by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
Reading The Jerusalem Post yesterday, it occurred to me that Birthright Israel NEXT’s work has a visibility problem. Haviv Rettig Gur writes regarding Taglit-Birthright Israel “these connections are wasted if they are not directed at new Jewish experiences back home.” He ends the piece with a short question:“Where’s the follow-up?”
The work of “follow-up” is not as apparent to the public eye as the sight of hundreds of Taglit- banner buses on Israel’s roads. But since I have the pleasure of working with a young staff who have succeeded in providing new Jewish experiences to over fifty thousand Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni in North America during the past year, I have the opportunity to see the follow-up every day.
Here is one example:
In 2009, the total number of Taglit-Birthright Israel North American trip participants for 2009 was just shy of 19,000. In the last few months, we have worked with volunteer leaders from those buses to host over 12,200 young adults for home-hospitality Shabbat meals in North America. 93% of our NEXT Shabbat meals involved some or all of the core ritual elements of Shabbat. More importantly, we found that nearly every volunteer felt that this was a positive Jewish communal experience and wanted to host again and get more involved in their local community. By the end of 2010, volunteers from this group of 19,000 trip participants will have hosted over 30,000 young adults for a NEXT Shabbat event.
This particular program is one of four areas of focus for Birthright Israel NEXT that begin on the trip and flow naturally into involvement post-trip (the others being Hebrew language learning, deepening the Israel connection and encouraging community involvement). In addition to the Shabbat program, Birthright Israel NEXT runs ulpanim for young adults in ten North American cities, works with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through local consulates in select cities to deepen ties to Israel, and has involved thousands of post-college young Jewish adults by partnering with local Jewish and Israel-focused organizations (we linked up with thirty-two such organizations in the last year). It is through these four areas (and through many partners) that we are on track to involve 100,000 young Jewish adults in our programming in 2010.
These figures do not count the “ramping up” of programs from our on campus partner Hillel and from our colleagues at MASA, two organizations who have certainly devoted significant energy to “Birthright follow-up” in the last two years. Nor do they include the work of forward-thinking Federations, like the CJP in Boston, that have adopted new models on campus that are delivering follow-up success.
Those young adults who go on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips and then get involved in Birthright Israel NEXT or with campus-based partners are actually doubling and in many cases quadrupling the overall philanthropic investment in the trip. In our programs, we see young Jewish women and men come off of their Israel trips with a spark of energy that causes them to reach out to their friends (most of whom have not gone to Israel) and involve them in Jewish life. As a result they are transforming their social circles and injecting Jewish content and Jewish experiences in ways that they never did before. Our job at NEXT is to work within these social circles and to provide critical initial steps that will help grow sparks into new commitments. Those commitments, however, ultimately require the active engagement of young adults by the entire Jewish community. We hope to partner with many more community-based organizations, both established and emerging, as we continue to grow.
Although it is often unseen, Taglit-Birthright Israel participants are quietly transforming their generation in North America and every Jewish organization has the potential to benefit from their renewed passion for Israel and for Jewish life.
Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner is Executive Director of Birthright Israel NEXT.