The Power of DIY Holidays

Cal

By Emily Comisar

In 2011 my team decided to experiment with the incentives model we had been using for NEXT Shabbat, hoping that we could inspire BirthrightIsraelalumni (and their friends by association) to participate in home-based holiday celebrations as well.   Birthright Israel alumni were eligible to host Tu B’shvat Seders, Passover Seders, and Sukkot celebrations and NEXT offered a subsidy of up to $12 per person for up to 16 people at the meal.  For Sukkot, we also offered the option of a $200 subsidy for materials to build a Sukkah.

We weren’t sure how popular the opportunities would be but after a quiet showing for Tu B’Shvat – 48 Seders – the response to Passover blew us away.  Not only did we have to double the size of the program, to allow for 400 instead of Passover Seders, but we found that 54% of those people were new to NEXT and 60% of them had never hosted their own Passover Seder before.  That means that over 200 young Jewish adults took the step from participant in a Jewish experience to owner of a Jewish experience.

Now that we were certain there was a substantial amount of genuine interest in holiday celebrations, we tweaked the incentives model for Sukkot, offering two separate ways that a Birthright Israel alumnus could participate: hosting a meal for a per person payment rate or building a Sukkah for payment based on actual expenses.

Sukkot has been our most popular holiday to date; the first 150 slots were taken in less than two hours.  By the time we closed registration a few days before Sukkot, around 300 people had been registered. What happened next, however, was entirely unexpected.

What we see every week with the NEXT Shabbat program was echoed in the Tu B’Shvat and Passover micro-grants of 2011; not everyone who signs up follows through.  Typically the drop off is somewhere around 30%.  That rate for Sukkot was nearly double, with 60% of Sukkah building registrants not reporting back to us for the funds.

Although we have used incentives to ignite interest, we’re still figuring out how to get past the next barrier to participation.  What this process has shown us is that maybe money is not the entire answer and cost is not always the barrier.   Anecdotally, we hear that things like, weather, illness, apartment size, and school and work schedules get in the way.  So, the question remains, what’s the next step to surmount that logistics barrier?

 

 Emily Comisar is the Manager of National Projects at NEXT.

Pesach: Central, Pivotal, Crucial.

by Yoni Sarason

Happy Summer in March!

Weather aside, the Jewish calendar let’s us know Spring has arrived through the celebration of Pesach/Passover. The holiday, which is filled with symbols of rebirth (eggs, parsley, etc.) is also host to what has been called the central narrative of the Jewish people; the Exodus from Egypt. In retelling the story every year of our journey from slavery to liberation, we recommit ourselves to both memory and to working towards a world in which we are all free from physical or mental bondage.

So that you don’t have to search, I’ve distilled what I believe to be the most interesting things about the Pesach holiday and story into a few ideas:

1. Compassion is the basis great leadership. Much like Harry Potter, being saved from a certain death by his mother’s compassion, Moses’ life is saved by three women; his mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. We are taught that this compassion, conferred upon Moses early in his life, allowed him to hear the suffering of the Israelites and be motivated to act on their behalf.

2. We must understand inequality and actively work to counter it. The first actions we read about Moses taking are quick and occur in rapid succession. First, he leaves the palace, second, he sees an Israelite being struck by an Egyptian and kills the Egyptian. Next, he sees to Israelites fighting and intervenes, they call him out on killing the Egyptian and he flees Egypt. Finally, he sees women being accosted as they try to tend to their flock and defends them. We learn that these actions represent an ideal of behavior. First we must make a conscious decision to understand the injustices of the world, as Moses does by leaving his cushy life in the palace. Once we have seen injustice, it is our duty to act against it, as Moses does with the Egyptian taskmaster, the arguing slaves, and the women at the well. It is this willingness to ask, combined with Moses’ humility that we understand to be the reason he is chosen to lead the Jewish people from Egypt.

