... And Reselling It With a Hand From the Free Market

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.

If the free market is a good indicator of success, then American Jewish organizations struggling to recruit young members have something to learn from a small private tour operator in Israel called Oranim.

Oranim is one of 20 nonprofit and commercial organizations vying to bring kids on Birthright Israel, the wildly successful five-year old program that brings 18-26 year-old Jews to Israel on a free 10-day trip. But, while under Birthright’s rules, almost any Jewish organization can get paid to enlist young Jews, Oranim has cashed in like few others have.

The for-profit trip provider is significantly outperforming more established nonprofit institutional behemoths, including the international campus organization Hillel, Chabad-Lubavitch and the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements. In the race to pique the interest of young, unaffiliated Jews, Oranim is dominating with a top-flight marketing plan for selling a fun-loving sexy vision of Zionism.

This summer, Oranim had 1,600 participants and accounted for close to 40% of Birthright’s registrants worldwide. Last summer, the Cleveland- and Israel-based operation took twice as many kids on Birthright as did Hillel, the next-biggest trip organizer. The gap is even more striking when one considers that before Birthright’s launch, Hillel boasted a built-in infrastructure to recruit students on campuses across America, while Oranim had no presence at any American university.

“If I was Hillel, there would be no other player on Birthright — simple as that,” said Shlomo Lifschitz, Oranim’s charismatic director, who is known to most simply as Momo. “I’m going to bring Zionism back to America.”

Oranim’s success grows out of the decision by the philanthropists who started Birthright to rely on a free-market system. Rather than setting up a single infrastructure to lead the tours, the founding philanthropists forced existing Jewish organizations to compete for participants: The costs are covered by Birthright; all the organizations have to do is recruit young Jews and plan the trips.

“When people have to compete, they try to do a better job,” Charles Bronfman, one of the founding philanthropists, told the Forward.

Bronfman and a few other philanthropists have provided almost half of the $158 million spent on Birthright. The rest has been paid for by local Jewish charitable federations and the Israeli government. The funders established strict ground rules for the trips: All Birthright tours leave in January and June and involve about 40 young Jews traveling together for 10 days. Every Birthright trip must include certain stops — Masada, for example — and providers are put through a lengthy accreditation process. But once accredited, the individual organizers have a great deal of leeway to push their own vision of Israel, Zionism and Judaism.

To understand Oranim’s success in this system, one indicative event was a recent breakfast at a cushy New York hotel, called together by Lifschitz, who was visiting from Israel.

The breakfast was attended by two of Oranim’s “ambassadors” — former participants who wanted to go back to Israel. Any ambassador who registers 15 people to go on a future Oranim trip gets to go back to Israel for free as an Oranim trip leader. Today Oranim has 2,500 registered ambassadors out there looking for new recruits — and that number is likely to increase now that Oranim has ramped up its incentives program with the unveiling of a new Web site, IsraelAwards.com.

“Oranim has really been very innovative in their marketing,” Birthright spokesman Giddy Mark said. “They did things that others did, too — but they really did it better than others.”

Shannon Storman, a 23-year-old who drove in from Staten Island for the recent recruitment breakfast, already has gone on two trips to Israel since his first Birthright trip. He said that whenever he hears someone is Jewish, the first thing he does is sell the person on Oranim. The other person at the breakfast was Lauren Stelzer, a 23-year-old teacher from Melville, Long Island, who slept at a family friend’s apartment in Manhattan so that she could make it to the breakfast with Lifschitz. She returned from her Birthright trip June 29, and she already has managed to register eight people she knows for upcoming Oranim trips.

“I could not stop talking about Israel when I got home — I was a total loser,” Stelzer said. “I want to go back so bad.”

Stelzer was not an involved Jew before her Oranim trip. She attended Hillel a few times during her freshman year at the University of Buffalo but has had no organized contact with the Jewish community.

According to one survey, 28% of Birthright participants say they are “just Jewish,” and it is these participants who Bronfman says are the “target market” of Birthright.

