Think of it as a seed-level venture capital fund whose portfolio consists of young Jews.
The new government of Israel, at the initiative of Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has indicated that it intends to abrogate Israel’s share in the phenomenally successful birthright israel program. Say it ain’t so, Bibi!

birthright israel is a program that sends Jewish young people for an all-expenses-paid first-time visit to their homeland. It provides an opportunity for young Jews to discover the reality of our amazing nation, to meet their peers here, to discover the roots of their faith. Since the program started in 1999, more than 40,000 have had what has proven for many to be a life-transforming experience.

But leave aside the emotional and spiritual value of this “journey that lasts a lifetime.” Leave aside the dozens of marriages and friendships that have resulted from encounters on birthright israel trips.

birthright israel offers a tremendous boost for israel’s economy, in the short and long term. It’s good business.

First, the young Jews who visit love to spend their money here. Big time. They spend on burekas and falafel. They spend on souvenirs. They spend on gifts for their friends and family back home. birthright israel has calculated that the participants spend more than twice as much in Israel as it has cost to bring them here. Do the math.

Second, birthright israel is a godsend to the moribund Israeli tourist industry. Last winter alone, while Palestinian violence persisted and the threat of war in Iraq grew, birthright israel brought in 8,200 participants, and another thousand or so guides and chaperones.

In many respects, birthright israel trips are by far the largest source of Jewish tourism, greater than all the various “solidarity missions” combined. In many respects, it is the only game in town for some tour operators, independent guides, and hotels – especially in the hard-hit north and south of the country. birthright israel tours have enabled some tourism-oriented business to stay alive and keep their employees at work.

But the best reason for the government of Israel to keep supporting birthright israel is that the program is entrepreneurial in spirit and execution. The target market is independent-minded young people who have not been part of existing Jewish organizations and communities. Think of it as a seed-level venture capital fund whose portfolio consists of young Jews. Great product concept and fine raw material that a smart fund manager can develop into future supporters, and citizens, and revenue-generators for the state of Israel.

The idea of birthright israel, started as the brainchild of successful businessmen Michael Steinhardt and Charles R. Bronfman, is to invest a little bit in the greatest asset of the Jewish people: its young people. They passionately believe that young Jews, often previously linked to things Jewish by only the most tenuous bonds, can be re-connected for the rest of their lives both to Israel and to their local Jewish communities.

Ten philanthropists have given $5 million or more of their own funds to make the program possible. The United Jewish Communities, the roof organization for federations in North America, after some nudging, kicked in its share.

Like any VC fund, there will be failures and successes. But all the evidence indicates that birthright Israel, in terms of its impact on the lives of Jewish youth and Jewish communities, and its positive impact on Israel and Israelis, has been wildly successful.

Anyone present at this winter’s birthright Israel mega-event, which took place on the same night as the most recent bombing in Tel Aviv, will have forever impressed in their minds and hearts the passion, love, and enthusiasm of Jewish youth for their rediscovered homeland.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addressed the group heartfelt feeling, calling on them to help make the dream of Israel’s future come true by returning to the country and helping build a better nation. Many of them will answer that call, as hundreds have before them.

In a world of infinite choices, birthright israel shows young Jews our nation as a real life alternative, a place not just to visit, but to invest in, and even live in themselves.

With birthright israel, many young Jews who could not otherwise afford to visit have that opportunity. Without birthright israel, they might be forever lost to the Jewish nation.

The return on investment for state funds invested in birthright israel is huge. The return on our investment is the return of Jewish young people to a lifelong link to our nation.

To abandon birthright israel, to break the state’s commitment to its share in that partnership, is more than a betrayal, and a blow to the nation’s future.

It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s abandoning the young Jews that Israel needs to reach, undermining our already suffering tourism industry. It’s undercutting a solemn commitment of our prime minister, breaking his word. What kind of message does that send to the next generation, and to overseas partners? It’s just bad business all around.

Binyamin Netanyahu has proven himself to be an astute entrepreneur, an unparalleled communicator of the values of the State of Israel, and a hero of Jewish young people.

For this reason, I am confident that he and his colleagues will reinstate support for a program that is all about the creation of new wealth for our nation: the ideals, passions and talents of young Jews ready to invest in our nation, and return our investment in them with a level of interest and commitment that would make any VC green with envy.

birthright israel is not just a great adventure for participants. It’s a great venture for Israel.

(Reprinted with permission from Israel Insider)