view counter
Birthright Needs New Leadership
Tue, 07/19/2011 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

For more than ten years now, Birthright Israel has succeeded in enhancing young people's Jewish identities and increasing their attachment to Israel. Like it or not, Birthright has been a silver bullet, the “it” brand in NextGen engagement, and the expectations have never been higher. Does Birthright Israel have the leadership in place to meet this new challenge?

Birthright succeeds at attracting the least-engaged Jewish young adults with the promise of a free trip to Israel. But Birthright's board, governance, and executive leadership are, for the most part, a who's who of Jewish insiders, politicos, and mega-donors. For most organizations, that would be fine, but to really reach the millennial age cohort and build a lasting relationship, not just a ten-day fling, leadership is needed that more closely reflects the mindset of the generation.

Why do we keep drawing on the same aging group of philanthropists to serve on boards? And when we do reach for a younger crop? The only ones we're able to connect to are the children of the insiders we already know. We don't draw the talented, visionary, and far-sighted; we settle for the available, the predictable, the familiar. Even the hundreds of thousands of Birthright alumni have no majority voice in the organization's governance. That's unacceptable.

The problem extends beyond just the generation gap. We aren't putting together boards with the right skill-set, either. You wouldn’t hire a hedge fund wizard or a corporate lawyer or fundraiser to decorate your home or construct a bridge, so why are we entrusting them to oversee or develop the next Jewish organizational brand and outreach effort with all their social network nuances? A board recruited through political connections and giving-capacity works fine in most straightforward philanthropic “giving” endeavors, but Birthright, Birthright Next and even Hillel are simply different animals. They are attempting to reposition and create new organizations and new brands and re-engage Jews in a very complex social and technological environment. There are a lot of moving parts requiring people with new skills and the temperament to take risks, to work hard, and to try innovative approaches.

A healthy board for an organization focused on a 20s and 30s demographic needs members from that demographic, and not just token representation. Ideally, a board would be composed of traditional funders, young professionals who were on Birthright, and under 40, global experts in relevant fields, like marketing, entrepreneurship, communications, branding, and technology -- and most importantly, folks that already built scaled new member or affinity organizations.

Birthright is blessed with so many alumni, many of whom are leading successful careers and are experts at understanding and engaging their own millennial generation. They need to be invited and engaged at more senior levels, up to and including governance and board leadership roles. But don't expect them to stick around if their role is symbolic and their elders are still calling the shots.

The Birthright board and many other Jewish boards need an injection of top-tier talent from outside of the familiar Jewish non-profit circles. These boards are so insular they don’t even realize who isn’t at the table.

The executives and founders of successful companies today in new fields have track records of success in creating new products, building membership and customer base, and grabbing mindshare and market share. They create new things that people want and pay for, and they scale their businesses across geographic and ideological boundaries. Their voice, their experience, their ideas, and their networks would supercharge an organization like Birthright Israel or Next.

By focusing on people -- not their dollars -- we would send a message that would result in a huge new source of money that could sustain Jewish infrastructure. We ignore these people at a huge long-term financial peril.

In its first decade Birthright successfully laid the foundation for part of the future dreams of the American Jewish community. But while we may support and love Israel, the reality is we’re not interested in living there. In the next 10 years we need to define an American Jewish identity and community that the next generation of Jews will actually sign up for, and cherish as their own.

Birthright may be the only organization positioned as a portal through which an entire future diaspora generation will pass through – a massive opportunity. We have no time to waste, because we have not succeeded in making many young adults feel that the Jewish community is a motivating force in their lives. And that's because our leadership isn't representative of them. It is an insular, aging, wealthy, group

Isn't it time we brought on new faces, listened to new voices, and turned over the keys of Birthright to a new generation?

