Strange Bedfellows

Aish HaTorah NY and the Union for Reform Judaism Find Common Ground with Bring Israel Home

By Naomi Abelson and Rabbi David Markowitz

We’ve heard the story before: a young woman goes on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip and returns home with fun stories and an iPhone full of pictures. She also returns home energized and enthusiastic about the new friends she’s made and the knowledge she’s gained about Judaism and Israel. She’s questioning how Judaism fits into her life, looking for ways to explore her new found interest in Israeli culture, society and politics, and wondering how to access Jewish experiences at home. Yet upon return, she – like many of her peers – is not sure where to turn. Eventually, the flame dies out and her Jewish journey stalls.

But what if we could capture that enthusiasm before she returns to her daily grind? Bring Israel Home, launched by Aish HaTorah NY in 2012, extends the Birthright bus community beyond the 10-day experience and provides a framework for individuals to continue exploring Judaism and Israel after the trip.

Within a month of their return from Israel, alumni are invited to partake in a four-week series of online challenges, which are designed to deepen their connections to Israel, Judaism, Jewish heritage and one another. Challenges include: voting in mock Israeli elections, writing about their families’ Jewish history, and lighting Shabbat candles. Points for completing challenges contribute to participants’ “bus teams,” which compete against other Taglit-Birthright Israel buses for the grand prize: a free reunion weekend in North America for the entire bus, including the eight Israeli mifgash participants.

The first Bring Israel Home pilot was with partners at OU-Israel Free Spirit, which provides Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. “We didn’t know if it would work, but we knew that we had to try and tackle the issue of how to inspire thousands of Birthright returnees,” said Aish NY Executive Director Rabbi Yitz Greenman.

Seeing the positive impact on pilot participants, they sought new partners with whom to expand their efforts and reach more alumni. Birthright NEXT Managing Director Liz Fisher suggested they approach the Union for Reform Judaism’s Kesher team, who (as another Taglit-Birthright Israel trip provider) had recently begun a re-visioning process of engaging their Birthright Israel participants upon their return.

Aish HaTorah and the Reform Movement? At first this seemed an unlikely partnership. And it was.

The introductory meeting began as you’d imagine: professional courtesy mixed with a healthy dose of reservation. But over the course of the meeting, it was clear to both parties that this program offered a fantastic opportunity to form a boundary-crossing partnership. Aish staff realized that the URJ engaged thousands of participants each year through Taglit-Birthright Israel and URJ staff realized that Bring Israel Home complimented their expanding alumni engagement strategy. The only question: could two organizations from opposite ends of the Jewish communal spectrum work together to pull it off?

The URJ and Aish HaTorah leadership responded with a resounding ‘Yes!’ “We started from a place of common interests: our love of Israel; our dedication to engaging young adults in Jewish life; and our belief in one Jewish people – am Yisrael,” said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

After consultation with our respective stakeholders, a trial run was established: two URJ Kesher Bring Israel Home pilot cohorts in Summer 2013, serving 17 URJ Kesher buses and 765 participants. Staff from Aish and URJ worked together to enhance the challenges and user experiences of Taglit-Birthright Israel participants. By creating opportunities for ongoing connection to the Jewish community and Israel following the Israel experience, Aish and URJ staff represented the values and goals of both organizations.

Based on a recent study commissioned by Birthright NEXT, 91% of respondents said that the Bring Israel Home reunion with the Israeli mifgash participants was a great motivator and 81% participated in most of the Bring Israel Home challenges. One participant commented, “Bring Israel Home allowed me to integrate Jewish activities into my actual life.” Survey respondents also expressed almost twice as strong a connection to Jewish communal life than general Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni.

In a time of great challenge for the Jewish people, a partnership like this paves the way for us to work together as one united by our commonalities.

Naomi Abelson recently served as the Union for Reform Judaism’s Associate Director of Young Adult Engagement and now serves as the Director of Programs and TOV Center for Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Rabbi David Markowitz serves as the Chief Operating Officer for Aish HaTorah NY.