3. We cannot progress when we are narrow-minded. Speaking of Egypt, or Mitzrayim, as it is known in Hebrew, is an interesting word. The literal translation of Mitzrayim is ‘from the narrow places’. We can understand this as a metaphor for the creation of the Jewish people, where the narrow places are the womb, and the exodus is the process of birthing. Alternatively, it is taught that the narrow places represent a non-expansive world view. When we are narrow in our thinking, we do not create to our full potential. Only through an exodus from this perspective to expansive thinking can we truly see the world and identify our purpose within it.

4. Memory is powerful. We are specifically commanded to remember the exodus from Egypt, and the seder itself is a highly ritualized reenactment of our journey from bondage to freedom, replete with foods, songs, stages,and stories to carry us from point to point. In envisioning ourselves as freed slaves, we may better empathize with those still not liberated.  Further, in helping our peers and children to live this ritual, we ensure the continuity of these ideas and work towards a more just world.

May your Passover help you to ask important questions and find more gratitude and meaning.

Chag Sameach!

Yoni Sarason is the Midwest Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation

Image by RonAlmog, licensed under Creative Commons.

Tapping the Network

by Jordan Cohen

The gift of Birthright has left me with many wonderful memories, but my experience was more than just a trip to Israel.  It has led me to meet the people and find the organizations that would change my own involvement in the Jewish world and provided me with opportunities and connections throughout the Atlanta Jewish Community, opening doors for me to build networks within my own profession.

Shortly after my trip to Israel, I began my second year of my Master’s program.  I am currently finishing my graduate studies at Emory University in the Rollins School of Public Health and have continuously looked for ways to connect my passion for public health with my love for my community.  When the semester began, so too began a new student organization, the Jewish Students of Public Health.  Formed by classmates and friends of mine, the JSPH was the means by which we could bridge the Jewish Community with public health.  We met with Bennie Cohen* to discuss current initiatives within the community and how they could fit in with our ideals and goals as an organization.  When he told us about the Atlanta Jewish Gene Screen, I knew right away that this was the kind of connection we were hoping for.

The AJGS is a genetic screening initiative that was started by Randy Gold and his family to raise awareness about the importance of genetic testing.  I began volunteering with the AJGS during their first year of existence and have attended many events in and around the Atlanta community.  AJGS is constantly finding ways to involve the entire community, whether hosting a fashion show at the Georgia Aquarium or hosting a party for Purim.  The mission of the AJGS is to encourage young Jewish couples to get tested for the 19 known genetic diseases that affect the Ashkenazi population.  Many of these diseases are preventable and our goal is to prevent children from being born with any of these diseases.  When the initiative was first started, it cost thousands of dollars to get tested, but because of the effort of the Gold family and those working with the AJGS, it currently costs a mere $25 out of pocket.  Today, because of my involvement and because of the connections I’ve made through Bennie, I am still engaged in activities with the AJGS and have made many more connections within the Jewish community.

I am confident that no matter where I go or what I decide to do, I will still have the connections I have made through my experiences with Birthright and the AJGS.  By incorporating my passion for public health into the Jewish community as a whole, I will be able to use the networks I’ve created to my advantage in the next stages of my life.

*Bennie Cohen is the Southeast Regional Director for NEXT: a Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

Image by RambergMediaImages, licensed under Creative Commons.

Creating a Community of Peers

By Yoni Sarason

This post originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy.  Re-posted with permission.

I want to thank Joel Frankel, whose recent article, Can Birthright Israel Alone Reverse Young Adults’ Declining Support of Local Jewish Communities?, has reignited the conversation around Taglit-Birthright Israel, follow up, and local models of engagement. When I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, I didn’t feel that I had an outlet or a source for the type of Jewish community or relationships I wanted to be a part of, but I knew it was important to me.

Co-founding the St. Louis Moishe House, and later Next Dor STL gave me an opportunity to start building those relationships, hosting Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and creating experiences that were meaningful to me, and to the friends and community I found. Not everyone graduates college with the same background or spark to seek or create Jewish community and by that point, it often takes a major event to change a person’s course.

