From Birth-right to Birth-responsibility

by Emily Comisar

Of all of the questions that I hear about Taglit-Birthright Israel, one that comes up over and over again is that of how we get trip participants to view their experience as a gift to be paid forward instead of simply a right to which they are entitled. Paying it forward isn’t restricted to donating that $250 deposit back to the organization; it also means feeling a sense of responsibility to the community, to engage in it in whichever way is most meaningful and make it a more welcoming place for a rising generation of young Jewish adults.

Two weeks ago, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (Brandeis University), and NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation convened a group of 25 young professionals to talk about Taglit-Birthright Israel. Being on staff at NEXT, I was of course keenly interested in conversations about how we engage trip returnees once they land back on U.S. soil – emotionally exhausted, intellectually challenged and inevitably glowing.

On the second day of the gathering, as we grappled with that question of entitlement and responsibility, a few important words floated to the surface over and over again:

  1. Transparency: the need to be clear with participants up front about the goals of the trip.
  2. Reflection: understanding that each participant is on a unique Jewish journey and that Taglit-Birthright Israel will play a different role in each of their lives, that they will unpack what they learn about themselves on the trip in different ways, and that’s OK.
  3. Ownership: decreasing the amount of hand-holding on the trip and giving participants a sense of ownership over the experience.

To be transparent and to create a space for reflection is one thing, but how do we encourage participants to take ownership over an experience that has been planned for them down to the minute by people they have never met?

We can let them facilitate conversations, organize an oneg or lead a text study, but the meat of any sort of ownership experience comes down to this: feeling needed. Instead of asking, how do we get them to donate, how do we get them to invite people, how do we get them in the door, let’s ask: How do we make them feel needed? How do we make them feel necessary?

I know, I know, this is easier said than done. The reality of working in the nonprofit sector is that we report quantitatively. We talk to our funders and stakeholders about how many people we’ve reached. Even if we aren’t experiencing explicit pressure from our senior staff and boards to put butts in seats, we can’t help but put that pressure on ourselves.

But here’s the thing: I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people who get into this line of work didn’t do it because they like sales. We do it because we care about what the Jewish world looks like now and what it will look like 20 years from now. It’s a question of long-term thinking and strategy. The number of people in the door is no doubt a valuable short-term indicator to use alongside qualitative feedback that we’re getting on our work, but the problem with relying on it is that our audiences can see right through it.

It doesn’t take a social researcher to tell us that young Jewish adults (or humans in general) want to be counted as more than simply a butt in a seat or a body in the door.

Let’s stop working so hard to be event planners and start being relationship builders. Maybe we can build a stronger community if, instead of counting heads, we tap into the entire person, figure out which of their talents and skills are necessary to make things happen, and let them know that they are the only ones who can do it.

Emily Comisar is Manager of National Projects for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. This piece originally appeared on Alef, an online resource created by NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation for those that work to engage Jewish young adults and is cross-posted on the Schusterman Networks blog.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great thinking. The future of the Jewish people (if not the history of the Jewish people) is about relationships and connectedness, not about programs and events. The work that I’ve seen from Birthright NEXT, TribeFest and related initiatives seems to be headed in the right direction in reinforcing relationships.

  2. David Silverman says

    While I agree that relationships and connectedness is the key and not the “body count”, the questions is, relationships and connectedness to what?. The Jewish Community and Israel are critical components of the Jewish experience but I believe they are not the central definition of the Jewish experience. There is a more profound unifier of the Jewish people and that is often , though not entirely, lacking from not only the Birthrite trips but from the follow up as well. That is, Torah and the awareness of a covenant that the Jewish people have with a Dvine source. I have particpated in some Birthright NEXT follow up here in Atlanta and the fellow who runs it is doing a marvelous job but when we try to offer Jewish content there are very few responses. Until knowledge of Judaism becomes central we will always be spinning our collecitve wheels.

  3. David Ordan says

    The article raises important points, especially regarding the disconnect between donor “expectations” and the participants’ actual experience. As someone who created and led many trips to Israel for groups of college students and young professionals, I can speak to this topic from experience. Think of it from the kids’ point of view for a second: We essentially beg them to go on an essentially free vacation to Israel for a couple of weeks.

    They have a great time, dance, party, and cry at the kotel (almost always reserved for the last moments of the trip. In between beers and we tell them of the perils of living in the Middle East and terror around the world.

    Then we say: Okay, now that you’ve had your two weeks of fun, get to work “saving” the Jewish people!

    What? You don’t feel guilty? What? You’re not worried about continuity? What? You don’t want to come to a Shabbos table? Why not? Why are you so ungrateful?

    So yes – transparency – or reverse transparency – i.e. donors getting a clue about what’s really going on – is called for. Plus, yes, recognize that without building long-term relationships with the participants by having something for them to come back to – and yes, without tying any of the experience to Torah and Mitzvos, how can you expect any but the very odd few to continue any meaningful involvement in the Jewish community?

    One solution: Created different trips, smaller in terms of actual participants, targeted toward different interests: the artists’ birthright, the leaders’ birthright, the party-person’s birthright, the communal activist birthright, etc. Let the trip be the start of their Jewish self-identification process…not just a generic one size fitz all.

  4. says

    With out exposure to what it means to be a Jew and the Divine Gift we were given to elevate the world the trip is no more than a instant jolt and fun few weeks. What effect will it have a years later when the kids are hanging out with all their non Jewish and Jewish friends engulfed in the American culture.We need to take the kids there and rather than run them through the historical sites and let them have a drinking fest when there is free time , it should contain meaningful content on what it means to be Jew etc. Too bring kids there and not have them see a Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel or eat a authentic Shabbos Meal with a Israeili family is a crime and it is denying them the option of seeing what has alllowed us to remain Jews throughout history. There is so much potential to really impact these kids in this mystical land with meaningful programming like Aish Hatorah’s Fellowships etc. This is just another poor attempt to create Jewish pride which will have very little or any impact a short time after returning to the states. Jew’s without a spiritual connection to G-d and his Torah is doomed to the path of extinction like all the previous attempts in history. have. Nice try, good intentions, but it won’t work in the long run.

  5. says

    Thank you not only for this articel but for the thoughtful feedback it provoked. Here, in Baltimore we tackle this issue by running a learning based program that allows participants to explore their Judasim at whatever level they want. We struggle too, because on one hand it’s the party and the socializing that gets the seats filled. On the other hand, IF, the particiapants have a meaningful program to come home to, many of them will come – they’re hungry for more inspiration. We have to give them real content, not just Jewish identity. You can see what I mean here; http://youtu.be/B3c5_o5U57c