We must try to integrate Birthright alumni into other Jewish communities on campus, particularly communities in which they can have a leadership role – something which has more potential to be transferrable and enduring after college.
by Seth Winberg
Since 2010, the University of Michigan Hillel has taken 200 students each year on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. As readers of eJewish Philanthropy well know, Birthright can be the transformative experience that arouses curiosity and desire to access Jewish opportunities, and can start a young adult on a path of life-long engagement with Judaism and the Jewish people. In our case at Michigan Hillel, for many of the students we take on Birthright, the interview to apply for Birthright is their first point of contact with a Hillel professional.
Once we have made that contact and continued it through a trip to Israel, we make it a priority to offer strategic and sustained follow-up with our hundreds of Birthright alumni. We are uniquely positioned on campus for this, offering them diverse and substantive opportunities to continue their exploration of Jewish identity, with more than 55 interest groups ranging from arts and sports clubs to social justice and prayer communities – and eight affiliated Israel groups. Freshmen and sophomore students comprise about 76% of our Birthright trips, which means that once they return we have 2-3 years to support their continued engagement with meaningful Jewish experiences and vibrant Jewish community on campus.
We have spent this year piloting a strategic engagement initiative for Birthright alumni at the University of Michigan, helped by a generous grant from an anonymous donor. The initiative was a combined effort of Hillel staff and students. We recruited a small cadre of Birthright alumni as engagement interns to help us reconnect one-on-one with Birthright alumni within a year of their Birthright trip. Their passion for connecting their peers with the wider Jewish community on campus spread, and other Hillel student leaders joined the effort to meet one-on-one with Birthright alumni.
With a lot of staff, Birthright engagement interns, and Hillel student leaders working on the initiative, we knew we needed some clear measurable objectives. We set out to follow up one-on-one with at least 90% of the students on campus who had been on Birthright in the last year. Our goal was to further explore each individual’s interests and which social networks they were already connected to, and then to steer them towards appropriate Hillel groups and programs for continued involvement in Jewish life. Data from these one-on-one conversations were shared regularly between staff and student interns. After three months we had met one-on-one with 62%, and after five months, with 88%.
We also set a goal of engaging at least 75% of Birthright alumni in 2-3 Hillel programs or Jewish events within a year of their return. After three months we had tracked 61%, and after 5 months 72%.
Throughout this initiative, we wanted to strike a balance between offering programs geared specifically to Birthright alumni, and helping them find their way into existing Jewish communities on campus. For example, we hosted at least 10 Shabbat reunions for Birthright alumni, and we also tracked their increased attendance at our regular Shabbat dinners at Hillel. We encouraged Birthright alumni to host their own Passover seders, which Hillel contributed to financially, and we also tracked their increased attendance at seders at Hillel. Bus reunions that we organized capitalized on the excitement of a shared 10-day trip to Israel. Many Birthright alums tell us that “all they want is to see their friends from Birthright.” Some of them even started an intramural sports team at Michigan just for Birthright alumni. We also see this group cohesion when they come together to larger Hillel events, from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services to a cappella concerts.
At the same time, this bus cohesion doesn’t last forever as our students eventually move on to other communities. We must try to integrate Birthright alumni into other Jewish communities on campus, particularly communities in which they can have a leadership role – something which has more potential to be transferrable and enduring after college. So we set another objective for ourselves: to see at least 25% of Birthright alums become regular participants of a Hillel group, take on a Hillel leadership role, or participate in another immersive experience (such as an Alternative Spring Break service trip). After 3 months, we tracked 20% participation in at least one of these three areas, and after 5 months 23%.
For example, two Birthright alums felt a need for more inter-cultural dialogue on campus. They created a new Hillel group, Breaking Barriers, to bring together students of diverse cultural backgrounds. Their biggest event, drawing almost 80 students, many of them previously unconnected to Hillel, was a three-part dialogue to discuss religious minorities and to see “The Book of Mormon” as a group. Other examples of Birthright alums taking on leadership roles include starting a Jewish outdoor adventure group, and becoming editor-in-chief of the University’s weekly non-partisan point/counterpoint magazine (both are affiliated with Hillel).
Recognizing that Birthright alumni are somewhat conditioned to participating in Jewish life for free, we offered partial scholarships for Birthright alums to participate on an Alternative Spring Break. About 20% of the students we took this year on an Alternative Spring Break were Birthright alumni.
Another Birthright alum, a political science major, wrote a senior thesis on the effects of Birthright trips on the political attitudes of young American Jews. His thesis illustrates a larger often unseen (because it cannot be “tracked”) phenomenon: students process the impact of the Birthright trip both privately and publicly, and in this case, semi-publicly. The thesis was the work of an individual student, but it was very much about how his peers, other Birthright alumni, were processing the experience, even a year later. Consider these words from his introduction:
Like other Taglit-Birthright participants who hadn’t given Israel much thought before the trip, I unexpectedly found myself overcome with emotion when we visited [some of the] sites…. After the trip… I found that a great deal of trip participants feel the way I do – more connected with Israel and with Judaism…
Follow-up is important, but we recognize that there are examples of impact that we cannot see when counting attendance: conversations students have with their roommates, Facebook “like”ing and increased interest in Israel and Jewish messaging online, get-togethers which happen organically, and students embodying Jewish values in ways we just do not see.
Perhaps the best thing about the grant we received was that it enabled our staff and student leaders to think big and focus on this important group. We were given the opportunity to commit substantial resources to hundreds of individuals – to give them space to process how their Jewish lives would be different after Birthright (if it all), and to offer them more time, more money, and an introduction to students they otherwise might not meet – to find their place in one of the many Jewish communities that exist on campus. We plan to continue this model with more Birthright engagement interns next year, and we see potential for strategic and sustained Birthright follow-up on a level that reaches beyond Ann Arbor. This relationship-based model could be easily adapted and replicated on other campuses and in other communities, and is not cost prohibitive. With our communities investing $3,000 per participant on Birthright, we can’t afford not to follow up. In our case, we were able to reach our goal: to make Birthright part of a sustainable model of engagement on campus, and to show Birthright alumni that the Jewish community is a vital and important place for them to be long-term.
Rabbi Seth Winberg is assistant director of the University of Michigan Hillel.