‘You don’t want to hear little Jew stories anymore,” Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman said, not mincing any words. “With the birth of Israel, that became a great opportunity for all of us. Israel has given the Diaspora Jew a feeling of authority and peace – and we should stand tall and proud and say, ‘I’m Jewish.’”
“I’ve always thought that my generation, your generation and generations to follow need to realize the dreams of our forebears who envisioned a free and honorable Jewish people who give much to the world,” he said, explaining why he has chosen to funnel so much of his time, money and energy into Birthright Israel.
And giving much to the world and solidifying a connection to Israel is exactly what the organization has done.
Nearly 20 years ago, Bronfman and his co-founder, Michael Steinhardt, defied all conventional rules regarding Jewish engagement in the Diaspora when they came up with the idea of offering young Jews a fully subsidized, 10-day heritage trip to Israel. What was deemed by the Federations as a lofty experiment doomed to failure has become a rousing success.
“We wanted participants to experience three things: [to have] pride in their Jewish identity, identify with Jewish people and have a positive, emotional reflection of Israel,” Bronfman said.
Since its inception in 2000, 600,000 Jewish young adults from 67 countries have experienced Birthright Israel’s programming that enables young people to develop connections with their heritage, the larger Diaspora community and the State of Israel.
On Sunday at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, Birthright Israel was honored as the most influential Jewish organization of the year for its efforts.
“A lot of people say, ‘What the hell – it’s a free trip, let’s go!’ Then the magic happens when they reach Israel,” Bronfman said. “They start seeing Israel and finding out that it’s not what CNN says it is. It’s real – it’s wonderful.”
FOR THE many Diaspora Jews who are tempted to opt out of their faith and completely assimilate, Birthright offers them a way to create a connection to Israel that they can choose to nurture as they get older.
And while Birthright has remained true to that vision, its path to getting there has altered somewhat. Most notably, last year the organization expanded its age range from 18-26 to 32 years of age.
The reason for this is a very simple one. Young Jews, like the rest of today’s millennials, are making seminal life decisions much later in life.
“The only reason is because 18 years ago, people were still making their life decisions in their early 20s; now it’s late 20s, early 30s. So young men and young women are getting married later, making their career decisions later. And so we thought that we should include those folks because of their decision- making situation,” Bronfman explained.
That decision has paid off, with young professionals clamoring to sign up for the trip. According to Bronfman, the 400 open slots for that age bracket were filled within 48 hours of registration – after Birthright received some 5,000 applications.
“There’s been so much hype about Birthright, that some people have said to themselves, ‘Darn it, we missed.’ And now they have an opportunity to go for free – why not?” he said.
But with great hype, comes great responsibility. As such, Bronfman is aware of the controversy surrounding the organization, especially when it comes to how it addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bronfman insists that Birthright educators are taught to be as impartial as possible – and that there are mechanisms in place to monitor that.
Specifically, they have a prep school for their educators where they are taught to talk about the conflict in the most unbiased manner possible.
Sometimes, Birthright Israel will add an unidentified observer to a trip’s staff, who will report back if a tour educator attempts to influence the group in any partisan manner.
“If you’re more right wing or left wing, we have people who go on the buses who are not identified and they find out what the educators are saying – they are like secret shoppers. If they are too much left wing or right wing then they are reported,” he said.
THAT SAID, though, Bronfman has no qualms about the fact that Birthright is intended to focus on the positive side of life in Israel.
“We’re criticized for how we handle the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict and Israel as a living entity and see its bad side,” he said. “If you go to New York City, you’re not going to go to the garbage dumps of New York City. The better face of Israel is something that we are very happy to show people.”
That criticism of Birthright, though, doesn’t seem to be fading away any time soon. Just a few weeks ago, the far-left Students for Justice in Palestine protested outside Birthright’s anniversary gala in New York City.
Steinhardt, who like Bronfman is a straight-talking man not afraid to speak his mind, proudly waved his middle finger at the protesters, which caused a bit of a media firestorm.
Bronfman chuckles when asked about the incident, brushing it off as a sign of Birthright’s success.
“The mark of our success is these protests. If Birthright wasn’t very successful, nobody would bother protesting. We don’t take the protests too seriously. We know who they are and what they are. It’s not really going to dissuade very many people at all. It’s one of the things we have to put up with,” he said.
As for the future of Birthright Israel and the country in general, Bronfman admits that while he can’t predict what will happen, he is optimistic.
“Birthright Israel now is and will be a part of Jewish education on a living basis,” he said.
“Fortunately, time is a great healer. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I would just hope that Israel continues to be a shining light; that the conflict will be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians; and [that] Israel will be a proud member of states in the Middle East which is forward-looking and a place we can all be proud of,” he concluded.