Rabbi Levi Shemtov took his first trip to Israel in 1990 shortly after getting married. The trip fell only days before the Gulf War, and visitors were looking to quickly flee the country. Even amid a growing conflict, Shemtov and his wife wanted to stay, and only left after their airline called to say their insurance had been canceled and that they would lose their tickets unless they flew home. Shemtov is grateful that he stayed the extra few days, “to demonstrate even in some small way that Saddam [Hussein] would not determine our connection with Israel.”
He saw visiting Israel as a unique chance to connect to the nation-state and Jewish culture.
“Israel has to go from being a concept to a reality for Jewish people, not just in terms of theoretical study, but actual connection,” he said.
Birthright Israel was founded nine years later as an opportunity to give young people that opportunity for connection.
“When students who can do anything they want for the summer end up using that time to connect with Israel, more often than not it will impact, and in some cases even start, a strengthening of the Jewish identity,” Shemtov said.
Today, those opportunities are dwindling.
Birthright Israel is scaling back its number of free trips for Jewish young adults by a third. This year, the organization is expected to accommodate 23,500 participants, compared to 35,000 in 2022 and 45,000 pre-COVID, JTA.org reported in November after Birthright announced the scale back. Jewish organizations on college campuses are feeling the change.
Shemtov is the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) and the head of Chabad GW at The George Washington University. This summer, Chabad GW took about 15-20 students to Israel through Birthright. In previous summers, about 35-40 students attended the trip.
“Obviously an increased capacity would be helpful, but Birthright has its own reasons for why it has scaled back, and that has resulted in a little setback in this initiative,” Shemtov said.
According to JTA.org, Birthright Israel has cut back opportunities because of the rising cost of travel due to inflation and COVID, through fundraising for the organization is expected to increase this year.
The University of Maryland’s Hillel is experiencing similar woes, scaling back its summer trip to 141 students, down from 330 last summer. It’s more than a 50% cut, said Dan Kling, IACT: Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed coordinator at Maryland Hillel who coordinates the Hillel’s Birthright trips.
The scale back has forced the Hillel to think more critically about the students selected to attend Birthright.
“We tried to build a trip that was reflective of what would be the reality in normalcy,” Kling said. “Some people who have been to Israel before, a lot of people who haven’t, people who were connected to the Onward Israel program, everything sort of like that, to try and build a trip for people who we knew would really benefit from the Israel experience.”
Over two weeks, Maryland Hillel staff members interviewed 260 of 300 students who applied. After the selection process, they offered transparency on why they selected certain students and the impact of the scale back on the trip’s size.
“This is not us just trying to be selective,” Kling told students. “This is just the unfortunate reality that everyone’s sort of dealing with.”
Kling did identify a silver lining to this year’s selection process: Maryland Hillel could create new ways to engage with students. In addition to hosting a mixer for students selected to go on the Birthright trip, Maryland Hillel created similar programming for those not selected. Students going on Birthright attended a meet-your-bus bonfire and hummus-making class, while those waitlisted for the trip partook in a Dessert in the Desert event and a virtual reality booth at IsraelFest with a giveaway.
Students not selected for Birthright this summer will have priority for next summer’s trip.
Jewish students organizations are looking for other ways to both bolster engagement and work around the scale back. Chabad GW is looking for other internships and summer opportunities to support student travel to Israel, but “it’s not going to be on the scale of Birthright,” Shemtov said.
Maryland Hillel is similarly focusing on finding alternative ways to connect students with Israel. Kling is directing students to volunteer opportunities through Jewish National Fund-USA and internship opportunities through Onward Israel, now part of Birthright Israel, and JInternship, which places Jewish university students with top Israeli and American companies.
“It’s both bringing Israel to campus as much as you can to really grow that space, and also find the other opportunities for people,” Kling said. “Birthright is not the only thing that is there.” ■