by Rafi Samuels-Schwartz
Perhaps the single most prevalent misunderstanding to come out over thirteen years of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips is the idea that there is a single “Birthright alumni” profile in which all the nearly 300,000 participants nicely fit. In 2012, past-participants of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips are, in some cases, approaching their upper 30’s, live in every state, and occupy a wide spectrum of religious practices, demographic categories, and economic strata. The successes of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip are due, in part, to the Trip’s capacity to offer meaning and personal relevance to this wildly mixed multitude of participants. Unfortunately, these participants are oftentimes lumped into a single category – “Alumni” – the moment they return home exhausted and electrified from their 10 day experience. While this may be a convenient classification, it’s not necessarily an accurate one. We must ask ourselves: What is a Taglit-Birthright Israel participant? What does this participant look like? Do they look like that everywhere?
With these questions in mind, I recently participated in an eye-opening exercise at NEXT’s Southeast Regional NEXTWork convening. Entitled “Who Do We Serve?,” this workshop encouraged the room of young-adult program professionals from a number of different organizations – many of which often have overlapping, but decidedly non-identical, audiences – to name the attributes, hobbies, interests, and characteristics of the audiences they serve. What emerged was a patchwork “profile,” oftentimes incomplete and even contradictory, of a “typical” Young Jewish adult in the Southeast United States.
As Northeast Regional Director of NEXT, I focus on opportunities and communities decidedly above the Mason-Dixon line. And so, I was fascinated to hear how this room full of Jewish professionals from across Georgia saw the people they were aiming to serve. Some of it seemed universal; a returning trip participant in Hoboken craves the same authenticity in their Jewish life as one in Makon, GA. Other times, attributes felt distinctly regional; the centrality of multi-generational family roots in Georgia would likely be out of place in the oftentimes hyper-transient Northeast.
Ultimately, the importance of the exercise seemed less to do with the eventual “profile” that emerged. Instead, it seemed to have more to do with creating a space and opportunity for those present to balance their assumptions about the Young Adult population they serve against those of their fellow professionals. Because, as it turned out (unsurprisingly, in hindsight) there was no single “profile” to define. Rather, the room was left considering the things that made their participants and their communities different. And, more importantly – similar.
All too often, it seems, in their eagerness to get out and do something, organizations leapfrog over the important process of honing in on the “who” for which that something is intended. Consider it – Has your organization taken the time recently to ask itself “who do we serve?” If so, how has your organization changed as a result of that question? If not, perhaps it’s time to clearly define, or redefine, your audience. Are they who you think they are? Have they changed? Has your organization?
I encourage you all to share how you have gone about asking the all-important question of “Who Do We Serve?” at your organizations. After all, without the “who”, the “what” might not matter at all.
Rafi is the Northeast Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Follow him on twitter at @NEXTRafi.