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As travel to Israel resumes, we talk with the group's leaders

A pre-pandemic Birthright Israel participant shops in the shuk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Birthright Israel)
A pre-pandemic Birthright Israel participant shops in the shuk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Birthright Israel)

Birthright Israel has racked up extraordinary statistics.

In the little more than two decades since its first trips, in 1999, the organization has taken more than three quarters of a million young Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel.

The trips are whirlwind tours of the Jewish state and ask their participants to spend almost no money; instead of their wallets, they’re asked to open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts.

The trips have been occasionally controversial and widely beloved, both within the Jewish community and outside it; as the world’s feelings toward Israel have changed, so have the trips, and many if not most of the trips’ alumni find themselves changed by it too.

Now, after a two-year sort-of-hiatus — the trips were mainly off but occasionally on-again — Birthright Israel is back. The first trips left for Israel at the end of February.

The structure of Birthright Israel is complicated; the relatively small staff at its midtown Manhattan headquarters oversees an operation that works with trip organizers and providers, setting standards, developing guidelines, and providing security, structure, oversight, and resources. It also works with donors to fund the programs. But Birthright Israel does not run the trips itself. Instead, the trip providers work with it to offer a variety of general and niche experiences, based on the providers’ own affiliations and interests.

This week, two of the Birthright Israel officials with local ties to northern New Jersey — its CFO, David Shapiro, lives in Teaneck, and its vice president of marketing and communications, Pamela Fertel Weinstein, recently moved to West Caldwell from West Orange — talked about the nonprofit.

They both made clear that not only do they work for the organization, they love it. In fact, Ms. Weinstein, who has worked for Birthright for 10 years now, has a much longer-term relationship to it. She was on one of the first trips, as a participant, in the winter of 1999.

Now, Mr. Shapiro and Ms. Fertel Weinstein talk about how Birthright has changed, and what it offers.

Birthright always has adapted to its time, they say. Right now, as it’s adapting to a with-luck-and-care post-pandemic (although not post-covid) world, it’s also adjusting to a world in which Russia has invaded Ukraine, and while some people are staying to fight, others are leaving, and still others have found themselves outside of their country as life inside it became unrecognizable.

A group of Birthright Israel participants have just completed a hike in northern Israel. (All the photos are from prepandemic trips.) [All photos courtesy Birthright Israel]
“I am so proud of being part of an organization that is able to step in and do what we are doing,” Mr. Shapiro said.

“We had about a dozen or so Ukrainians who were on a Birthright trip when war broke out, and rather than send them home” — they did not want to go home, he added — “we found a way to keep them in Israel.”

That was an easier task than it otherwise would have been because Birthright has just merged with Onward Israel, a nonprofit that provides longer trips to Israel than Birthright’s. “Our trips are basically 10 days, although we do offer some seven-day ones,” Ms. Weinstein said. “Onward’s trips are longer, roughly two months, basically internship programs.”

Like Birthright, Onward is supported mostly by donors, but also in part by the government of Israel. The programs are of different scale — “Onward had roughly 3,000 participants a year,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. Birthright is much, much bigger.

The Ukrainian Birthright travelers now are settled into Onward programs.

“The merger with Onward was particularly opportune because we were able to use their programming to provide not only for the Ukrainians, but also for the Russians,” she continued.

That’s because there also were young Russian Jews who were in Israel on Birthright. Not all of them wanted to stay in Israel — the impact of the invasion fell differently on Ukrainians and Russians — but those who chose to stay were able to do so.

The Ukrainians now have time “to sort things out, and decide what they want to do,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Some have family in Israel they can stay with. Some said they were comfortable flying to Poland. We will reevaluate week by week, and see what happens.”

Meanwhile, Birthright Israel’s core business, its trips for young Jews from around the world, has resumed.

Birthright participants have a chance to explore the Machane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem.

It’s a very large-scale project.

