2020 was supposed to mark 20 years of achievements for Birthright Israel.
Instead, the largest educational travel organization in the world is finding creative new ways to connect Jewish young adults to Israel during Covid-19.
Over its first two decades, Birthright Israel provided more than 750,000 Jewish young adults the gift of a free trip to Israel. These individuals came from all over the globe — more than 68 countries — and participated in a wide variety of programming, including the classic ten-day trips, business internships, extreme sports-focused programs, LGBTQ trips, and programming for young adults with disabilities, among many others.
Early this year, Dr. Len Saxe of Brandeis University helped quantify the impact of Birthright Israel so far, releasing a research report that uncovered incredible findings. The study found that 20 years ago, there were approximately 5.5 million Jews in the United States, and that today the U.S. Jewish population is 7.5 million. The report suggests that only 20 years after it was founded, Birthright Israel has played a role in increasing the U.S. Jewish population by 25%. Collectively, these achievements warranted a victory lap from Birthright. Then suddenly, everything changed.
Still many reasons to smile
“If you’d asked me a year ago where we would be today, I can tell you for sure that I wouldn’t have said in the middle of a global pandemic!” Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark said in an interview. “However, we deal with the circumstances we are presented, not those that we wish existed. While it hasn’t been quite what we’ve pictured, we still have many reasons to smile and call this year a success.”
Defining this year as a success, though, has been the result of many difficult decisions and hard work. In March, as the severity of Covid-19 became clearer, Birthright Israel knew it needed to take decisive action. In an unprecedented move, the organization did something it never thought it would have to do: postpone trips.
“As we better understood the dangers of this terrible virus, it was never a question of how we were going to proceed,” Mark said. “We knew we couldn’t risk the health and safety of even one of our participants or staff, no matter how painful the decision to cancel trips was. We were certain that by the summer we will figure out how to safely bring participants to Israel. After all, we never paused our trips, not even through tough security situations.”
In the aftermath of the cancellations, the organization, which is built on the premise of giving every Jewish young adult around the world the gift of a free trip to Israel, was left to reflect on how it needed to pivot to continue connecting with Jews around the world. According to Mark, “at the end of the day, we are not an airline company or a hotel chain, but an educational organization with the mission of connecting Jewish young adults with their identity, Israel and their community, and while I strongly believe that the best way to do it is by feet, in Israel, the goal can also be achieved in other ways and we needed to figure out quickly what they are.”
One of the first decisions Birthright made was to reach out to all the disappointed people whose Israel trip was cancelled, and launched the “We’re waiting for you” campaign, assuring every young Jewish adult that when this will be over, Birthright will be here, waiting for them.
Reaching out to alumni
“We also quickly understood the need of people to belong to a community, being part of something bigger and assisting one another with mutual responsibility,” Mark pointed out. To do so, the organization launched an olim assistance task force, which provided critical aid to recent immigrants to Israel who were facing a variety of Covid-19-related problems, including housing issues, shortages of work and more – as well as supporting small businesses owned by alumni in several countries by giving them exposure on the organization’s social channels.
Mark said that the organization then followed the lead of some of its program alumni who had mobilized quickly, launching a variety of initiatives to directly combat the difficulties posed by the pandemic. “Over the last few months, our alumni have shown that they are some of the most creative and motivated people in the world. They formed organizations that had a massive impact on communities everywhere in half the time it might have taken other more established groups.”
To assist these alumni, Birthright lent its resources, support and expertise to several initiatives, including Door 2 Dor, an online tool that matches volunteers with senior citizens in need of aid, Connect for Covid-19, a service that facilitates telehealth access and internet connections between Covid patients and their loved ones, and Seder.Live, a digital Passover Haggadah that helped virtually connect loved ones who were separated due to social distancing guidelines.
Interactive virtual visits
Next, Birthright turned back to the difficult task of showing people Israel, in a fun and exciting way, but without being able to physically have people on the ground. To do so, Birthright developed a first-of-its-kind interactive and virtual tour of the country on a platform called Eko. In the absence of in-person trips, this tour gives people the chance to “travel” through Israel from anywhere in the world and visit some of the country’s most beautiful and memorable sites. Led by a local guide, the tour introduces local Israelis and allows participants to “interact” with them, helping provide individuals with a deeper perspective and understanding of Israeli culture.
By all accounts, the interactive tour has been a massive success. Since it was launched this summer, more than a million people were exposed to the initiative and more than 140,000 people from all around the globe have participated in the eight-minute tour, visiting Masada and the Western Wall, eating in an Arab bistro, wandering through Birthright's Tel Aviv Center for Israeli Innovation and floating in the Dead Sea.
“In addition to providing assistance to as many people as we could, one of the most important things we needed to do was maintain engagement and enthusiasm for future trips by reaching young people directly,” Mark said. “Years ago, that might have been incredibly difficult, but with the help of our beautiful virtual tour we’ve already seen an uptick in people registering to attend future programming.”
This desire to physically return to Israel was reflected in the results of another survey carried out by Dr. Saxe in September. At the time it was issued, the survey found that nearly 20% of those young people who responded were willing to visit the country “right now.” And while trips remain on hold for the time being, this use of technology to maintain engagement was encouraging.
Creative initiatives to stay connected
It was no surprise then, that other Birthright initiatives leaned into the effectiveness of video conferencing and other tools that have become a staple of Covid-19 life over the last several months.
Birthright Israel Excel, which places diaspora Jews in internships at leading global organizations every summer, faced a reckoning after international travel restrictions went into effect. In response, group organizers worked tirelessly to migrate its business leadership Fellowship to a fully virtual experience. In doing so, the organization saved internships for more than 50 young people during a time when many other programs were cancelled.
The virtual internship season was so successful that Birthright Excel announced that for the first time ever diaspora Jews from every country could now apply to participate in next summer’s Excel experience. Previously, applications and participation were limited to individuals from North America, Israel and the U.K.
“In some cases we’ve actually found that Covid-19 has helped us take action that has spurred growth,” said Mark. “As far as Excel goes, now that individuals can work remotely, we’ve been able to open our arms to applicants from all over the world.”
In total, Birthright says that it has carried out more than 20 different initiatives since the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to those previously noted, the organization also held online alumni reunions with thousands of people; Birthright Israel Connect, which allowed alumni from around the globe to speak and share thoughts with each other; and a photography contest that reminded people of their favorite time in Israel. These initiatives have reached more than nine million people online with a rooted interest in the organization and very high engagement, according to Birthright.
Birthright’s latest initiative, which it just launched, is what it calls an incubator program. The organization is inviting past participants and Jewish community members to provide ideas and feedback about what they would like Birthright Israel to do next.
“2020 has been all about finding ways to connect, even though we are far apart. With the support of our donors, alumni and incredible staff, I think we’ve been successful. While we continue to plan for exciting new online initiatives, Israel is the state of the Jewish people and every Jew should feel at home here and we can't wait to see thousands of participants exploring Israel in person again and when the time is right, we’ll all be back together,” said Mark. “Like the saying goes, hopefully next year in Jerusalem.”