Program providing young Jews with free trips finally focuses on the White City’s start-up scene and hip vibe

Participants celebrate Taglit-Birthright Israel's 15th anniversary, Tel Aviv, June 2015. (Courtesy)

Last week, a group of 50 Taglit-Birthright Israel participants sat down in a Tel Aviv bar for a conversation with Nadav Zafrir. Co-founder and CEO of Team8, a cyber-security venture capital firm and incubator, Zafrir spoke with them about Israel’s booming hi-tech scene.

As the young Americans crowded in around him, sitting on bar stools and couches, Zafrir told them why he thinks that Israel is behind only California’s Silicon Valley when it comes to the tech sector. He explained that the country’s lack of natural resources has led people to innovate in order to live here, and that Israelis, known for their chutzpah, are good at understanding and acting on opportunities for change.

“We will win by innovating faster than anyone else,” said Zafrir, who is also the former commander of the IDF’s 8200 technology and intelligence unit.

As these college students and recent graduates chatted with Zafrir, other Birthright groups met with other hi-tech professionals in other bars along on Rothschild Boulevard, the heart of Tel Aviv’s business and banking district.

Israel is known globally as the “Start-Up Nation,” but this was the first time in Birthright’s 15-year history that its participants had spent a day in Tel Aviv getting to know people who have helped Israel earn this reputation, as well as others who have contributed to the vibrant arts and culture scene for which Tel Aviv is becoming increasingly known worldwide.

It might be fair to assume that this new focus on hip, cutting-edge Tel Aviv (at least for a day out of the typical Birthright 10-day trip itinerary) is a response to the discussion that erupted among Jewish philanthropists and educators following the publication of a January 2014 piece on the eJewishPhilanthropy blog by comedian and educator Benji Lovitt critiquing Birthright and similar trips for not emphasizing modern Tel Aviv enough. (Lovitt, an American immigrant to Israel, is a Times of Israel blogger.)

Birthright Israel participants (left) dance with members of the Sheketak troupe at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Jaffa, June 9, 2015. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Time of Israel)
Birthright Israel participants (left) dance with members of the Sheketak troupe at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Jaffa, June 9, 2015. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Time of Israel)


However, Noa Bauer, vice president of international marketing for Taglit-Birthright Israel, refuted this assumption, claiming the idea for this new “Tel Aviv Urban Experience” component of the trip had been on the initiative’s leaders’ minds well before Lovitt made his case for highlighting the White City.

“This has been in the planning for more than a year and a half, and it was supposed to happen last summer, but we had to cancel because of Operation Protective Edge,” Bauer told The Times of Israel at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater in Jaffa as several hundred Birthright participants enjoyed workshops taught by professional dancers.

“We work like a start-up. We are always innovating, and we saw a need for something like this. We wanted to take the opportunity to show the participants modern Tel Aviv, with its hi-tech innovation and exciting film, music, arts, fashion and culinary scenes,” she said.

To that end, Birthright organized special programming in Tel Aviv and Jaffa for 3,000 of the participants on the initiative’s trips last week. In addition to hi-tech executives, leaders in other fields, such as author Eshkol Nevo, culinary journalist Gil Hovav, model and DJ Gili Saar, and media personality and gay activist Gal Uchovsky, met with the young visitors to Israel. Acclaimed Israeli hip-hop band Hadag Nahash gave special concerts at the Tel Aviv Port.

Birthright Israel participants at the Tel Aviv Port, June 2015. (Nimrod Saunders)
Birthright Israel participants at the Tel Aviv Port, June 2015. (Nimrod Saunders)


Birthright participants the Times of Israel spoke with said they were pleasantly surprised to arrive in Israel and learn that their trips included the Tel Aviv Urban Experience.

“Birthright’s itinerary is so packed and everything is so in-and-out, so I like that this is more in-depth,” said 24-year-old Milwaukee teacher Tamar Tenenbaum.

“We are staying long enough in Tel Aviv that we are getting to see the same places both at night and during the day, and we’re spending more time here in Tel Aviv, which feels more young. It’s good that we are getting a chance to see where our generation is and what they are doing,” added Tenenbaum, who was hoping to extend her stay in Israel.

“I want to spend more time in Tel Aviv, to hang out and meet Israelis my age,” she said.

Aron Elias, 22, who will start his first post-college job as an analyst for Target later this month, said it was “really cool” to see Tel Aviv’s young professional scene.

The Minneapolis resident and first-time visitor to Israel was glad to have met Zafrir. “He’s a really smart guy, and his talk targeted young professionals my age. It’s good that this was included, because the rest of the trip is about history,” Elias said.

Contrary to concerns that Birthright numbers appeared to be trending downward, Bauer asserted that this summer will see 30,500 participants — Birthright’s biggest season yet. A special event last week attended by Birthright co-founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt celebrated the initiative’s 500,000th participant.

According to statistics supplied by Birthright, annual participation rates have grown from 9,462 in 2000 to 45,300 (projected) in 2015. Participation reached a similarly high number in 2008, but fell to half that the following year. It’s been building back up since then. Bauer attributed the turn-around to an infusion of cash from Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson’s Adelson Family Foundation in 2008. To this point, the Adelsons, who have given Birthright $180 million, are the largest individual donors to the initiative.

Birthright Israel participants dance on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, June 2015. (Nimrod Saunders)
Birthright Israel participants dance on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, June 2015. (Nimrod Saunders)


“Back in 2008 we had 100,000 eligible young Jews between the ages of 18-26 on the waiting list. Now we don’t have that many,” said Baer.

“There is always a waiting list but we do our best to accommodate everyone and have increased our efficiency. In the past, for every bus of 40 we had 80 applicants, which meant 40 disappointed applicants. Today the number per bus of 40 is around 60 applicants, and for the first time this season we have reached out to all the applicants that weren’t allocated to a specific trip and offered them several new options,” she clarified.

As opposed to Bauer’s claims that there are more applicants than can be accommodated, it was reported that Birthright changed its criteria a year and half ago to now allow participants who had previously been to Israel on an organized teen tour as a way of bolstering trip providers who were having trouble filling their buses.

Lovitt, who started the conversation about the need to have young Diaspora Jews spend more than just a night in Tel Aviv while on an organized tour of Israel, was pleased to hear about last week’s Tel Aviv Urban Experience.

“I think it’s great. I’m thrilled to see Birthright Israel showcasing some of the best stuff this city has to offer. I’d love to see other Israel programs do the same,” he said.

Lovitt, however, should not get too excited. It turns out there are no specific plans to make the Tel Aviv Urban Experience a regular part of Birthright trips.

“Of course, not everything has to be heritage and Judaism, but we can’t include the full Tel Aviv Urban Experience for each group. It’s just too logistically complicated,” Bauer said.

“But each trip organizer can take ideas and aspects from this and implement them in the future,” she offered.

As reported by The Times of Israel