The Next “Big Idea”?

by Dr. Jonathan Mirvis

Taglit (Birthright) has been a remarkable achievement for Jewish education. This year over 50,000 college students will be participating in Taglit trips and for many of these young adults, this will be their pivotal Jewish education experience. Among the 300,000 graduates of Taglit, there are many whose Jewish identity has been strengthened substantially.

In analyzing the success of Taglit there are four important lessons to be learned:

  1. Free educational experiences are extremely attractive. The two programs in the last decade which have achieved major market penetration in virgin markets are Taglit and PJ Library; both programs are offered almost gratis to the participants.
  2. The “facebook generation” en masse enjoys and appreciates face to face social educational experiences. While the bait of Taglit is a free trip, today the secret is out – the trip to Israel has a strong educational agenda and students are continuing to vie for spots.
  3. It is possible to grow an organization and simultaneously strengthen the current “players” in the field. Taglit developed a unique “franch-own” system, a system in which the mother organization controls the finances similar to a company owned system and operates programs via affiliates similar to a franchise system. In this manner, Taglit has strengthened the organizers and tour agencies that operate the trips on their behalf.
  4. It is possible to raise major funds for short high impact programs that aspire to attract major market share.

Taglit’s success begs the following question: is it possible to replicate this success with another age group in a different setting?

In discussing this idea with my student and colleague, Rabbi Carnie Rose of St Louis, we came up with the following “big idea”.

The overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jewish teens in North America have no significant Jewish educational experience from Bar/Bat mitzvah age through to Taglit. While there are those who attend Jewish Day Schools, summer camps, supplementary high schools and youth movements, the majority of teens do not participate in any of these important educational offerings.

It is a well known among educators that long weekend retreats have a high impact potential. They provide an opportunity for teens to enjoy an intensive Jewish educational experience with their peers in a fully Jewish setting. By creating islands of Jewish space and Jewish time as a platform for a fun-filled experience, we could contribute to the identity formation process that the teens are undergoing at this crucial stage in their lives. In offering these teen retreats gratis, it is possible to re-engage tens of thousands of teens annually who are otherwise “lost” to the organized Jewish Community. For the multitudes of Jewish youth who attend public schools and whose connections with fellow Jews and Judaism are scant, this could be a life changing experience.

Similar to Taglit we could operate the retreats along a set of defined guidelines, using existing vendors (i.e. Jewish camps, youth movements, synagogues and schools) without having to create a new infrastructure. These organizations would be challenged to not only organize the retreat but also devise follow up programs to ensure that this educational experience is not simply a “one off”.

In locating the retreats locally, travel costs should prove to be minimal and thus the cost of the retreat per participant should not prove to be exorbitant.

Using Taglit as the paradigm, this is certainly doable!

Dr. Jonathan Mirvis is a senior lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and the outgoing International Director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini School.