For many Jewish young adults, ten days in Israel on a Birthright trip is a monumental experience, but turning that spark of curiosity, interest, and emergent identity into behavior on day eleven and beyond is a process.

As in a garden, we cannot water the flowers once and expect them to flourish. (In fact, Jonah may be instructive in this area). Although studies (Saxe, 2009) have found a large impact of Birthright trips on participants, the Birthright trip is not a stand alone event, which guarantees future community involvement. Nor should it be.

Many of my young adult peers find ourselves in a position similar to the son who doesn’t know how to ask from the story of Passover. Many of us were not raised with meaningful Jewish education or the tools to pursue or articulate our interests or needs Jewishly. For these participants, Birthright can begin to situate Jewish history, philosophy, religion, and identity within a framework that allows real engagement and pursuit. It is from this strengthening of identity that a sense of community can emerge, but it isn’t a given. It requires additional inputs, an understanding of each individual as such, with unique interests and passions, and an ability to connect them to the opportunities in their local community which can take them further on the journey that Birthright might have sparked. So many Birthright participants return to find that they either have no idea how to connect to local opportunities or that the available local opportunities don’t interest them, and that they do not feel empowered to create their own solutions.

Through my direct programming and engagement work at Moishe House and Next Dor, I met a large number of young adults, many of whom had been on Birthright trips, but it wasn’t until I started working with the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, in the very role now occupied by Joel Frankel, that I started working exclusively with this group. Joel is correct that many participants ask about ways to get back for free, but the single largest thing they express interest in is meeting a Jewish peer group and feeling connected to a sense of community (and getting jobs, but that is another article, entirely). This is often where initiatives like J’Burgh in Pittsburgh, Access in Cincinnati, and JCle in Cleveland have started making inroads, creating gathering points for young adults around which such community can begin to coalesce. One of the greatest benefits of working part-time in Birthright follow up/concierge and part-time in young adult community building was that the two roles fit symbiotically. Community builders have a problem of identification.

That is to say, we have to identify potential community members and understand their interests and potential role in the community. Without being able to identify a critical mass of potential community members, the endeavor never gets off the ground, or gets stale from lack of new blood and ideas. This is incredibly difficult in the Jewish young adult world, where we often don’t know someone is Jewish until they self-identify, or are referred or introduced. This is even more difficult when those who do self-identify are very hesitant to self-involve. Concierges have the challenge of connecting people to opportunities and content that they don’t themselves create. They are only as effective as the opportunities which exist and they have identified in their vicinity. Therefore, the community builder/content provider and the Birthright follow up/concierge positions provide almost perfect symbiosis to each other. I learned how meaningful engagement can reinvigorate a community when the right pieces come together, and believe that each community should have this opportunity. This is what is so intriguing about the opportunity now presented by NEXT to scale this model nationally and why I took the position as Midwest Regional Director last July.

NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation has been working with Birthright participants and local partners for several years to build on the experience and identity fostered by the trip.

NEXT is focused on working in partnership with local and national organizations to bring our knowledge of and experience with past participants to communities across the country. Effectively, we take the know-how of both the community builder/content provider and the Birthright follow up/concierge positions and work at the community level to provide this knowledge in a manner that is tailored to each unique locale.

We do this across three target areas:

  1. Seed and empower communities of young adults to create more frequent and meaningful Jewish connections and experiences
  2. Engage and partner with Jewish communal organizations to become more open, welcoming, and natural spaces for young adult involvement
  3. Bring closer together and eventually bridge individuals and organizations by helping participants understand the community organizations, their contexts, and the people behind them.

By simultaneously providing resources to empower participants, like grants to host Shabbat and holiday meals, in a Do-It-Yourself model of community creation, as well as working directly with engagement professionals and community organizations, we aim to bring closer together the mutually disconnected parties. At the same time, we are bringing professionals focused on engaging this demographic together to share and learn from each other.

