By Gavriel Horan
After this summer, over 500,000 young Jews from around the world will have participated in Birthright over the past 15 years. Although Birthright successfully increases Jewish identity and pride, only a small percentage of the 43,000 participants each year actually continue to become more connected to Judaism or Israel after the initial excitement of their trip fades. Across the board, providers struggle to sustain alumni engagement in Jewish life post Birthright and according to a 2009 Brandeis University study, follow-up efforts were only able to engage 4% of participants in 5 or more Jewish programs after their trip. To date, Jewish organizations have searched for a viable follow-up plan, but nothing truly impactful and scalable has been achieved to leverage the estimated $1.5 billion already spent on Birthright.
A recent groundbreaking partnership of a dozen international Jewish organizations from across the spectrum, however, may have changed the game. The key ingredient – according to program organizer, Rabbi David Markowitz, Chief Operating Officer of Bring Israel Home, a project of Aish NY – is Jewish unity.
On a recent weekend, the Bring Israel Home program brought together these high impact Jewish organizations with 11 Birthright groups, including 65 Israeli participants, to prove that effective Birthright follow-up is possible. Located in Camp Lavi in eastern Pennsylvania, the alumni and Israelis came to experience the reunion of a lifetime with their Birthright groups that included paintball, swimming, canoeing, a bungee trampoline and assorted sports, as well as lavish Shabbat meals, under the stars singing, a pre-Shabbat and havdallah concert featuring the Pey Dalid band, and a midnight barbeque complete with fireworks over the lake. Most importantly however, were the round-robin informational sessions with 10 follow-up organizations in the U.S. and Israel including Masa Israel Journey, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Our Soldiers Speak, OneTable, Hasbara Fellowships and The Alumni Community. Each organization presented their core opportunities and gave participants a chance to sign up for more information. 96% of participants signed up for upcoming programs such as Masa Israel’s semester abroad or JNF community service internships in Israel. No previous efforts have come anywhere near these results.
“Bring Israel Home is revolutionizing Birthright follow-up,” Jessica Bernstein-Danino, the interim North American Director of Masa Israel, said. “We’re so happy to partner with an organization that is doing an amazing job at keeping young Jewish adults involved in the Jewish community and we hope many of these participants will stay engaged and will return to Israel on an addition program in the near future.”
The reunion was all a part of the innovative Bring Israel Home program, developed by Aish NY through a breakthrough partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Orthodox Union (OU) and others. Over the past three years, Bring Israel Home has successfully engaged over 3,500 participants in meaningful Jewish experiences after Birthright. Bring Israel Home’s 100 Point Challenge engages returning Birthrighters to partake in a certain amount of Jewish activities in the three months following their trip. Participants can choose from a list of activities covering Jewish education, Israel activism and Shabbat and holiday observance. Buses with 75% successful completion win a mega-reunion with the Israeli participants from their trip flown in for the occasion. To date, over 24,000 Jewish activities have been completed including 4,328 Shabbat celebrations and 7,398 pro-Israel activities.
“By combining Jewish education, Israel advocacy, and action seamlessly into an online platform that spans countries and time zones, IDF service and college classes, Bring Israel Home is taking important and significant steps to more strongly link Jews around the world and build a more unified Jewish People,” Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, Director of the Leadership Institute (URJ Strengthening Congregations team), said. “It’s the only program that I know of that really engages Birthright participants immediately after their return so we catch them when they’re really excited about Israel and their Jewish journey. The 100 Point Challenge empowers participants to create their own journey – making it that much more successful and more long-lasting. I think the percentage who will continue on a Jewish journey and stay connected to Israel is very high.”
“It’s a groundbreaking opportunity, Daniel Klein, Area Director, Israel Advocacy and Education at Jewish National Fund, said. “Through Bring Israel Home we were able to extend Birthright for an extra 3-6 months with a lot of engagement and cap it off with this incredible weekend. I can’t believe we haven’t been doing something like this since the beginning of Birthright.”
Klein explained that after a similar JNF presentation on a college campus they may get 1-2 sign-ups and a few others who express interest in receiving information sometime in the future. During the retreat alone, however, JNF had over 50 participants sign up. “You can’t even put the value into words,” he said.
According to Klein, the message of the weekend was the power of Jewish unity. “The only way we can succeed is by uniting diverse Jewish organizations together in this way. Together we are unbeatable.”