The big donors behind Birthright Israel are gathering in Atlanta, but the man securing Birthright’s long-term financial stability already is here on a permanent basis.
David Fisher, the president of the Birthright Israel Foundation, and his family moved this summer to Atlanta, the hometown of his wife, Stacey. While two of their children are in college, one is a junior at Pace Academy (she moved down here early to finish her sophomore year), and another is a sixth-grader at the Epstein School. They have joined Congregation B’nai Torah.
Fisher said he had been traveling a lot in his three years leading the Birthright Israel Foundation, which is based in New York, and Stacey suggested that after 23 years in Cincinnati, his hometown, they should move to Atlanta.
“It was a long conversation for both of us and our kids,” Fisher said. “It’s good for them and Stacey and good for me. … It’s a new chapter for all of us.”
That new chapter came after Fisher turned a page in his career. He was ready for a change from his gifting business after his father’s death about five years ago, and he wanted to do something connecting young people with Israel.
“It struck me as probably the single most important thing we can do to ensure a connection to Israel for the future and the future vibrancy of the Jewish community,” said Fisher, who had experience working with youths going back to his days running the family’s summer camp for boys when he was 21.
“I took a right turn in my career,” he said. “I’ve had a reasonable amount of business success. I’ve never felt this fulfilled and inspired.”
Birthright Israel is 15 years old and has brought more than 500,000 18- to 26-year-olds, including 6,500 from the Atlanta area, to Israel on free 10-day trips. The organization has become an established part of the Jewish community, and Fisher noted that Jews turning 18 and becoming eligible for the trip are too young to remember a world without Birthright Israel.
“It’s a question of getting more and more young people to feel positive and prideful about being Jewish,” he said.
Birthright Israel is taking almost 45,000 young Jewish adults to Israel this year, more than in 2014, and Fisher said one of the keys is that the participants themselves are making the choice to go to Israel, something they didn’t get to do if they celebrated b’nai mitzvah or went on family or day school trips there.
“The program has been very deliberate in trying to not rest on any of its laurels,” Fisher said. “We’re working hard at being relevant to today’s 20-year-old.”
The innovations and changes in trip content, education, extensions and niche offerings mirror the efforts to deepen the donor base for Birthright Israel beyond founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt and other mega-donors. Birthright had 32,000 donors last year, Fisher said. New givers each year include grandparents, parents and trip participants.
The donor development effort includes the Birthright Israel National Gathering (for those who give at least $10,000 a year to the foundation), which after three years in Las Vegas is being held in Atlanta on Sunday and Monday, Nov. 15 and 16. Speakers will include Bronfman, Birthright Israel alumni, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.
Fisher said Vegas is a draw for some people, but it’s good to change things every few years so people keep coming. Whether Atlanta will be a one-year stop or something more will be determined after the gathering, which he said will be an opportunity for the chairman of the Birthright Israel Atlanta Council, Doug Ross, and the Florida-based Southeast director, Carole-Ann Levine, to show off what they’ve accomplished in building the lay leadership and a donor of base of $2.5 million in the area.
“I think Monday night’s going to be very special,” when Bronfman, Marcus, and Israel Defense Forces veteran and Birthright Israel alum Omer Granot are scheduled to speak to a crowd of about 500 people at the St. Regis in Buckhead, Fisher said. “The community has really stepped up, which is great.”