Alumni as Participants
Healthy civil society organizations grow and evolve, like all living organisms. In good times, the resources we have for doing good multiply, the number of beneficiaries we serve expands and the positive impact we make increases. This is obvious enough. What is perhaps not as obvious is that such growth sometimes occasions an evolution of an organization’s very theory of change – its understanding of how it enhances society – and with it, the organization’s end goal.
When Ein Prat – The Midrasha (‘the Midrasha’) opened its first program for Israelis in their twenties in 2005, it recruited all of six people. The intensive and pluralistic nature of the program – a four-month framework of full-time Jewish text learning for “secular” and “religious” young adults – was not an easy sell. Add to its intensity and heterogeneity the fact that participants had to pay tuition at a time when virtually all Jewish text learning for Israelis of this age group was accompanied by a stipend, and it is probably not surprising that just over a handful signed up. Yet over its nine years of operations, the demand for this programming has blossomed and last year the Midrasha’s programs served some 300 young adults.
In its first years, the Midrasha’s goal was to meaningfully enhance the Jewish knowledge, attitudes, identity, and connections of the young adults its serves. The organization’s viewfinder was focused entirely on program participants and the changes they underwent during the course of their program. Over the past several years, two new points of focus have successively emerged: Alumni and their generation.
As the number of the Midrasha’s alumni grew, this constituency became increasingly visible to the Midrasha in its distinctiveness and progressively more vocal in its demand for continued engagement. In response to growing requests from alumni, a few years ago the Midrasha began providing weekly engagement opportunities rather than just periodic events over the Jewish holidays. Beginning in Jerusalem which is home to the highest concentration of alumni, weekly activities drew large turnouts and evolved into the creation of three urban hubs, ‘Batei Prat,’ sourcing weekly Jewish programming in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva.
The Midrasha’s programming for alumni has grown and developed considerably. In 2012-3 the alumni program served some 1,160 people – 600 alumni and 560 members of the public. In 2013-4 the program served over 1,580 people – 850 alumni and 730 members of the public, representing growth of 36%. Comparison of the two years shows that while the total number of alumni grew by 20% (from 1,242-1,497), the number of alumni engaged in the program grew by double that at 42% and the number of non-alumni engaged grew by 30%. Along with growth in participation, the Alumni Program itself grew and expanded. In 2012-3 the program included 189 evenings of activity, among other components; in 2013-4 the number was 458, 142% more than the year before.
The growth in alumni engagement has both required and engendered an evolving focus on alumni as participants. In effect, alumni are no longer beyond the Midrasha’s theory of change but, rather, an integral part of it. The deployment of the Midrasha’s human, financial and intellectual resources reflects this shift, with an increasing proportion of all three devoted to supporting the ongoing engagement and development of alumni.
From Individual Participants to a Generation
The growth in alumni engagement has yielded two outcomes of significant value: A heterogeneous network of Jewishly-engaged young adults and a series of socially worthwhile initiatives. A substantial percentage of the Midrasha’s more than 1,700 alumni function and interact as a network of smaller communities; while deriving from different programs and cohorts and living in different parts of Israel, these alumni share a strong sense of affiliation with each other and the Midrasha as well as an attitude of tolerance, generosity and optimism. These shared traits have generated a growing number of initiatives that add value to Israeli society, such as: A musical group that has become an energetic, pluralistic image of Israeli young adults with powerful resonance for Jews the world over; a Hebrew journal of Jewish prose and thought pieces produced entirely by volunteer efforts; a volunteerism project engaging hundreds of high school students across the country; and most recently, a campaign that aims to nurture gratitude within Israeli society in general and in how Israelis relate to the Jewish State in particular.
The growth of a vibrant, dynamic alumni network and creative social entrepreneurism has caused the Midrasha to re-conceptualize its theory of change. In essence, rather than focusing only on the impact of its programs in individuals – whether participants in intensive programs or alumni “participants” – the Midrasha has now begun to focus on the impact of its alumni on Israelis their age through serving as a model. Israel has been changed by model communities in the past: The Kibbutznikim of the fifties, the religious Zionists of the eighties, the hi-tech wizards of the 21st century. Each of these communities has had an impact on Israel that far exceeds what its relatively modest numbers would suggest.
While this zooming out of its end goal raises numerous questions, particularly in the area of defining and measuring outcomes, it is an uplifting process for the many stakeholders of the Midrasha. The game still begins with benefitting individuals but ultimately it is now one of enhancing Israel; no small game plan, but even more worth playing.
Leah Beinhaker Reuven is Director of Development at Ein Prat – The Midrasha.