Lifschitz says that if he wants to reach these young Jews, he has to rely on their friends.

“I live in Israel, she lives in Long Island. I won’t find these kids on my own,” Lifschitz said. “They are the only ones who know where the Jews are.”

Oranim has created an intricate Internet-based system to help facilitate its ambassadors’ recruiting efforts. All ambassadors get an Oranim account, and when they plug in the e-mail address of a friend, an e-mail containing registration information is immediately sent out. A few weeks later, one of Oranim’s 21 staff members — in Israel and Cleveland — calls up each person who received an e-mail to stoke the interest. Once the trip is going, Oranim placates parents by posting pictures from the trip daily.

Lifschitz himself is clearly an integral part of Oranim’s success. He is a big, gregarious 47-year-old man who turns Zionism into a subject suitable for pillow talk. Each Oranim Birthright trip gets at least three

“Momo Sessions,” in which Lifschitz comes and shares his “Momoisms.”

“Momo loves Jewish babies,” he said a few times during the recruitment breakfast (for more Momoisms, and a look at “Sexual Zionism,” see related article, previous page).

But the going has not been all fun and good will with Oranim’s success. There has been some clear tension between leaders of Oranim and Hillel, which resisted the free market system when Birthright first opened up the program. Then, this summer, Birthright administrators decided that Oranim no longer would be allowed to lead trips with Canadian participants, though Oranim had been the main provider in the past. Though Birthright insiders were circumspect about why Oranim’s numbers have been pared back, one possible explanation came from Bronfman, who said that Oranim has developed a reputation for conducting some trips that have a bit too much partying and socializing.

But despite any glitches, Oranim is steaming ahead, as part of the larger revolution that is Birthright Israel. Jewish insiders regularly name it as one of the most innovative and important programs in the Jewish world today. So far, Birthright has attracted 88,000 participants, with 9,700 visiting Israel this summer alone. The only limit appears to be the funding, which is a constant struggle.

According to a study published by Brandeis University researchers earlier this year, Birthright participants demonstrated increased levels of Jewish identification years after returning from the trip. The study found that before their trip, Birthright participants were less likely than nonparticipants to want to date someone Jewish. But three years after returning from Israel, Birthright veterans are more interested than non-participants in dating Jewish.

Birthright would appear to have been a golden opportunity for non-profit Jewish organizations — offering a lure to draw in a captive audience and an opportunity to make money (providers receive $800 to shepherd around each participant for 10 days). On both counts, Oranim is doing handsomely.

All the religious denominations have established Birthright trip providers, but aside from Hillel, the only nonprofit provider to enlist large numbers for Birthright is the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The Chabad group running Birthright tours, Mayanot, recruited the third-largest number of participants in recent seasons, behind only Oranim and Hillel.

Many in the Jewish world have been caught watching as Oranim has won over thousands of young American Jews with its marketing strategy. Thirty-one percent of all Birthright participants identified as Conservative Jews, but the movement sent only 80 participants this summer — compared with Oranim’s 1,600. “It’s very disappointing,” Bronfman said of the religious movement’s relatively low involvement in Birthright.

Richard Moline, director of the Conservative movement’s youth activities, said that while private tour operators can devote all their resources to recruiting for Birthright, his organization has many other responsibilities.

“I wish we had more resources to commit to recruitment,” Moline said, “but our resources are dedicated to working on the campus.”

Aside from Oranim, a few other private organizers have filled in the void left by the religious movements. Tlalim, which leads outdoor-oriented trips, has regularly been among the top five providers — but Oranim is always the name mentioned by Jewish insiders.

To maintain Oranim’s position, Lifschitz keeps up his travels — visiting campuses to host reunion parties with Oranim alumni and their friends. At breakfast a few weeks ago, he picked up the tab for the young ambassadors who had gone to such lengths to meet him. Though Lifschitz was paying the way, both Stelzer and Storman chose to order nothing more than a bagel.

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.