Creating a Community of Peers
by Yoni Sarason
I want to thank Joel Frankel, whose recent article, Can Birthright Israel Alone Reverse Young Adults’ Declining Support of Local Jewish Communities?, has reignited the conversation around Taglit-Birthright Israel, follow up, and local models of engagement. When I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, I didn’t feel that I had an outlet or a source for the type of Jewish community or relationships I wanted to be a part of, but I knew it was important to me.
Co-founding the St. Louis Moishe House, and later Next Dor STL gave me an opportunity to start building those relationships, hosting Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and creating experiences that were meaningful to me, and to the friends and community I found. Not everyone graduates college with the same background or spark to seek or create Jewish community and by that point, it often takes a major event to change a person’s course.
For many Jewish young adults, ten days in Israel on a Birthright trip is a monumental experience, but turning that spark of curiosity, interest, and emergent identity into behavior on day eleven and beyond is a process.
As in a garden, we cannot water the flowers once and expect them to flourish. (In fact, Jonah may be instructive in this area). Although studies (Saxe, 2009) have found a large impact of Birthright trips on participants, the Birthright trip is not a stand alone event, which guarantees future community involvement. Nor should it be.
Many of my young adult peers find ourselves in a position similar to the son who doesn’t know how to ask from the story of Passover. Many of us were not raised with meaningful Jewish education or the tools to pursue or articulate our interests or needs Jewishly. For these participants, Birthright can begin to situate Jewish history, philosophy, religion, and identity within a framework that allows real engagement and pursuit. It is from this strengthening of identity that a sense of community can emerge, but it isn’t a given. It requires additional inputs, an understanding of each individual as such, with unique interests and passions, and an ability to connect them to the opportunities in their local community which can take them further on the journey that Birthright might have sparked. So many Birthright participants return to find that they either have no idea how to connect to local opportunities or that the available local opportunities don’t interest them, and that they do not feel empowered to create their own solutions.
Through my direct programming and engagement work at Moishe House and Next Dor, I met a large number of young adults, many of whom had been on Birthright trips, but it wasn’t until I started working with the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, in the very role now occupied by Joel Frankel, that I started working exclusively with this group. Joel is correct that many participants ask about ways to get back for free, but the single largest thing they express interest in is meeting a Jewish peer group and feeling connected to a sense of community (and getting jobs, but that is another article, entirely). This is often where initiatives like J’Burgh in Pittsburgh, Access in Cincinnati, and JCle in Cleveland have started making inroads, creating gathering points for young adults around which such community can begin to coalesce. One of the greatest benefits of working part-time in Birthright follow up/concierge and part-time in young adult community building was that the two roles fit symbiotically. Community builders have a problem of identification.
That is to say, we have to identify potential community members and understand their interests and potential role in the community. Without being able to identify a critical mass of potential community members, the endeavor never gets off the ground, or gets stale from lack of new blood and ideas. This is incredibly difficult in the Jewish young adult world, where we often don’t know someone is Jewish until they self-identify, or are referred or introduced. This is even more difficult when those who do self-identify are very hesitant to self-involve. Concierges have the challenge of connecting people to opportunities and content that they don’t themselves create. They are only as effective as the opportunities which exist and they have identified in their vicinity. Therefore, the community builder/content provider and the Birthright follow up/concierge positions provide almost perfect symbiosis to each other. I learned how meaningful engagement can reinvigorate a community when the right pieces come together, and believe that each community should have this opportunity. This is what is so intriguing about the opportunity now presented by NEXT to scale this model nationally and why I took the position as Midwest Regional Director last July.
NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation has been working with Birthright participants and local partners for several years to build on the experience and identity fostered by the trip.
NEXT is focused on working in partnership with local and national organizations to bring our knowledge of and experience with past participants to communities across the country. Effectively, we take the know-how of both the community builder/content provider and the Birthright follow up/concierge positions and work at the community level to provide this knowledge in a manner that is tailored to each unique locale.
We do this across three target areas:
- Seed and empower communities of young adults to create more frequent and meaningful Jewish connections and experiences
- Engage and partner with Jewish communal organizations to become more open, welcoming, and natural spaces for young adult involvement
- Bring closer together and eventually bridge individuals and organizations by helping participants understand the community organizations, their contexts, and the people behind them.
By simultaneously providing resources to empower participants, like grants to host Shabbat and holiday meals, in a Do-It-Yourself model of community creation, as well as working directly with engagement professionals and community organizations, we aim to bring closer together the mutually disconnected parties. At the same time, we are bringing professionals focused on engaging this demographic together to share and learn from each other.
Our NEXT professional network has included professionals from CommunityNEXT, Tribe12, Next Dor STL and others.
On the local level, in St. Louis, for example, this meant helping Joel to organize a pre-trip orientation, held at Next Dor. Most attendees were on break from University and had never heard of Moishe House or Next Dor. This community orientation allowed the participants to put faces to the trip, to learn about the role of the Israeli government, Jewish Federations, and philanthropists who pay for it, and what opportunities for a community of peers exist after they return. This process creates a more tightly knit tapestry and framework in which participants can place the trip, and facilitates post-trip conversations and engagement.
In communities like Milwaukee, which are committed to reinvigorating the Jewish community by retaining and engaging more young adults, it means working deeply with the community to get a sense of needs and how to most effectively build capacity, be it through training of the young adult programmer, seeding grass-roots Shabbat dinners, or leveraging the community shlichim.
I’ve seen the potential for a few passionate people to make a difference in their local communities, and know that NEXT can be a conduit to facilitate this work.
With their appetites whetted, young adults are searching for vibrant and diverse communities in which they can both play and learn (and sometimes work). NEXT is committed to helping participants having their needs heard, and helping communities respond to those needs in order to create the ascension of more vibrant, representative, and meaningful Jewish communities for all of us. So whether you went on a Birthright trip and have struggled to recreate that sense of community and connection, or you are working to build exactly such a community for young adults in your city, please be in touch and let’s work together to build the future we want to live in.
Yoni Sarason is Midwest Regional Director NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.