A few years ago, researchers discovered what they called the Birthright bump — an increase in Jewish identity and participation following a 10-day Birthright trip to Israel. Now, we could be seeing a Birthright dip.
Last week, Haaretz reported a sharp drop in participation in the free trip during the winter season. A half-million Jews have taken a Birthright trip since 1999. This year, however, trip providers are experiencing what is reported to be a 20 to 50 percent drop compared to last year for the December-to-March season.
As with tourism to Israel, Birthright participation has had historic fluctuations, with sharp downturns during wars and other serious violence. But the current reported downturn is not correlated to Israel’s security situation. So the question is, why?
Trip providers offered a number of conjectures. While everyone loves free offers, price also confers value. Some are positing that perhaps Birthright has devalued itself by being free, in apparent perpetuity, and with an expanded age range to compensate for dropping demand. Another theory is that Israel is becoming less attractive to younger Jews, both because it seems less like a nation in need and because the government’s rightward shift may have added some tarnish with largely American Jewish young adults. And in an interactive social media society, where everyone feels the right to have a say in how things are done, some young progressive Jews are also calling for changes to the Birthright program, such as the addition of encounters with Palestinians on the itinerary. All or none of the above may actually explain the change in Birthright reservations.
There is nothing conclusive yet to determine why Birthright is, at the moment, appearing to slip in popularity. It could simply be a blip rather than a dip. And even with a decline, the organization isn’t too worried: Birthright says 2018 is actually going to be another record year, as will 2019.
If the current numbers do reflect a legitimate downward trend, however, that’s not inherently a bad thing. Birthright has been phenomenally successful at doing what it set out to do: connect huge numbers of Jews with Israel and with their Jewish heritage. So even if this does prove to be the beginning of movement away from the program, we’re confident the North American Jewish community will come up with a robust and meaningful idea to supplement the effort, or even to take its place. JN