Creating “Real Life” Communities with Digital Media: An Interview with NEXT

Birthright-NEXT-High-Holidays-PageNEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation thoughtfully focuses its social media efforts on supporting and creating community. Even more than that, they want to use social media to connect Jews to create “in real life” community. When Joelle Berman, Communications Manager of NEXT, told me about the newest iteration of their Jewish High Holidays Initiative (and interactive map), I was instantly excited by the online-to-offline action element. I took the opportunity to ask Joelle about NEXT’s approach to developing social and interactive content, its digital media goals, how NEXT uses digital media to create community, and how it measures success.

1. What are NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation’s goals for interactive and social content? What would success look like?

JB: Thousands of participants return home from Birthright Israel trips every summer and winter, contributing to what is now a total of more than 275,000 alumni in the United States. That’s a lot of people! When we think about our goals for digital content, we think about them in terms of our main audiences: Jewish young adults who have been on Birthright Israel trips (and their friends), and those who work with these alumni and young adults (professionals and volunteers). Our ultimate goal? To connect Birthright Israel alumni and their friends to meaningful Jewish opportunities that continue to deepen their connection to Judaism, Jewish communities, the Jewish people, and Israel.

Success in this area is when a young Jewish adult can easily find the Jewish opportunities or experiences that are meaningful to him or her (interactive) – and build a community of peers within or around those experiences (social). Any technology or media that we use, mash-up, or develop ourselves serves the ultimate end of helping these audiences create and foster in-person communities. It’s less about creating a virtual community for its own sake; it’s more about using online and social tools to spur the growth and depth of the communities that happen “in real life.”

For professionals and volunteers that work with Jewish young adults, we have dual goals for our interactive/social content: to build a stronger network and “community of practice” so that they can be more successful in their engagement of young adults; and to help them better understand and communicate Jewish opportunities to young adults.

2. How does NEXT use digital media to create community?

JB: Our main social media platforms like Facebook provide us with an ongoing opportunity to make alumni feel a part of the Jewish people and explore their connection to this community. We also create specialized spaces on Facebook for those most engaged with us, offering them the opportunity to connect and share ideas, as well as giving them the ability to get “first dibs” on our offerings.

We also know that in order to reach as many Birthright Israel alumni as possible, we need to work with all of those professionals and volunteers on the ground who are already engaging young Jewish adults in their local communities. It is also our goal to build a network and community of these “engagers” (we call this network the NEXTwork), and several digital tools allow us to do so. For example, we curate closed Facebook groups, enabling engagers to share their thoughts, questions, best practices, and ideas in between the in-person gatherings that we host.

3. How does the interactive map fit into NEXT’s approach to using digital media to meet its goals?

JB: The interactive map – and really all of the digital media we produced for our High Holidays Initiative this year – is indicative of NEXT’s approach in connecting Birthright Israel alumni and young adults to meaningful Jewish experiences: It has to happen in ways that are authentic to each young adult, meaning we need to provide access to all of the myriad opportunities that exist and give alums the chance to create their own, authentic experiences.

This approach informed how we designed the map, which young adults can search to find events tailored to them in their cities. They can then share that event through their social media networks to find friends interested in attending the event with them. This is a perfect example of taking a digital tool and using it to help foster an in-person community. The same is true for the second component of our High Holiday offerings: For Birthright Israel alumni that sign-up to host their own in-person High Holiday experience for their friends, we provide digital resources about rituals, traditions, and holiday recipes, including a Pinterest board with fun High Holiday videos.


4. This is the third year for your interactive map: how has it evolved over the years and for what reason(s)? What are the organizational goals for the map in 2013?

JB: The map has completely changed from its first iteration. I cannot over-emphasize one of our key learnings in developing this map, which is how important it is that these digital tools help connect young Jewish adults to each other. This demographic craves meaningful experiences with their friends (it’s what has made Birthright Israel trips so successful!). And this is why we made the events on the map easily shareable on social media. We’re hoping to address this more deeply in future iterations of this map.

In year one, we built the map using a basic, free service. To say it was “interactive” would be a stretch. We progressed in year two to a WordPress plugin; better, but still with limitations. This year, we souped up our interactive map in a big way. After speaking with alumni, conducting user testing and getting their feedback, we added new filtering capabilities, enabling users to locate Jewish experiences that they find personally meaningful, and to share these across social media with friends in service of helping to build their peer communities.

The map is now easily searchable by different locations and an array of personal preferences. Whether it’s an LGBT-friendly event, a traditional worship service, or a Rosh Hashanah dinner with other 20s/30s Jews in their city, users will be able to easily search for it.

We also mobilized our network of spiritual communities, synagogues, and Jewish organizations to populate the map with their events and experiences, and we are consistently grateful for their help. Positioning ourselves as a portal that connects these community organizations with a new, young and eager audience made the crowdsourcing much easier and more effective.


5. What are the most valuable metrics that you track with your interactive and social presence?

JB: In almost every one of our social media and interactive campaigns, we want to generate data that helps us understand our audience more deeply. Key metrics like the shares and comments on our Facebook posts, the number of clicks on various resources we provide via email and on our website, the most commonly used filters on our High Holiday map – even the open rates resulting from our most successful email subject lines – these help us paint a picture of our audience.

When it comes to knowing about the actions that our audience members take (and, importantly, the communities that they join or build) in their off-line lives as a result of our online actions, that’s where were run into a challenge. We are always trying to achieve a balance between gathering important data that proves impact, and not being overly intrusive to our audience.

For example, while we know how many users click on or share each of the 475+ events on our High Holidays map, it’s hard for us to know (short of anecdotal responses) whether users actually attended the events they found, and whether they actually did so because they found them on our map. Of course, we could make them create a profile, or login to use the map so that we can better track their activity, but we know that this puts up a barrier to using the map. In the end, the whole point is to make these opportunities transparent. We hope to learn more from our experiences with the map and feedback from users about how to continue to navigate this balance in the future.

Joelle Asaro Berman is the Communications Manager at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. She is fascinated by data and design, loves delicious food, and can’t wait to celebrate the Jewish New Year next week.

Debra Askanase has 20 years of experience working in nonprofit organizations, from Community Organizer to Executive Director. She is the founder and lead consultant at Community Organizer 2.0, a social media strategy firm for nonprofit organizations and businesses. She blogs about the intersection of social media, nonprofits, and technology at and regularly provides advice and commentary to our eJewish Philanthropy community.