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.