Hillel and Birthright Israel: Perfect Campus Partners

by Sarah Portilla and Greg Yellin

Fall is approaching and campuses across the country are gearing up for the school year. For Jewish campus professionals this means not only welcoming new students and preparing for the High Holidays, but recruiting for the campus Birthright Israel trip. More than 400,000 Jewish young adults have journeyed to Israel via Taglit-Birthright Israel, which is a incredible achievement and an incredible gift to the entire Jewish people.

Measured in a variety of ways, studies indicate that participation in Birthright correlates with stronger Jewish identity for the participants. However, the greatest challenge with Birthright is how to follow up with so many inspired young people when they return from Israel. Dozens of Jewish organizations have spent millions of communal dollars developing ways to engage Birthright alumni, with varying degrees of success. The most effective Birthright follow-up doesn’t require development of new programs and new methodologies. Campus Jewish organizations are already uniquely situated to develop ongoing relationships with students on their return and should be the focus of financial support.

While young adults have from age 18 to 26 to claim their Birthright, a large percentage do so during their college years. Whether they were involved previously or not, when Birthright participants return from their trips they are returning to an already existing campus Jewish community. As the largest campus Jewish organization in the world, a deeper partnership with Hillel should be Birthright’s number one priority.

Yes, there are many other tour providers and students should pick the trip that best fits their needs. However, while not all students go with Hillel as their tour provider, Hillel is expected to follow up with all campus Birthright alumni. The challenge we face is that often we don’t know who these students are until months after they return to campus. By then the Birthright spark is more of a flicker. If Hillel is expected to follow up while they are still on campus, then the Hillel-Birthright partnership needs to be as seamless as possible.

This year, Taglit-Birthright Israel is piloting a general recruitment program on three campuses, Rutgers being one of them. We have a chance to have a bigger impact than ever – if we work closely together and focus on a few key areas.

Here are some ideas of how Taglit-Birthright Israel can work with Hillel to create the most effective opportunities for following up with returning Birthright students:

  1. Hillel should be administering campus orientations for all Birthright trips.
    • Birthright is more than just the trip to Israel. The experience starts as soon as the participant chooses to register, continues when they return and consider future involvement in the Jewish community. If Taglit can work with the Hillel to run a community orientation for all students on campus, it serves everyone involved. Students begin to build a sense of Jewish community from the start, and personal interaction before the trip makes it easier for Hillel to follow through with students after the trip, regardless of what trip provider they use.
  2. Taglit should be working with Hillel for on-campus recruitment
    • Hillel is an integral part of campus life. We strive to be university partners and connect with students, faculty and staff within the culture and framework that the University has set up. If Taglit is planning on recruiting on campus, be a partner with us. We can show you the best way of communicating with the campus community and the most effective ways to spend your resources.
  3. Provide Hillel with grants for orientation and creative student follow through
    • We can implement pre- and post-trip initiatives on campus better than anyone in the Jewish world. Birthright NEXT grants are great, but only go to specific events such as Shabbat meals. Hillel works with students every day in myriad ways – we can help Birthright unlock the creativity in each of our students.
  4. Prioritize campus-based trips
    • This may be the least expensive and most effective approach of all. Students build incredible bonds with one another on Birthright. If they are not returning to campus together, and they are scattered across North America, those bonds weaken and can be lost. Students who go on a campus-based Birthright trip return to campus together and their relationships continue and grow. They can plug into existing Jewish campus life, or create something new together; and Hillel will be there to help them.

Hillel is the best positioned organization in the world to serve students when they return from Taglit-Birthright Israel. We can connect students to their Jewish identity before their trip and provide the most effective follow through afterward. As a pluralistic umbrella organization, Hillel can show students all that the Jewish community has to offer. A deeper Hillel-Birthright relationship would be the most natural, effective and cost efficient partnership in the Jewish community. Let’s make it happen.

Sarah Portilla is Associate Director for New Initiative and Greg Yellin is Senior Birthright Engagement Associate at Rutgers Hillel.

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  1. Carli says

    I am a student AND a Birthright recruiter (both with Mayanot). As a senior in my second school I’ve been active with Chabad at both schools (by far the largest Jewish on-campus presence now and before) I can’t figure why the authors would neglect a huge segment of Jewish student life.

  2. Jason says

    I agree with you Carli. I’m sure plenty of people have great experiences with Hillel, but going on Taglit-Birthright to Israel with a Chabad Rabbi (Mayanot) allows for a very unique experience for all the participants on the trip, Chabad is an organization that helps ignite the Jewish spark in everyone, but it will always be up to the individual to either let the spark turn into a wildfire, or “flicker” out.

    More grants and funding for both Chabad and Hillel, and any other Jewish organization on a college campus should be a priority for Taglit. Only focusing on one organization would be a major mistake.

  3. Eliezer Sneiderman says

    Sarah and Greg, I appreciate the enthusiasm of youth. Thus, your misplaced triumphalism can be excused. When young, one feels in possession of all the answers. One thinks, “If only people would listen to me”. As one ages however, humility sets in. We give space to others and realize that our solutions are not universal.

