten days of the program," Mark said.
Established in 1999 in an effort to reduce the rate of assimilation among Jews in the Diaspora, and to forge a personal connection to Israel, Birthright has sent approximately 40,000 students to Israel free of charge to date. While participants on the Birthright programs run the gambit of denominations, the unaffiliated contingency is perhaps the greatest testimony to the success of the program. But while Birthright leaders are confident in the program's power has in developing a connection to Israel, the greatest challenge these days is merely getting students there.
As violence rises in the Middle East and Israel trips are constantly canceled, Birthright leaders have been going to great lengths to instill confidence in prospective participants. Security measures have been heightened to include security guards to accompany every group, a GPS satellite surveillance system to track the course of every Birthright bus and the elimination of public transportation. But while such measures appear to be comforting to participants from around the world, North Americans remain timid. While North Americans had made up 85 percent of the total number of participants on the program in its first year, their representation dropped to 43 percent last year. And while the program experienced a 14 percentÂ increase in participation this winter from last winter, North American participants only made up 39 percent of the total.
Birthright leaders primarily attribute the disparity to the fact that visiting Israel is far less daunting for citizens of countries with unstable socio-political environments than it is for citizens of North America. As a result, recruitment from such countries as Uruguay and Argentina is much easier than recruitment from the United States -- a task that has become increasingly challenging since Sept. 11.
But while reluctance to travel is perhaps the most obvious explanation for the dramatic drop in North American participation, Birthright leaders do not believe it is the only reason. "In the U.S., we're a melting pot. The idea that 'I want to be part of everything' still exists today," said Marlene Post, North American chair for Birthright Israel. "Their connection to Israel is much smaller than is their connection to being a proud American."
Post noted that while the majority of Jewish students in other countries go to Jewish day schools, the majority of Jewish students in the United States are absorbed into the secular school system. "Day schools breed appreciation for Israel, but with Americans, you have to educate them first," she said.Â
As Birthright enters its fourth year of a five-year contract and makes plans for another five years, Birthright leaders recognize the challenges that lie ahead of them -- challenges that have become even more complex this week after the Israeli government announced a cut in its share of the budget over the next two years of the program. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the cut is part of an emergency economic plan to pull Israel out of its deepest recession in more than 50 years, calling for a $2.34 billion midyear slash in the country's budget. As a result, the $14 million that the Israeli government previously pledged to provide each year for the next five years will be cut by $2 million this year and $4 million next year.
Despite such obstacles, however, Birthright leaders remain optimistic.
"Birthright Israel is continuing its routine operations as planned," said Dr. Shimshon Shoshani, Birthright Israel CEO. "Thousands [approximately 2,500] of North American young adults have already signed up for our spring-summer 2003 trips and they will go on as usual. I trust that our success for spring-summer 2003 will not fall short of our success until now."
In order to help Birthright make the transition into the next five years, Shoshani recently appointed Simon Klarfeld to the newly created position of interim leader of the North American Birthright office. Klarfeld, who had previously been performing the duties of Birthright Israel's executive vice president, will be responsible for overseeing North American recruitment in the coming years.
Klarfeld plans to maintain open lines of communication between Birthright and prospective participants.
"If the current situation continues, we need to have extremely honest, but detailed conversations with each applicant regarding the incredible priority that Birthright places on security," said Klarfeld, adding that the program's partnership with the Israeli government has provided it with the highest of security measures.
Currently, Birthright is developing a security presentation that will be downloadable from the Birthright Israel Web site (www.birthrightisrael.com) and which will be available to the program's 20+ trip organizers.
To further recruitment efforts Klarfeld plans to tap into Birthright's most valuable resource: alumni. With nearly 40,000 past participants from around the world, and 25,000 from North America, alumni is the program's participant generator.
"We have incredibly charged young adults who return to North America in dozens of communities who are eager to be pied pipers ... we're exploring all possibilities of how we can harness that energy to assist in recruitment," Klarfeld said.
Plans include one-on-one recruitment, bringing in alumni guest speakers and setting up speaker's bureaus at local Hillels, JCCs and youth groups.
"We hope to encourage more alumni to participate and provide them with the tools to be effective," Klarfeld said.
David Tiktin, a graduate student in screenwriting at CSUN, had some initial concerns about traveling to Israel. But after making the decision to participate in the Birthright program this winter, he plans to spread the word to others that Birthright Israel is an opportunity that is not to be missed.
"Ultimately, it will definitely encourage me to return to Israel in the future and to tell others to do the same," Tiktin said. "As an American Jew I think it's imperative that we show our support. I have found the Israelis to be so thankful. It never occurred to me how much it appears to them the lack of support they're getting from the American Jewish community ... it saddened me."
Recognizing the diversity of the North American Jewish population, Klarfeld and other Birthright leaders are currently considering the possibility of "niche" trips. Such a trip would be tailored to a specific group of individuals who share a common academic interest or hobby. For example, a law-based trip where participants would visit the Supreme Court, study halacha and interact with Israeli lawyers and legal students.
"It would have a serious impact on how we could recruit," Klarfeld said. "We could go to law firms and to law schools and recruit accordingly."
This May, Birthright is planning to send its first niche trip: a program for camp counselors sponsored in part by the Foundation for Jewish Camping and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Some considerations for programming include exposure to experts in Israeli camping and interaction with Israelis who will subsequently come to the United States as camp counselors.
"By the end of this summer there will have been no serious teen Israel experience trips for three years," Klarfeld said. "The real inspirers of Jewish life are the camp counselors. If for three years there hasn't been a teen Israel experience, then there is a crisis in the camping world."
While Klarfeld is optimistic about Birthright's future efforts in North America, he also realizes that there is much that remains out of his control. "We have to be very clear that we're not trying to coerce. The decision is totally in the hands of the participant and the families," Klarfeld said.
But the families often pose the greatest challenge in recruitment. While the program may experience a successful registration period, it is often difficult to retain those registrants as they go home for various breaks throughout the school year.
"No matter how independent these students are when they're on campus, it's different from going home and saying 'hey mom, I'm thinking about going to Israel," Klarfeld said.
Klarfeld is looking to local Jewish communities to assist Birthright in its mission.
"At the moment, we [American Jewish leaders] are giving mixed messages," Klarfeld said. "So much of the messaging from the American Jewish community talks about Israel, not as much as this opportunity and gift and partnership, but as a response to tragedy and war and threat. That's a real challenge on this generation of American Jews."
Klarfeld hopes that local community leaders, educators, rabbis and Jewish professionals will work together with Birthright to more successfully bridge the two messages and offer their complete support to prospective participants and alumni on the program.
"Israel is a major part of the Jewish experience and is not just a place where you put your money or just a place that you rally around when it's in danger," Klarfeld said. "It's a place where the Jewish future is being played out." Â