From Birth-right to Birth-responsibility

by Emily Comisar

Of all of the questions that I hear about Taglit-Birthright Israel, one that comes up over and over again is that of how we get trip participants to view their experience as a gift to be paid forward instead of simply a right to which they are entitled. Paying it forward isn’t restricted to donating that $250 deposit back to the organization; it also means feeling a sense of responsibility to the community, to engage in it in whichever way is most meaningful and make it a more welcoming place for a rising generation of young Jewish adults.

Two weeks ago, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (Brandeis University), and NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation convened a group of 25 young professionals to talk about Taglit-Birthright Israel. Being on staff at NEXT, I was of course keenly interested in conversations about how we engage trip returnees once they land back on U.S. soil – emotionally exhausted, intellectually challenged and inevitably glowing.

On the second day of the gathering, as we grappled with that question of entitlement and responsibility, a few important words floated to the surface over and over again:

  1. Word Cloud

    Word cloud from the Birth-right to Birth-responsibility discussion

    Transparency: the need to be clear with participants up front about the goals of the trip.

  2. Reflection: understanding that each participant is on a unique Jewish journey and that Taglit-Birthright Israel will play a different role in each of their lives, that they will unpack what they learn about themselves on the trip in different ways, and that’s OK.
  3. Ownership: decreasing the amount of hand-holding on the trip and giving participants a sense of ownership over the experience.

To be transparent and to create a space for reflection is one thing, but how do we encourage participants to take ownership over an experience that has been planned for them down to the minute by people they have never met?

We can let them facilitate conversations, organize an oneg or lead a text study, but the meat of any sort of ownership experience comes down to this: feeling needed. Instead of asking, how do we get them to donate, how do we get them to invite people, how do we get them in the door, let’s ask: How do we make them feel needed? How do we make them feel necessary?

I know, I know, this is easier said than done. The reality of working in the nonprofit sector is that we report quantitatively. We talk to our funders and stakeholders about how many people we’ve reached. Even if we aren’t experiencing explicit pressure from our senior staff and boards to put butts in seats, we can’t help but put that pressure on ourselves.

But here’s the thing: I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people who get into this line of work didn’t do it because they like sales. We do it because we care about what the Jewish world looks like now and what it will look like 20 years from now. It’s a question of long-term thinking and strategy. The number of people in the door is no doubt a valuable short-term indicator to use alongside qualitative feedback that we’re getting on our work, but the problem with relying on it is that our audiences can see right through it.

It doesn’t take a social researcher to tell us that young Jewish adults (or humans in general) want to be counted as more than simply a butt in a seat or a body in the door.

Let’s stop working so hard to be event planners and start being relationship builders. Maybe we can build a stronger community if, instead of counting heads, we tap into the entire person, figure out which of their talents and skills are necessary to make things happen, and let them know that they are the only ones who can do it.

Emily Comisar is Manager of National Projects for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. This piece  is cross-posted on the Schusterman Networks blog and eJewishPhilanthropy.

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