Leading By Choice

by Morlie Levin

Although I read Martin Levine’s meaty piece last week while on vacation, many of his insights stayed in my mind. One phrase in particular kept reverberating: “Leadership is about facing … choices head on … [and] the first step … must be a willingness to look at our reality clearly.” At NEXT: a Division of Birthright Israel Foundation we have emerged from a period of deep reflection, looking at our reality clearly. And we came to focus on that which the community at large is already experiencing: it’s the numbers.

Think about this for a minute. Almost 200,000 20-somethings who live in the U.S. have ALREADY been on a Birthright trip. Tens of thousands more will go this year, and every year going forward. Each has a story to tell. Each is touched, challenged, excited, and provoked in a unique way. Each comes back with a deeper, personal conception of their connection to Israel and the Jewish people. And no “one” path forward will satisfy the myriad longings of this large (and ever-growing) group.

Many of the trip participants are interested in what happens next – after they return home. What opportunities exist to pursue their newly ignited interests. Our challenge as a collective is to find ways to help these young Jewish adults view themselves as participants in – and creators of – their local Jewish communal experiences. Because this also is true: not only will their presence infuse emerging, grassroots, and mainstream Jewish organizations with energy, their numbers will help sustain them.

The issue then is how do we do open up opportunities for those interested in exploring deeper Jewish living and learning opportunities in their home communities? And here, we can identify another important reality: no single organization, including NEXT itself, can do this alone. We need to take partnering seriously, to work in partnership with organizations, professionals, and participants. It is these partnerships that will bring together, and eventually bridge, individuals and organizations. The role that NEXT can best play is to ignite and illuminate the myriad pathways, based in part on what we have already learned. Central to this role is meticulous data tracking of alumni interests and behavior. We layer technology with anecdotal stories, capturing and uncovering trends that will be widely shared. Importantly, we’ll also use this information to incubate and in some cases help seed the most promising activities.

We already know, for example, that those who return with a desire to explore Jewish experiences often seek to do it in a circle of friends. Igniting small and welcoming settings, and providing the resources for ever-deepening interactions and experiences works. NEXT designed “Do It Yourself” (DIY) experiential opportunities to give participants the room and independence to try out new experiences in safe spaces, and with their peers. The most well-known of these programs, NEXT Shabbat, was initially conceived as a meal subsidy to lower the barrier of “entry” to experiencing Shabbat. Again, the numbers astound. Since 2008, almost 7,500 trip participants have hosted Shabbat meals, some more than once, totaling more than 14,000 meals! These meals have taken place in more than 800 cities across America, from Juneau, Alaska to Cuba, New Mexico.

Participants have been vocal in asking for more. No, not more money. In fact the subsidy for the program has dropped by close to 50% since its inception, with no diminution in the numbers requesting the micro-grants. So here again was another opportunity to look at our reality, clearly. “More,” it turns out, meant more resources to help craft their own (deeper) experiences, and (importantly) more opportunities to take action. And that interest in taking action extends beyond bringing Jewish learning into holiday celebrations. It extends to the realm of volunteerism, of communal activities, and even of emerging professional opportunities.

As we peered even deeper we discovered another enduring truth: resources also mean people. Participants don’t only want to learn from materials; they want to learn from mentors, peer-engagers who already know more or seek to learn more. And here, we as a community need to look very clearly at a stark reality: our young professionals are hungry themselves for more. More knowledge, more esteem, more networking, more professional development, more shared resources, more professional pathways. And they deserve it. So we will also be working to craft professional opportunities for Young Adult Engagers to come together and learn from both experts and one another. Through this effort and others we intend to help catalyze growth in the field of young Jewish engagement, across disparate organizations.

And so we emerge with a clearer understanding of our reality. We continue to learn from thousands of inspired young adults, expand our partnerships, share our knowledge, and strengthen the foundation for engagers in the field. And we embrace another, even more profound, truth: that finding community may also mean creating community – for both participants and professionals.

Morlie Levin is CEO of NEXT: a division of Birthright Israel Foundation.