“When we started the trips again, we thought we’d take about 18,000 people this year,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “Right now, we are seeing a lot of positive responses to our summer programming opportunities. So we think that we might take 20,000 to 30,000. That would bring us back almost to a regular summer.”

The trips run throughout the year; in a normal year, Birthright Israel has about 45,000 participants. They come from 68 countries, although most are from North America. There are more than 1,200 trips each year.

“This is really exciting, and we are cautiously optimistic,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “We are moving in the right direction.”

It’s been just about exactly two years since the trips stopped. “We canceled our trips in March of 2020,” she said. “I remember that we got one call that the providers were canceling a group, and then we got another call from another group — and then the whole world shut down. We restarted in May 2021 and we ran through mid-August” — cautiously, of course — “and then we stopped again.”

About 40,000 would-be travelers had their trips postponed. “We see that many of our current applicants come from that pool,” Mr. Shapiro said. “And there are new applicants as well.”

Birthright Israel accepts people who have at least one Jewish parent or have converted to Judaism; it might accept people raised by non-Jews who were born to Jewish birth parents, although that’s decided case by case. That hasn’t changed since Birthright began. But there are other requirements that have eased up; chief among them was the expectation that the traveler had not been to Israel before. Now Birthright accepts young Jews who have been to Israel with their families or to visit their families, and takes them even if they’ve been there many times. They still rule out people who’ve been to Israel on other group tours for young people or who have studied there; Birthright has generous donors but it does not have unlimited funds, so it has chosen to spend that money on people who have not gotten to see Israel with their peers.

Because the rules had loosened, there was a cohort of young people who had not been able to go on a Birthright Israel trip, and aged out. Until recently, travelers had to be between 18 and 26. The age limit was moved up to 32, to accommodate the group who otherwise would have missed out.

Now, however, with that group taken care of, next winter the age limit will move back down to 26; the trip is open to young adults who are up to four years out from college, assuming that they’d graduated on the standard schedule.

This group of Birthright Israel travelers has just climbed Masada.

“We want to go back to focus on people at the liminal stages of their lives, when they are thinking about where they want to live, how they want to live, what kind of job, what kind of family, what kind of life they want to have,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said.

That’s just one of the changes, as the program adjusts to post-pandemic reality.

The trips that operated during the pandemic featured smaller groups, to allow for social distancing. No one will be sad to see the need to stay six feet apart removed — Birthright thrives on connection — but its leaders realized that perhaps its groups were too big.

There had been about 40 young people on a bus; now, the groups probably will hold more than the 20 that covid precautions demand, but fewer than 40. “We got good feedback about the smaller groups,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Of course, you only know what you know, and they hadn’t experienced the larger groups, but they liked the intimacy.”

“We spent a lot of the time while we were hunkered down at home trying to see what the future would look like,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “There was a lot of wishful thinking, a lot of trying to see through the darkness that we all were experiencing all around us.

“And we realized that these were young adults, and they would need these trips more than ever. They were spending their first years of college sitting alone at a computer. They were living in their parents’ basements. They were starting new jobs in new cities without ever having the chance to meet anyone in person.

“We started thinking about these experiences as individual stories, and then we thought about them all and we realized that to understand what was going on, we’d have to multiply them and multiply them.

“We realized that when we could start up again, the demand would be high. People would be looking for an opportunity to travel.

“And people would be looking even more for community.”

While that need for community and belonging was growing, so too was a darker force, one that’s been strengthening for some time.

Birthright Israel participants stand in the plaza near the Kotel.

“On the negative side, college campuses are full of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “Students are looking for answers. They’re saying, ‘What is all this that I am hearing? How do I fit into it?

“‘What is true?’

“We are working with our tour educators and our madrichim” — our counselors — “to understand the current climate on campus,” she continued. “We want the students to be prepared to have these conversations.

“It’s not the same as it was when I went on it 22 years ago. When you take a group to Yad Vashem today, you have to be able to talk not only about the Holocaust but about antisemitism today.

