Birthright Israel Was Amazing: But Now What?

With Federation resources and support, these Jews in their 20s seek and create their own Jewish experiences.

BRLA-trip-1cby Margalit Rosenthal

Taglit-Birthright Israel began in 1999 to serve as an intense, impactful Jewish experience that exposed young Jews to Israel and Judaism in a way that would make them crave more. But once Birthright Israel had increased the appetite of these hundreds of thousands of participants, what could the American Jewish community provide – locally and globally – that would satisfy them?

While Birthright Israel NEXT took a wider, more global approach to post-trip engagement (through a national Shabbat dinner program and serving as a concierge for local opportunities), this newly awakened craving for other social, content-laden and identity-based programming also demanded that the local community play an important role in reconnecting post-trip participants – giving them what they need in terms of programming but also allowing their post-trip enthusiasm to inspire the local community.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles always understood the importance of connecting this first Israel experience to the local community; our LA Way community trips are designed for LA locals, and our madrichim are active in the Jewish community, helping connect the participants to the LA Jewish scene after they return home. This past year, we have taken greater strides to connect participants to the community, and to help past participants serve the community, through the launch of two new fellowship programs – the Kahn Fellowship and the BRIdge Fellowship – that encourage leadership and social and peer engagement. By tapping potential leaders from returning trips to serve as Kahn Fellows, Federation’s Birthright Israel Experience initiative (BRIE) provides peer-driven programming to the thousands of Birthright Israel participants in the LA area. The program also seeks to engage Birthright Israel madrichim as BRIdge Fellows, providing support as they continue to serve as mentors and as connections to the larger LA Jewish community long after the trip has ended.

With Federation resources and support, these Jews in their 20s seek and create their own Jewish experiences. These fellowships also serve as a social bridge between Birthright Israel and Federation’s YALA program for young adults in their 20s and 30s.

Two weeks ago, veteran Kahn Fellow Charlie Jasper executed a 60-person Shabbat dinner he had been planning for nearly a month. He partnered with Moishe House to spread the word, guaranteeing that there would be new faces around the tables. Moishe House’s new Director of Leadership Development, Martin Storrow, played guitar while his friend Noah accompanied on violin. They played music from the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy that welcomes Shabbat, nigunim (melodies), and even improvised some classic American tunes, removing the barrier for those having their first Shabbat experience. Charlie led Kiddush and Hamotzi (blessings over the wine and the challah) in Hebrew and English, and spoke candidly about how his involvement in the Jewish community has given him back something he felt he had lost after years in the United States military.

Saturday night that same weekend, I found myself in a backyard in Culver City with 40 strangers. Robert Weber (another Kahn Fellow) managed to gather a diverse group together for a “Mini Jewish Film Festival.” Tapping his connections in the entertainment industry, Robert rented screening equipment and invited local, young Jewish talent to show their web series, pilots, and documentary trailers. Forty people sat back, laughing and crying as they watched. From the documentary about world-traveling, Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz’ to a web series by Six Points Fellow Jessi Kahnweiler, audience members wanted to discuss how being Jewish influenced these artists’ work and how the artists’ Jewish identity or relationship to Israel was transformed by their projects. And they wanted more. “I have a spark, I have a question, and I need to know more. That’s the Jewish in me,” Jessi poignantly articulated.

Kahn Fellows like Charlie and Robert, and their events that center on connection to Jewish life, culture and community, help dispel the myth that young Jews aren’t interested in doing Jewish. They are. They’re interested in spirituality, in finding meaning in their lives, in Jewish culture and learning. They are also interested in defining what that means, instead of having somebody tell them.

We could just put our Birthright Israel participants on listservs, or sit in a room by ourselves and plan a party, or spam their inboxes and newsfeeds with content that they didn’t ask for. But we’re not doing that. Instead, if you went on a Birthright Israel trip and had an amazing time, the Jewish Federation’s Birthright Israel Experience team has a question for you: Now what? What do you want to do now that you’re back in LA? And how can we help you do it?

It’s a real question. We would love to hear from you. We can connect you with local organizations and resources, and we can connect you to our Fellows, who are always looking for new, creative ideas for programming. Email me, Margalit Rosenthal, at mrosenthal@jewishla.org or call me at 323-761-8208.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is appreciative of the generosity of the Kahn Living Trust for its support of the Kahn Fellowship, and the Sabrina Merage Foundation and David and Laura Merage Foundation for their support of the BRIdge Fellowship.

Margalit Rosenthal is Director of Birthright Israel Programs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

cross-posted on The Wire (L.A. Federation’s Blog)