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Local donors taking lead role in securing Birthright Israel
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Local donors taking lead role in securing Birthright Israel

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

With its free trips to Israel for Jews ages 18-26, Birthright Israel has been one of the Jewish success stories of the past decade. But its funding has always been precarious.

“For the first 10 years, Birthright Israel was a hand-to-mouth organization,” said Birthright Israel Foundation president Robert Aronson. “We raised money, sent kids to Israel, and then started all over again every January,”

Now donors in MetroWest are taking the lead in giving Birthright the kind of solid financial footing it has long hoped to see from North American Jewish federations.

This week, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ announced it helped to raise $300,000 to support Birthright Israel trips.

In recent months, donors came together to meet a dollar-for-dollar challenge match-up to a $50,000 gift offered by Josh and Judy Weston of Montclair. The resulting $100,000 was matched 2:1 by the Adelson Family Foundation through a national program sponsored by Birthright Israel Foundation.

The $300,000 will be used to support trips for young people from MetroWest and nationally. MetroWest also supports Birthright Israel through an allocation of about $150,000 from its annual UJA campaign each year.

And with the Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future announced this week (see related article), MetroWest becomes the first Jewish community in the nation to create an endowment in support of Birthright. A MetroWest “Birthright Israel Bus” will fund at least one tour group per year.

Birthright Israel created an endowment this year with a goal over the next five years of raising $500 million, which would generate $25 million each year to support the annual cost of Birthright trips. The ultimate goal is to send 51,000 young adults from around the world to Israel every year. According to Aronson, that is approximately half of all Jews ages 18-26 in the world at a given time. To do that would cost $120 million per year with endowment income offsetting some of the cost.

The Birthright Israel Foundation will have two types of endowments: one to underwrite trips for young adults from non-federated areas or areas that cannot raise sufficient funds from the Jewish community on its own, and one in which local federations and foundations create restricted endowments to ensure trips for local young Jews.

The Cooperman gift falls into the second category, but is the first gift in either.

The Coopermans said this portion of their gift was inspired in part by Leon’s long business and philanthropic association with Michael Steinhardt, the former hedge fund manager turned philanthropist who cofounded Birthright Israel in 1999. Steinhardt has spearheaded a range of Jewish identity programs through his Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.

“Michael has made reclaiming and perpetuating Jewish identity a priority, and I would like to support him and programs like his,” said Leon Cooperman.

The Coopermans are members of Areivim, a national group of philanthropists headed by Steinhardt; The Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future is part of a national legacy project sponsored by Areivim.

In a related matter, MetroWest is now developing a statewide Birthright Israel partnership to maximize the number of young people who can attend the program and to enhance the efficiency of Birthright Israel operations in New Jersey. Currently, the partners include UJC MetroWest, Rutgers Hillel, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and the Center for Jewish Life-Hillel at Princeton University.

In May, MetroWest will sponsor two Birthright Israel buses for more than 80 participants. Additionally, MetroWest will sponsor an additional Birthright bus for young people from the Russian-American community.

Over the past 10 years, more than 225,000 young people — including about 1,500 from MetroWest — have taken part in a Birthright trip. Birthright Israel leaders hope that within the next seven years, more than half of all eligible young Jews in the world — some 500,000 people — will have come to Israel on such a program.

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