“The core of the program is the same, but we are sensitive to the world around us. We want to be a safe, welcoming environment.”

She thinks back to when she was a Birthright participant. “If you rewind the clock to then, you see that anti-Israel sentiment was minimal, and antisemism was more from a textbook. A world without Israel was the world of our grandparents, but still Israel was distant. We had Jewish youth groups and camps and Jewish sororities and fraternities, but Israel was a distant place.

“As the years went by, things changed. Particularly with social media, what our participants are seeing and hearing on a daily basis is so different from what we saw and heard. Every celebrity has an opinion on everything, even on things they know nothing about, and everybody who follows that celebrity will know about that opinion.

“It’s creating a whole different lens.

“We have participants who are afraid to say they are coming on the trip on social media.

“Every generation comes with different experiences, and we pay attention to that, because we want this trip to be relevant and impactful.”

This group discovered the easy joy of floating in the Dead Sea.

Birthright Israel’s goal is to expose young Jews to Judaism and Jewish life in a Jewish environment. It is studiedly noncommittal about what kind of Jewish life it hopes its travelers will choose to live. Applicants have a wide range of trips to choose from — it could be run by a religious group, like the Orthodox Union, or a college-oriented group, like Hillel. There are trips for the LGBTQ community, and also for foodies, for outdoor adventure enthusiasts, for people most interested in the arts. There are trips for people with special needs. “That’s really one of our incredible trips, and we get tremendous feedback from it,” Mr. Shapiro said. There are usually about 10 of those trips, tailored to the participants’ needs, every non-pandemic year.

Birthright’s goal is not to give young Jews the idea that there is one prescribed way to be Jewish, but instead to see that there are many ways to be Jewish — and that they’re all possible not only at home but also, and perhaps even particularly, in Israel.

Applicants pick the groups that interest them in “what we call the marketplace,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “We understand that not everybody comes to Birthright Israel with the same level of connection or understanding or feeling about Judaism, or about Israel.

“We want to show that no matter what your interest is, you can connect to it.”

Participants’ interests guide the kinds of trips available to them, and that is constantly changing, sensitive both to the zeitgeist and to random individual idiosyncrasies.

“It’s a matter of supply and demand,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said.

“We want to understand how each new cohort thinks, because it is very different,” she continued. “Every generation has a different outlook. We just did a detailed survey of this new generation, and we are making changes based on what we learned from it.

“It’s important to keep the program relevant to the group, not to bring new groups what worked for the previous generation. That might not work for them.”

Meanwhile, the logistics of keeping so many groups going are massive. “And we have to be able to change the program on the fly,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “For example, when a war breaks out, as it has, we have to change, sometimes on a dime. We are in constant contact with all our trips as they happen. We have a situation room. If there is a conflict somewhere and there is a group heading there, we turn them around.

“We have to make sure that our participants stay safe.”

These Birthright participants climb Masada.

Because all the participants are at least nominally adults — an 18-year-old is not as grown up as a 26-year-old, but still is not a child — there are no rules governing their behavior. “You think that a lot of them are college kids, and they come because they want to have a good time, but once they get there the experience is a lot different from what they imagined it would be, or what we might imagine it might be for them,” Mr. Shapiro said.

To be clear, participants still do manage to have a good time, and having fun, experiencing a Jewish world, surrounded by Jews, going home happy, with good memories, is part of the goal. Reverence doesn’t get in the way of joy.

“I had the privilege of meeting with a group of 27- to 32-year-olds and it was very different than the younger groups,” he continued. “I asked them what had prompted them to come, and many of them said that they were doing it in memory of their grandparents.

“They said that when their grandparents were alive, they brought some Judaism into the family, and when their grandparents died, they lost it.

