Teen trips suffer from Birthright Israels popularity

The much-ballyhooed Birthright Israel trip has, to date, sent more than 160,000 young Jews to Israel — and, here’s the kicker — for free. Who could complain?

How about groups that charge money to take young people to Israel?

A number of teen trip organizers told j. that it’s getting harder and harder to convince families to plunk down several thousand dollars to send their school-age children to Israel for several weeks when, once the kid turns 18, he or she is eligible for a 10-day whirlwind tour of the Jewish state for nary a penny.

“I know we’ve given probably all but 5 or 10 percent [of the trip’s total cost] in financial aid to families and they still won’t put in that extra bit,” said Polly Zavadivker, the program officer for the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, which handles local organizing of the Let’s Go: Israel! tour.

Indeed, Zavadivker has offered families 90 to 95 percent discounts on the monthlong trip’s $6,450 price tag — and come up empty.

“I assume they wanted to send their kids to Birthright in college,” she said.

Tali Lipshitz is a shaliach — an Israeli emissary — working out of the East Bay federation. She’s had discussions with her fellow shlichim all around the nation, and everyone agrees that it’s getting harder and harder to sell parents on paying good money to send kids to Israel.

“Hey, Birthright is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s an amazing phenomenon. But, on the other hand, it creates a notion of something for free,” she says.

Like anyone pitching four- to six-week trips to Israel, Lipshitz is happy to explain — lengthily — how a long immersion experience in the Jewish state differs from Birthright’s fast-paced, 10-day tour.

Given the chance to speak to parents face-to-face, she claims to make her case almost all the time. Yet thanks to Birthright, she feels fewer and fewer parents get to the stage of sitting down with her.

Last year, the Let’s Go: Israel! trip from the Bay Area had 126 young travelers.

That’s less than a third of the number that used to take the trip in the years before the second intifada began in September 2000.

Lipshitz estimated that, because of the wait-for-Birthright phenomenon, she’s losing 25 to 30 percent of her potential tripgoers. “[That’s] based on the phone calls I get, the responses I get from people and how hard it is to recruit,” she said. “And it’s becoming harder and harder.”

And while Birthright’s economics have caught many a parent’s eye, it is Birthright’s excellent word-of-mouth reputation that has kids intrigued.

Several teen trip organizers reported that many kids — even kids from Jewishly involved families, even kids from well-off families — say they don’t want to take any organized trip to Israel lasting more than six days. If they do, they will become ineligible for a college-age Birthright trip.

Some teen trips have reacted accordingly. Jill Pottel, the South Peninsula and South Bay program director for B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, said it’s no coincidence that the BBYO’s “Passport to Israel” trips have been revamped into “Passport to the World.”

Young people’s unwillingness to forego Birthright is understandable. The trip has a fantastic reputation as a social experience — top organizers and funders have acknowledged that the possibility of young Jews finding a future spouse is a vitally important if understated goal.

Gordon Gladstone is the executive director of U.C. Berkeley Hillel. He estimates his organization sends about 40 students to Israel on Birthright every winter, and 20 more in the summer, a typical contingent for a campus of Berkeley’s size.

He expressed sympathy for complaints such as Lipshitz’s, but those sentiments also leave him puzzled.

“I used to be a youth director for United Synagogue Youth. And when I think about the people who sent their children to what USY called ‘Israel Pilgrimage Trips,’ these

were people who were active synagogue members, active in youth groups and incredibly active in synagogue life,” he said.

To put it mildly, that is not the demographic being targeted for Birthright trips.

“The people who have the most radical experiences [on a Birthright trip] are the ones who have stood on the edges of the Jewish community for years,” Gladstone said. “For those students — and I see a handful of them every year from the very furthest edges of the Jewish community, oftentimes with a single Jewish parent — many come back from these [Birthright] experiences and get involved in the Jewish community.”

Adding that he doesn’t see Birthright competing with expensive teen trips, Gladstone said, “I feel like we have different audiences. Far be it for me to say to a fellow Jewish professional: ‘Hey, tough.'”

Maybe he wouldn’t say that — but what else could Birthright proponents say to complaining teen trip organizers?

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.