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Economy Hits Birthright; Yet in Philly, It's Far From All Gloom and Doom

June 18, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Penn students (from left) Nikki Pepperman, Melissa Goldstein, Amanda Zeiger and Mia Brill atop Masada last month in southern Israel.

Although air fares have dropped significantly since last summer, the cost of a single, round-trip ticket to Israel will still set you back about $1,000. Unless, that is, you're between the ages of 18 and 26, in which case it's gratis -- assuming that you can actually get a slot and a seat.

Demand for the free, 10-day trips provided by Birthright Israel hit an all-time high in 2008, with 42,000 participants worldwide, including about 1,700 from the Philadelphia area.

However, due in part to global economic woes, the Taglit Birthright Israel Foundation cut its budget by $35 million this year, and so expects to send roughly 27,000 young people in all.

Despite the decrease in available spots, things here at home aren't all gloom and doom. The Philadelphia area was actually able to send more individuals than it might otherwise have, thanks in part to a relatively new cooperation among Oranim, a travel provider in Israel; Hillel of Greater Philadelphia; and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Federation's relationship with Oranim helped increase the number of available seats for applicants from Philadelphia, as well as those from Philadelphia who attend schools elsewhere.

Still, just under 500 of the more than 1,800 Philadelphia-based individuals who applied will make it onto Birthright trips this summer -- and the competition for that was fierce. Only 8,000 spots were open for North Americans on this summer's trips. Last summer, more than 1,200 locals participated in the program, with more than 550 visiting this past winter.

Prospective participants must apply via the Birthright Web site, and must choose a designated trip provider, such as Oranim or one of nearly 20 different outlets. While the itineraries share certain elements, some differences exist. For example, because of the Philadelphia Federation's participation with Hillel and Oranim, students on those trips visit Netivot and other Federation partnership cities.

Similar relationships exist between federations and travel providers in other communities around the country.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has allocated $200,000 for Birthright this year, maintaining the same level since 2001.

The Bigger Picture
While sizable donations to Birthright have dried up somewhat, large dollars are still coming in, including a $20 million matching grant from Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire financier. Adelson has supported the program for several years, but after suffering major setbacks with his Las Vegas casino industry, he has pulled back on some of his philanthropy. Still, he is slated to give another $10 million in 2010. In 2007 and 2008, he gave Birthright a total of $70 million.

The Israeli government also pitches in regarding funding, ponying up about one-third of each trip, which currently totals about $2,800 per participant.

In fact, the organization has altered its entire fundraising process, according to Bob Aronson, CEO of the Taglit Birthright Israel Foundation, by focusing on medium- and small-dollar donations (including soliciting gifts from alumni and their parents), assembling a national fundraising team and creating a permanent endowment.

Despite the recession, "people do have discretionary dollars to give if they really believe in the cause," said Aronson, who hopes to grow the program to more than 50,000 participants annually by 2013.

That means 50,000 young men and women a year could be emotionally moved in the same way as University of Pennsylvania sophomore Amanda Zeiger; she returned from her trip unexpectedly feeling a deeper connection to the Jewish state.

"I thought that doing all these things -- having a Bat Mitzvah, observing the holidays, being with extended family on holidays -- was all I needed to be Jewish," said the Villanova native.

The whole affair, added the 19-year-old, helped her become more conscious of the ways she can -- and perhaps will -- be involved Jewishly. In other words, the trip did just what organizers wanted it to do.

"It changed me completely," she said. "It changed my outlook on life and everything."

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