“It’s so much like the song. ‘Zaydie made us laugh. And Zaydie made us sing.’ So many of these participants wanted to do this because they realized that they lost so much of Judaism when their grandparents died, and they wanted some of it back.”

Mr. Shapiro and Ms. Fertel Weinstein acknowledge that Birthright Israel has faced some bad press, and they do not think it is at all accurate. “I really didn’t understand the concept of fake news until I heard about the New York Times article that talked about disturbances on buses,” Mr. Shapiro said. The Times has detailed instances of disagreement about what some pro-Palestinian advocates think of as Birthright’s refusal to focus on the tension between Palestinians and Jews in Israel. They accuse Birthright of whitewashing roiling troubles.

“So four or five participants stood up on a bus and protested on one of our trips, and the New York Times thought that it was big news,” he said. “That just shocked me. That became a big issue. We take 45,000 participants on trips, and five participants protest and that’s the news.

“Unfortunately, it is the squeaky wheel…. That’s just what happens.

“But by and large our participants have an incredible experience on the trip, and they come back and talk about it. We hear from a large number of participants who tell us that now they can go back on their campus, and although they can’t necessarily speak volumes about Israel and the conflict, at least they can say that it’s not as simple as just that Israel is the aggressor.

“We try to give a balanced view, specifically so that our participants can come back and say that it’s not so simple. It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to be able to get them to that point.” To understand that there is nuance. “Of course on a 10-day trip you can’t learn everything, but at least we can do our best to give them something to go back to the campus with.”

A large group relaxes in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem.

There are some basics that every trip provider is obligated to include, Mr. Shapiro said. “We don’t create the trips, we don’t run them, and we give them minimum requirements, but they have to visit Yad Vashem and the Kotel, and they have to go to Masada.

“We also have a required module about the conflict, a discussion where we have educators come and speak about the conflict. They do their best to give a balanced discussion.

“When it comes down to the individual educator, they each can give a twist to it, but we do quality control. We do our best to include a perspective from both sides. Then we let our participants form their own conclusions, and take them with them.”

“We stay out of politics,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “We work hard to stay out of politics. We want to be apolitical — and even that has caused some issues over the years.”

They both think that the environment might be shifting again, ever so slightly. Certainly, there is heightening anticipation among their participants. “Anecdotally, it seems that there might be heightened anxiety about traveling, because everyone’s been remote for two years, but from what we have seen, they’re eager to go,” Ms. Fertel Weinstein said. “Last summer, when we had those few trips, there was a heightened sense of appreciation and gratitude.

“David and I are on the foundation side, so we are in charge of making sure that there is money for the trips. When I say to the participants that there are nearly 40,000 people who make this possible” — and yes, when you count all the donors, not only the major philanthropists but also the small givers, that’s how many there are — “there are hugs and tears.

“Our participants needed this trip before, and now, after covid, they need it even more.”

As CFO, Mr. Shapiro knows exactly where the funding comes from.

This is how the funding works. “At the beginning, when the program was envisioned, it was a three-way partnership. Two philanthropists, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt” — the controversial donor whose behavior to women and also to museums has tarnished his reputation tremendously, but that happened long after Birthright was created — “would give a third of the costs, a third would come from the government of Israel, and the rest from the federation system.” It’s changed since then, but those three groups still are necessary. “And I also literally get dollar bills in the mail, and we need that.

“We need everyone’s support. We can’t live without the major donors, and we can’t live without the individual small-dollar donors. It all adds up.” The foundation’s task is to raise funds for a program that costs about $160 million dollars a year, “and it’s going up because of covid,” Mr. Shapiro said. About $100 million of that amount comes from North America; the rest comes from around the Jewish world.

Both Mr. Shapiro and Ms. Fertel Weinstein are hopeful about the future. They’ve seen the bonding that happens on the trips —connections to Judaism, to Israel, to each other. To hope. And to life.

To learn about Birthright Israel, look at the eligibility requirements, and apply or donate, go to birthrightisrael.com.

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