Waitlists hinder Birthright goal of giving free Israel trips

Even before online registration opens for the next set of free trips to Israel through Birthright, there’s already talk of how fast the window of opportunity will close.

A notice in Temple Isaiah’s August newsletter, for example, encourages applicants from the Lafayette synagogue to plan to sign up on time because the registration period could end within 24 to 48 hours of going live Tuesday, Sept. 14.

Even completing the process on time will not guarantee that applicants will get on a trip, however. More likely, they’ll end up on a waiting list.

That’s what happened to Jake Phillips, a U.C. Davis junior who applied early in 2009 for a trip that summer. His application stalled on the waiting list several times and is still there — even with the priority status it received due to the delay.

“It’s frustrating, because I’ve watched a bunch of my friends go on Birthright,” said the 20-year-old Albany native. “I thought I would get on [a trip] this past summer, so I renewed my passport and tried to get ready in anticipation of going. But no one ever followed up.”

According to the latest Birthright Israel statistics for the Northern California region, approximately 3,450 young adults applied for one of the trips offered in 2009. About 1,050 were selected as participants, leaving roughly 2,400 (or 69 percent) temporarily out of luck.

Participants in the Birthright Israel program dance on arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2009. photo/david karp

“Here we have this incredible opportunity to interest all these unaffiliated people in continued Jewish life,” said Akiva Tor, Israel’s consul general for the Pacific Northwest. “They express the interest, take an action in applying to go, and we turn them away.”

The Birthright trip is open to all Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26 who have never traveled to Israel on a peer educational trip or study program or have not lived in Israel past age 12, according to the organization’s website.

All applications received in the first 24 hours after registration opens will be given equal weight and priority.

“Turning away any individual who wishes to make this journey is more than simply regrettable,” said Dorothy Kauffman, senior development officer for the Birthright Israel Foundation. “We may never again get another chance to change that person’s life.”

In San Francisco, about 500 of the estimated 1,500 applicants were accepted for the 2009 summer and winter excursions, leaving 1,000 young adults without a trip last year.

“There are simply more interested participants than current resources,” said Leonard Saxe, professor of Jewish community research at Brandeis University and co-author of “Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity.” Looking at it another way, he added, “it’s a nice problem to have more people who want to participate than you have spots for.”

In 2009, independent research by Brandeis found that Birthright helped to reinforce participants’ Jewish identity, strengthen their ties to Israel, decrease intermarriage and increase pro-Israel activism on college campuses.

“Birthright is one of the few strategic tools we have as a wider Jewish community to reach out to the unaffiliated,” Tor said. “It’s our only way of talking to young people whose parents are not synagogue members, or affiliated with federation, philanthropic giving or any Jewish organization whatsoever.”

Akiva Tor

Birthright has spent $450 million on trips over the last 10 years, sending some 250,000 participants from more than 50 countries to Israel for free.

During the organization’s 2009 campaign, Kauffman said it exceeded $57 million in philanthropic donations. That was slightly more than the $56 million donated the year before. While many local and national Jewish nonprofits have experienced financial setbacks, “we’re actually raising money despite economic conditions,” she said.

But it’s still not enough money to alleviate the waiting lists locally and nationwide. In addition, the Birthright funding model might be a contributing factor.

The formula calls for allocations to be split among three sources: private philanthropists through the Birthright Israel Foundation, the Israeli government, and a range of local and national Jewish organizations.

But the breakdown has never approximated the model, according to Kauffman. For example, the most recent allocation from the Israeli government was $13 million, or roughly 16 percent of Birthright’s $80 million annual budget.

Tor noted that Birthright does allow philanthropists and local federations to target their own communities and handle local waiting lists.

“This is an appropriate application of the maxim ‘the needy of one’s city come first,’ ” Tor said. “It creates realistic funding conditions for dealing with our waiting lists here in Northern California. But we need to do our part.”

Tor has been working with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley to make sure their leaders are aware of the situation.

A $120,000 unrestricted endowment grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, leveraged by a 2-to-1 matching grant of $240,000 from the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, will fund three buses, or 120 individuals, for Birthright trips from the Bay Area next summer.

In addition, private donors directed nearly $218,000 to Birthright in 2009, according to the federation’s impact report. That money will go toward funding two Bay Area buses for excursions in January and March.

“It’s a tough economic environment to work down the waiting list,” said Jim Offel, the S.F. federation’s chief operations officer. “There are a lot of young people who want to go to Israel, and we will continue to look for creative ways to help them get there.”

The Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay designated, through donor-advised funds, approximately $135,000 in support of Birthright during the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

The S.F.-based Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, which has given Birthright more than $6 million in general support since 2000, gave a $500,000 grant in July specifically to allay the Bay Area waiting list.

Susie Gelman, a member of the Goldman Fund board of trustees and past board chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation, said anything philanthropic organizations and individuals can do to “un-weight” the waiting list is important to the Jewish future.

“Compared to how we invest in Jewish identity with day schools and camps,” Gelman said, “Birthright provides a real bang for the buck.”

On a national level, the New York–based Jewish Federations of North America, which represents all 157 U.S. federations, contributes to Birthright Israel out of dues it collects, although the sum does not represent a third of Birthright’s annual costs, Kauffman said.

As for philanthropies, one funding source is the Adelson/New Founders Challenge Grant, a matched dollar-for-dollar gift that reduces Birthright’s per-participant cost by half, from $3,000 to $1,500.

Meanwhile Phillips, who has a six-year cushion before he reaches Birthright’s age limit of 26, will continue applying for trips. His persistence is rare, given that roughly 80 percent of young adults who are waitlisted don’t try again, according to Tor, who encourages them to “keep applying.”

“They should be frustrated,” Tor conceded. “I would be happy to have the kids on Birthright’s waiting list demonstrating outside of the consulate instead of some of the other colorful groups that come. That is a demonstration I would welcome.”

Registration for 2010-2011 Birthright Israel trips starts at 7 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on Tuesday, Sept. 14. Past applicants can register beginning at 9 a.m. Monday, Sept. 13 with their previous log-in and password at www.birthrightisrael.com.