James Goldman is the founder and CEO of JWG, an advertising and marketing firm he sold to His belated bar mitzvah project is


Birthright Israel, NextGen

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


A great piece James. Thank you for sharing. I think that a large part of the problem with todays youth is that they are always looking for the next big experience. Birthright is on the bucket list of life but once it is done, it is time move on to the next challenge. For birthright to succeed it needs to connect the excitement of our homeland with the excitement of our homes. If our homes do not reflect the same "holiness" our youth instinctively feel when they visit Israel, the connection and opportunity for continuity will be lost. It doesn't matter if they live in Israel or the Diaspora. With so many divergent streams of observance it is a challenge to find the one thing that can unite all Jews. Some say the Torah is the best uniter but even that gets dissected and butchered by people who do not feel the fealty to G-ds word. One thing however that every Jew can relate to is a good home cooked crosses all denominational borders and tries to connect Jews of all affiliations with home cooked Shabbat meals all around the world. From their website: 24846 members who have been invited to over 140893 invites in 2249 cities and 95 countries around the world".... Good food is certainly something we can all agree on.:) and brings the homeland into the home.

Nathan, the answer to your question, "Who is the leadership…?", was clearly stated: those alumni of BR who are in a position today – financially; innovative entrepreneurs; politically connected; -- to assist others from the target demographic to come and experience BR. A strong board would consist of members from across the political, social and religious spectra, so that it represents everyone, to the degree possible.

To intelligently counterbalance Michael Steinhardt's political bent (please note the correct spelling), and those of his other associates whom you named, start your own organization, and become as effective at disseminating (note spelling) your own "propaganda".

The dividing (note spelling) wall is not between Israel and the "West Bank". First, the correct term is "Yehuda and Shomron", or as those of us who rejoiced at the conclusion of the '67 war called it: "the liberated territories". Read Jewish history, including but definitely not limited to, the Torah and the UN's 1947 Partition Plan, to understand why as a Jew you should not be thinking of them as the "occupied" territories. Secondly, the wall is successfully separating would-be terrorists from their intended victims (your fellow random Jews). If it weren't for the wall having been in place during your visit, you might have come home in the manner of Alisa Flatow a"h.

As for "attract[ing] more exciting leadership", you seem to have sensed, correctly, that Judaism and Israel offer plenty to get excited about, without needing a context of enemies, anti-semites and land disputes. When the Jewish people -- "a messenger that has forgotten its message" -- returns "en masse" to two of Judaism's three pillars: G-d and the Torah, then Eretz Yisrael, the third pillar, will stand firmly, and Am Yisrael will finally fulfill our national and Divinely-ordained role as a light unto the nations.

Who is the leadership you're talking about? What should they be doing? This article is not built on any foundation. There are no case examples in here at all.

Here is a name: Michael Steinhardt, Birthright's co-founder and largest donor, and if you look at what other organizations he funds you will notice a certain political bend. Yes, Jews-by-birth becoming familiar with Israel and with the tradition of their ancestors was lovely to witness on my BR trip, but BRs bigger agenda is one of decimating propaganda. And I say this having been on the trip, a trip I found to be so weighted that I opted to extend, to get a look at the wall, that is, the diving wall between Israel and the West Bank.

Here are two more names: 5WPR and Ronn Torossian, the company Birthright hired as its PR firm and its founder. Here are some Torossian original one liners: "The PLO or P.A., or whatever the gangsters call themselves today, have no place in Jerusalem” (The Forward)..“This isn't a war between two equals; it's a war between a civilized democratic nation and a group of murderers and terrorists” (Jerusalem Post). And google some of 5Ws other clients.

Here's another name: Neil Lazarus. A wise, cunning, and politically conservative man who lectured my BR group to give us an "objective" history of the Middle East who told us the Palestinians living in the West Bank under military occupation have the same rights and opportunities as Israelis—“I imagine if I were pulled over every now and then and asked a bunch of questions,I would get sick of it too." This was a Lazarus original.

If BR made connecting to Israel and Judaism it’s main agenda, perhaps they would attract more exciting leadership.

As is always the case - you misquoted me. I suppose accuracy isn't important. if you are so against Israel why did you take the trip?
Will you give the money back?" Wise" -thank you,"conservative" - hardly.