Photo Credit: HRYMX via Flickr
Birthright Israel, summer of 2016

The Reform movement is no longer certified as a trip provider for Birthright, according to a Judy Maltz report in Haaretz Sunday (How Orthodox Groups Are Taking Over Birthright, and Using It to Target Young U.S. Jews). Not on religious or political grounds, God forbid, but because they have been unable to deliver the goods – in this case, fresh eyed Jewish American kids eager for their free summer trips to Israel.

Mind you, we are not talking about a few hundred college kids staying on a kibbutz. Birthright may be the most successful Diaspora Jewish youths project since the Hashomer HaTzair educational farms in pre-war Poland. According to Birthright CEO Gidi Mark, his program brought 48,000 Jewish kids ages 18 to 26 to Israel in 2017, making the group’s overall total since its inception to more than half a million Diaspora Jews who have experienced Israel at the age when such direct and powerful adventures leave the deepest marks.

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But not through the Reform movement, apparently.

“We worked very hard with them to increase the numbers,” Gidi Mark told Maltz, “but unfortunately they could not meet our minimum and, from now on, they will have to send [their] participants through other trip organizers.”

Maltz offers even more earth shattering figures about the resounding advantage of observant program providers over their Reform counterparts in igniting excitement in the heart of young US Jews:

The overwhelming majority of Birthright kids are not Orthodox Jews – only an estimated 5% observe halacha at home – but Orthodox trip providers for the program account for almost 25% of the overall enrollment. But wait, there’s more: while the Reform movement has been unable to recruit its own kids, to the point of being dumped from the project – a full third of the kids who take the Birthright trips come from Reform homes.

“You need to ask the participants who go with the other trip providers why they prefer them, and you need to ask the Reform movement – and the Conservative movement, which was also a trip provider until about 10 years ago – why they are not attracting enough participants,” the Birthright CEO told an astonished Maltz.

Maltz largely blames two factors for Birthright’s sway to the right: the program’s big donors who used to be pluralist Jews have been replaced by decidedly rightwing philanthropists; and Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry is investing $66 million in an initiative to boost the religious identity of US Jewish college students – supporting distinctly unabashed Orthodox groups such as Chabad and Aish Hatorah.

Reform cleric Rick Jacobs, leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, the culture hero in the war to capture advantageous real estate in front of the Wailing Wall, also wails that “millions of Israeli tax dollars are being spent now on strengthening ultra-Orthodox institutions on campuses that bring Birthright travelers to Israel.”

And if that travesty is not enough, Jacobs adds, “When Birthright participants return from their trips with these providers, there are lots of efforts made to get them to explore a more traditional way of Judaism – and that is something that should not be ignored.”

Maltz quotes a Reform cleric who used to work on campus for Hillel, who complained: “The Orthodox organizations are extremely good at relationship-building with the students. They also have lots of money. When I used to have to scrape and borrow to make things happen at our campus Hillel house, it was often dumbfounding to me how easily Chabad could pull things off.”

Yoav Schaefer, who was raised in Santa Barbara, California, made Aliya in 2006, enlisted as a Lone Soldiers in the IDF, and today lives in Jerusalem and serves as an intern for MK Einat Wilf (Labor), speaks frequently in Israel and North America about Israel, Zionism and his experience in the IDF, and attributes the rising power of Orthodox groups in recruiting Jewish college kids for Birthright to “the increasingly complicated relationship of the progressive Jewish movements – especially the Reform and Conservative – to Israel.” This while the Orthodox movements “remain steadfast in their support for Israel and the policies of the current Israeli government.”

And so, according to Schaefer, a poster boy for the Jewish American left’s past relationship with the Jewish State, the growing ambivalence of the Reform and Conservative establishment in America about Israel is reflected in their growing inability to appeal to their youth to go spend a fun ten days on the shores of the Mediterranean.

It also stands to reason that kids from Reform and Conservative homes who are still excited about Israel would not even consider going there using the services of movements that are at war with the Jewish State’s government. It just wouldn’t occur to them.

Maltz concluded her report with a statement from Birthright, saying, “Since inception, Birthright Israel has welcomed participants from all denominational backgrounds and our goal is to reach as many eligible young adults as possible. Our operation is based on allowing trip organizers to handle recruiting, offering a wide array of trip options encouraging applicants to select trips based on their preference. We trust our participants to choose the trip and trip organizer that best suits their needs.”

All of which suggests the problem is not with Birthright or, if we may speculate, Orthodox groups that support Birthright.

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