Missions to Israel: Old-School Strategy in a New Age World

by Jacob Solomon

Today, Monday, April 23, a chartered El Al 747 from Miami will land at an Israel Air Force base in the Negev, marking the start of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s first Mega Mission to Israel since the mid ‘90’s and the largest community mission to Israel in over a decade. Altogether, including a group of 140 who traveled via Poland to participate in the International March of the Living, a total of more than 700 will travel the Land together for nine days, experiencing the shared collective grief of Yom Hazikaron and its transition to national euphoric celebration for Yom Ha’atzmaut. We will do site visits at the programs we fund; we will engage with Israelis; we will build community; and – yes – we will raise funds to advance Jewish life, meeting Jewish needs and securing a Jewish future.

The composition of the participants on this mission reflects the ethnic, geographic and demographic diversity of Miami’s Jewish community. More than 120 are under the age of 40, and a large contingent is originally from Latin America. Participants range in age from 22 to 88 years, and include several Holocaust survivors. Some are relative newcomers to our Federation, and some have been involved their entire lives. We are particularly delighted that more than 20 percent of our participants have chosen this mission for their first visit to Israel.

As people hear about the mission, the question often arises: Why now? Since the recession, so many nonprofits – Jewish and not – have developed a mindset that if we can only do as well as last year, it is a success. Given the extraordinary impact of the downturn, that attitude is more than understandable. But in response, over two years ago, our Federation decided to push back against that impulse and to make an important statement about our confidence in the future of the community. We made a substantial investment of human and financial resources to prove something … to ourselves and to others: to prove the continued capacity of the Federation model to connect with and inspire new and diverse segments of the community; to prove the continued attraction of the State of Israel to Jews of all ages, backgrounds and levels of religious observance; and to prove that our people continue to be willing and hungry to connect with community around a common purpose … a common mission.

In short, our goal was nothing less than to engage and inspire a new generation of leaders for Miami’s Jewish community.

As we have seen on previous missions to Israel – including Miami’s own Mega Missions in the 1990’s – there are few experiences that can match the short term and lasting impact of an intensive mission to Israel. To be sure, the financial return on investment can be great. For example, last year’s National Young Leadership Mission from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) found that the size of participants’ gifts increased by 66 percent over previous gifts. Similarly, National Women’s Philanthropy’s Heart to Heart Mission saw a 100 percent increase from many participants – including four new Lions of Judah from New York, who went from gifts of $0 to $6,000 in one trip. Every community has its own success stories and statistics on fundraising results. No less important, however, is the phenomenal impact a mission can have on the Jewish identity and practice of its participants, on the level of engagement in community that follows and on the development and motivation of new leadership for the community going forward.

To promote the Mega Mission and give direction to our recruitment efforts, we used a combination of proven, high-touch outreach strategies: early buy-in from local rabbis and agency leadership; recruitment of a diverse and representative group of bus captains; parlor meetings and large community gatherings. While that is all good, if you want to reach a new generation of leaders, you need to talk to them where they live: online. Even before the Mission, Miami already enjoyed great success with the use of social media. We had more than 9,200 followers on Facebook through our page, profiles and groups, and another 5,000 followers on Twitter. The Community Post®, our trademarked digital Jewish newspaper that was created in partnership with JFNA, has more than 200 local Jewish organizations and individuals posting their own news and events to the site.

To create a climate for Mega Mission recruitment in the marketplace and to handle registration and communications with prospects and participants, we built upon that web presence, adding purpose specific pages, materials and applications. Our organizational website, JewishMiami.org, promoted the mission through stories and banners, and we sent out a significant number of general and market segmented email blasts. (To see examples of our promotional efforts, click here.) We also created a website, MiamiMegaMissionLive.org, where people will follow the mission online, view and post photos from the trip, and join in the conversation.

Throughout the planning and implementation of the mission, no one has been a greater partner than JFNA, which played an invaluable consultative role, helping with itineraries, speakers, logistical support, security, promotion and more. Of particular importance to us was that Israelis would know about the mission and feel the love and support behind it. JFNA was particular helpful in getting the message out to our Israeli brothers and sisters. This is a great example of the value added by being part of a vital national system with an effective organization at its head.

Jewish Federations: old-school or innovators? If you ask the average Jew what he or she thinks about the Jewish Federation – especially one weaned on the cultural norms being established by exciting new players like PresenTense, ROI Community, Slingshot, Bikkurim, et al. – the answer may very well be the former. Indeed, we plead guilty to holding fast to the traditional values and responsibilities that Jews have embraced for millennia.

But, while we remain steadfastly committed to our mission and the traditional role we play as central organizations at the core of voluntary Jewish communities, many Federations – the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, among them – are also energized by innovation, embracing risk and adapting our strategies and toolkits to include cutting-edge technology and experimental initiatives. And, at our best, we are able to succeed across generations and at a scale that has the potential both to unify an increasingly fractious community and to have a significant impact in our efforts to improve the world.

Jacob Solomon is President and CEO, Greater Miami Jewish Federation.