If Birthright Israel has been successful in bringing young Jewish adults closer to Israel and to the Jewish community – and has had a remarkable impact in encouraging Jewish in-marriage – why not extend the free trip concept to include Jewish teens? That’s the question Boston Jewish philanthropist Robert Lappin has raised.
The philanthropist has expertise in this area. Since 1971 he has been sending Boston-area Jewish 16-year-olds to Israel via his Youth to Israel trip, or Y2I. For its first 25 years, the Y2I trip was partially subsidized. Since 1986, the trips have been free, with Lappin’s foundation footing the bill or with its namesake raising the funds to cover the trips.
The switch from subsidized trips to free trips made a difference – annual participation quadrupled, according to Lappin. That’s significant for many reasons. Indeed, according to a study released by the Lappin Foundation in June, which compared Y2I alumni with Birthright Israel alumni and young adults from the Pew Research Center’s survey of Jewish Americans, the results are stark.
While Pew found that 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews 18-39 years old intermarry, the numbers for Y2I are just the opposite: 72 percent have in-married, and 90 percent of them are raising their children as Jewish by religion. Birthright numbers are similar.
“The results … strongly suggest that nationwide implementation of a fully subsidized … teen Israel experience can turn the intermarriage rate … on its head,” Lappin wrote in the report. He then called for Birthright “to lower the age of eligibility for full trip subsidies from 18 to 16.”
So far the Lappin suggestion has found little traction – primarily because of its anticipated expense. Thus, Sheldon Adelson, one of the major funders of Birthright, is reported to have dismissed the suggestion, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston area’s Jewish federation, called the proposal “unrealistic.”
These critics weren’t dismissing the value of teen trips to Israel, they were commenting upon the cost of running them. And, based upon the numbers, the critics appear correct. A Birthright trip costs $3,000 versus $6,000 for Y2I. Beyond that, young adult trips, with more mature participants, are easier to organize.
Even though we agree with the critics of the Lappin plan, we nevertheless offer our kudos to him for his commitment, his perseverance and for putting his money where his mouth is. His goals are pure, even if his plan is too costly. And in launching this discussion, Robert Lappin has revived a difficult question, first raised by Birthright’s creators: Should money be a concern when it comes to the Jewish future?