Palestinian violence and financial meltdowns aside, travel program leaders unanimously point to one cause for a dramatic drop in teenage visitors to the Jewish state over the past decade: Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Rachel Dunaief knows that sending her son Benji on Camp Ramah’s Israel Seminar program this summer won’t be cheap: One week in Poland and seven weeks in the Jewish state will together cost approximately $12,000.
If he waited another year or so, Benji, a junior at Lower Merion High School, would be eligible to take part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, which comes with a far more appealing price tag. The 10-day program, open to 18- to 26-year-olds, is free.
But that’s not going to happen.
“I never even thought of Birthright,” noted Rachel Dunaief of Wynnewood. “Birthright is for college. But he’s ready to have this experience now. We are thinking this is going to be an incredible learning and growth experience for him.
“It is really expensive,” she continued, “but we are making other sacrifices to make it work.” They have also been saving for such an experience since he was in third grade, with matching funds from an old program run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
While the Dunaiefs are clearly not alone in getting ready to pack their children off to Israel this summer, travel to the Jewish state among teenagers has seen a dramatic drop-off over the past decade. Though leaders of teen programs acknowledge the role of violence during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and the 2008 financial meltdown in depressing participation, they unanimously point to one central cause of the decline: Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Though exact figures are difficult to come by, leaders of several leading North American teen programs say they have seen participation decline by 30 percent to 50 percent since 2000, the year Birthright was born. Two recent studies point to a roughly 40 percent drop in the number of North American 13- to-18-year-olds traveling to the Jewish state.
And, according to an internal survey conducted in 2008 by BBYO Passport, 30 percent of parents whose children were BBYO members said they preferred sending their kids on Birthright.
Paul Reichenbach, the director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camping and Israel Programs, said his organization is a “big supporter” of Birthright. “Yet at the same time, it’s made it difficult for sponsors of high school trips to get traction.”
Going on a teen trip like the Ramah Israel Seminar technically makes someone ineligible for Birthright, though stories abound about veterans of other teen trips finding a way to do Birthright.
The Birthright Israel Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
Founded in 2000 to counter the decline in Israel attachment and Jewish identity among North American Jews, Birthright has brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish young adults to Israel on the 10-day free trips, including a projected 20,500 North Americans this summer alone. Demand continues to outpace the slots available.
Locally, synagogues and overnight camps could offer few statistics comparing enrollment in the pre-Birthright era to today.
But several administrators of area camps that run Israel programs stressed their view that an extended trip to the Jewish state — one that teens make with friends they’ve shared camp with — is a very different experience from the 10-day Birthright program. A teen summer trip can have far greater effect on their Jewish choices in early adulthood and beyond, they say.
Aaron Selkow, director of Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., which is affiliated with the Reform movement, said that “without a doubt, any program for younger people is going to be affected by Birthright.”
Still, he noted, Harlam is sending 68 kids on the Reform movement’s summer Israel program, NFTY Adventure, the most of any camp run by the Union for Reform Judaism.
It is so important, said Selkow, that his camp and others are putting money toward summer Israel programs, even as they try to fund scholarships for their own camps. This past year, Selkow said, he was able to raise $10,000 for scholarships for the Israel program, which amounted to about $1,000 for 10 campers.
“It is not enough,” he acknowledged. “I wish we could do more.”
Not everyone accepts the notion that Birthright represents a threat to extended teen trips.
Toby Ayash, executive director of Camp Pinemere, which is located in the Poconos and is affiliated with the Jewish Community Centers movement, started a program five years ago in which counselors-in-training entering 11th grade spend a month in the Jewish state and then come back to camp as part of their leadership development.
This year, Pinemere is sending 23 teens to Israel — its highest total yet — out of 29 who were eligible. The six who passed up the chance cited financial concerns, but none mentioned Birthright specifically.
“They are seeing Israel with their very best camp friends,” Ayash said of the participating teens. “They are not even thinking about Birthright.”
Nancy Scheff, communications director for the National Ramah Commission, also said Birthright isn’t a big factor in parents’ decision-making. More important, she said, is whether or not they had sent or planned to send their kids on synagogue teen trips or programs that last for several months, like the Alexander Muss High School, which is connected with many day schools around the country.
In 2000, Ramah nationally had 222 participants on its Israel seminar. (Local figures weren’t available.) Enrollment has oscillated over the years, hitting a low of 72 in 2002 at the height of the second intifada. This year, enrollment is projected at 254, perhaps belying the theory that Birthright has had a huge impact on Ramah’s numbers.
Still, parents do raise the issue when looking into Israel options for their teens.
Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., which has run a 10th-grade confirmation trip during winter break since the 1990s, said he is often asked the Birthright question.
“ ‘Why should I spend the money for this trip? Why can’t I just wait for Birthright?’ ” is the way it’s often phrased, he said. He tends to reply that “a trip that happens with people they know, within a context, is a much more impactful experience. Generally speaking, that convinces our parents to send their kids on our trip.”
For her part, Rina Lindenbaum of Huntingdon Valley is holding out for Birthright Israel for her 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, and her 14-year-old son, Drew.
“It is amazing that Birthright is giving these kids an opportunity. I also feel the older they go, the more they are going to take it in and appreciate it,” Lindenbaum said, adding that spending a few thousand dollars on an Israel trip for one of her kids just wouldn’t be feasible. “Most people can’t afford to do this.”
But for Rachel Dunaief’s son Benji, the Lower Merion High School student going on the Ramah program this summer, waiting for Birthright just wasn’t an option. The choice, for him, was either to go on Ramah’s program or participate on a trip run by United Synagogue Youth, in which he is also active.
“I’m a Ramah-nik. It made sense to go on this program,” said Dunaief. “I think it is a really important thing to do; the sooner you can do it, the better. We kind of want to seize the opportunity while we are still in high school.”