    If you were older, you would have been aware of this important Brandeis study that called for less campus parochialism rather than more.
    Here are the findings as reported in a 2006 JTA article. You can check out the full report here

    ““no single universal program could attract today’s students and hold them long enough to affect their Judaism.”
    Not only that, the study continues, each campus has its own particular challenges and opportunities, its own personality clashes, power struggles, and organizational structure.
    So instead of looking for the one-button solution, Jewish organizations and philanthropists who want to engage the next generation in Jewish life need to be flexible, and customize programs for each school.
    “Is there one thing we could do that could have a impact on a large number of Jewish students?” asks Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center and co-author with Leonard Saxe of the new study. “The answer is no. Each campus is different.”

    Students want two things they want options and diversity and they also want their Campus Jewish organizations to work together. I am sure that there are other successful Jewish organizations at Rutgers. Perhaps you should mention them. The day when one organization can successfully meet the needs of all Jews has passed. Students want freedom.

    The success of Birthright has demonstrated the importance of diversity. 400,000 students have journeyed on Birthright because of its wide base of providers. If one organization controlled Birthright, fewer students would ultimately go to Israel.

    So too, if one organization were to control follow up, less students would be involved. While Hillel’s brand is well known, a 2006 Brandeis study showed that only 25% of Jewish students were attending more than two Hillel programs a year. Hillel is not even the leader in Birthright recruitment. Israel Outdoors is recruiting many more students to Birthright. Since Israel Outdoors is the proven leader for Birthright, perhaps they should be funded to take over all Jewish Campus work?

    Finally, I take issue with your suggestion that Hillel should provide all Birthright Orientation. As a senior Chabad Rabbi, I personally have over 27 years of education. I have a MSW, Rabbinic Ordination, a certificate in Informal Jewish Ed from Brandeis, a certificate in Experiential Jewish Ed from YU, I am finishing a Doctorate in Jewish Education, and I teach Jewish Philosophy at the University level. In addition, I have led over 25 groups to Israel. I have been in school longer than you have been alive. But, according to you, I should step aside and let a first year Hillel staff person run orientation.

    With all my education I understand that Chabad is not for everyone. I respect and value the relationship with my campus’ Hillel staff. They are doing a great job and I love working with them. There is so much work to be done. But, to really serve the students we must move beyond the “brand”.

    I am glad you are involved in this career. If you are still working in Jewish education ten years from now I will be even more impressed. Over the years, I have seen too many great programs and educators disappear. Many of these programs and educators were associated with Hillel. Birthright is essential to the health of the Jewish people and it is too important to place in the hands of one organization.

  4. Sarah says

    Rabbi Sneiderman:
    We appreciate your depth of experience, and while there is room to differ on the issues, we are glad our article sparked a thoughtful response from a fellow Jewish campus professional.
    Let’s be frank though: your response was unnecessarily condescending, wasn’t it? At first I wasn’t going to respond; but your assumptions about our professional experience and commitment to Jewish campus life are both factually incorrect and inappropriately insulting, both to Greg and I personally, and to Hillel professionals in general. This is hardly the way to speak to fellow Jews, especially the day before Rosh Hashanah.
    To clarify:
    1. Greg and I have 25 years of experience in Jewish Education between us, including 13 years and Hillel- so though we still possess “the enthusiasm of youth” we are seasoned Jewish professionals and educators. We have lead a combined total of 11 Hillel Birthright Israel trips and over two dozen other Jewish youth and campus trips of various kinds.
    2. While your list of degrees is impressive, (I myself am an MSW/LSW), none of this is relevant as to how to implement birthright, is it?
    3. The study that you quote came out in 2006, based on results from Birthright in its infancy. Seven years later we know far more.
    4. We are not doubting the effectiveness of other Jewish professionals on campus or saying that Hillel has all the answers. However, working together for a unified campus orientation will facilitate better follow through for all groups working on Birthright and foster a greater sense of a United Jewish community. Isn’t that what we are all striving for?
    5. At its core, Birthright is about empowering Jewish students to own their Jewish experience. If Birthright wants this to happen on the college level and truly enhance Jewish Life, then working more closely with Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, is the best way to make this happen.
    6. I am glad you too, are a committed Jewish professional. “If you are still working in Jewish Education ten years from now I will be even more impressed.” I know we will be.

  5. Questions says

    By what definition is Hillel the “largest Jewish campus organization in the world”? Budget size? (Likely.) Student involvement? (Who knows?) Jewish Number of young people who chose to go with Hillel for Birthright Israel trips? (Israel Experts.) Number of Jewishly trained staff? (Probably Chabad.)

  6. Sarah says

    Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world by almost any measure:

    Hillel is present on 550 campuses in North America alone.

    Hillel is a global organization, serving campuses and communities in Australia, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Georgia, Israel, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay and Uzbekistan.

    Given our enormous presence on campuses globally, Hillel has more campus-dedicated staff than any other Jewish organization.
    Independent studies demonstrate that Hillel engages 200,000 individual students a year, about 50% of the Jewish student population.

    Many other organizations do good work on campus. But nobody reaches as many students, in as many ways, in as many places, as Hillel.