Our NEXT professional network has included professionals from CommunityNEXT, Tribe12, Next Dor STL and others.

On the local level, in St. Louis, for example, this meant helping Joel to organize a pre-trip orientation, held at Next Dor. Most attendees were on break from University and had never heard of Moishe House or Next Dor. This community orientation allowed the participants to put faces to the trip, to learn about the role of the Israeli government, Jewish Federations, and philanthropists who pay for it, and what opportunities for a community of peers exist after they return. This process creates a more tightly knit tapestry and framework in which participants can place the trip, and facilitates post-trip conversations and engagement.

In communities like Milwaukee, which are committed to reinvigorating the Jewish community by retaining and engaging more young adults, it means working deeply with the community to get a sense of needs and how to most effectively build capacity, be it through training of the young adult programmer, seeding grass-roots Shabbat dinners, or leveraging the community shlichim.

I’ve seen the potential for a few passionate people to make a difference in their local communities, and know that NEXT can be a conduit to facilitate this work.

With their appetites whetted, young adults are searching for vibrant and diverse communities in which they can both play and learn (and sometimes work). NEXT is committed to helping participants having their needs heard, and helping communities respond to those needs in order to create the ascension of more vibrant, representative, and meaningful Jewish communities for all of us. So whether you went on a Birthright trip and have struggled to recreate that sense of community and connection, or you are working to build exactly such a community for young adults in your city, please be in touch and let’s work together to build the future we want to live in.

Yoni Sarason is Midwest Regional Director NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.
Yoni.sarason@birthrightisraelnext.org

Image by aaronparecki, licensed under Creative Commons.

 

What’s Your EQ? Self-Awareness

 

By Heather Wolfson

IQ isn’t the only way to measure your smarts. Take your EQ, your emotional intelligence, for instance.  Emotional intelligence refers to five areas within an individual:  self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.  Each of these characteristics helps to shape you as a leader and it engenders more effective interpersonal communication. This is vital in developing meaningful professional relationships and can position you best to engage young adults in your community.  Having high emotional intelligence will position you as a stronger communicator with the ability to do more successful outreach and engagement.  Over the course of several blog posts, I am going to break down each of these five areas.

One very important characteristic of someone who has high EQ is self-awareness.  Self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognize and understand your moods and emotions, as well as their effect on others.  Those with high self-awareness are self-confident, have a realistic self-assessment, and may even have a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Is this you?  In my years of serving both as a lay leader and a professional in the Jewish community, I’ve found that self-awareness is key to being a strong leader and manager.  Even the most deliberate people with high emotional intelligence can forget to examine the efficacy of their leadership from time to time.

At the start of the New Year, I made a commitment to myself to spend a bit more time reflecting on me and becoming more self-aware.

Self-awareness is also about being responsible for your own well-being. Checking-in with your emotions gives you greater perspective, makes you more receptive and empathetic in relationships, and can be grounding, especially in the face of stressors.

Here are some of the questions I have been pondering in my own quest to be more self-aware

  • When under pressure, how do I feel?  What do I do to cope with this pressure?
  • How can I work to balance my professional, volunteer and personal life?  When is it appropriate to say “no” to requests?  When do I need to step up and step back?
  • How do my actions impact other people?  What can I do to ensure that what I do is in the best interest of everyone?
  • What do I question?  Why do I question?  How can I question in a productive way?
  • What are my weak points?  What are my strengths?
  • I am happiest when…
  • I am fulfilled when…

I encourage you to find some time during your day, be it even on the commute into your office or at the end of your day with a glass of wine, to think a bit about yourself.  The more self-aware you are, the stronger a leader you will be and the more productive a team you will lead.

Until next time…happy thinking!

 

Heather Wolfson is the Western Regional Director at NEXT.

Photo by tj scenes, licensed under Creative Commons.