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.

Put On Your Shoes

by Liz Fisher

Liz Fisher and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Liz Fisher studies with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

As parents of school age kids, we’ve mostly made the shift from being woken up to waking the kids up. But waking the kids up each morning is only part of the job. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that the four most common words I say every morning are “put your shoes on”. My kids aren’t so hard to wake up, and they pretty much get through the eating breakfast, brushing teeth routine on their own, but the shoes? Every single morning. “Put. Your. Shoes. On”. Over and over and over again.

This weekend is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and there is a cool campaign amongst a group of rabbis and others to get the #Torah hashtag to the top of the most popular list. So there has been a lot of tweeting Torah today, and I am enjoying the 140 character at a time learning.

This morning, Rabbi Sari Laufer (@RabbiLaufer) tweeted: “Midrash: The night before receiving the #Torah, the children of Israel slept all of that night,& Moshe had to rouse them to receive #Torah.”

I’ve been thinking about that rousing, what it meant at Sinai and what it means in our generation. Yesterday I had the extraordinary privilege of learning with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. At one point, he was asked about the generation gap. His response: for hundreds of generations, from Sinai to today, parents have had to teach their children that this (Torah, community, Judaism) is relevant and meaningful.

For hundreds of generations, we have had to wake our kids up. Yesterday’s learning was part of a conversation convened by the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, and our team at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. We were there to hear from Birthrighters themselves and their peers – innovators and entrepreneurs throughout the Jewish community who are helping us think about how to think about Birthright, the gift of a free 10 day trip to Israel, and the days, months, and years that follow that trip.

In many ways, for many participants, Birthright Israel is that waking up, the rousing to receive Torah – in the most broad sense of the word. And it does a pretty good job of that.

But Birthright Israel doesn’t make breakfast. It doesn’t remind you to pack your backpack. It doesn’t nag you to put on your shoes. And it doesn’t do what is my ultimate goal with my kids – get you to the point where you do all these things on your own because it just makes sense to you.

That job – the backpacks, the shoes, the understanding of relevance and applicability, that’s up to the rest of us. I’m honored to work with a group of people who think about this everyday. But we can’t think of it alone. Whatever your background, whatever your religion (or lack thereof), it is our role to pass our values on to the next generation. How are we doing that? And what are they passing up to us? And how do we all get to a place where we don’t need to be reminded to put our shoes on?

 

Liz Fisher is the Managing Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Find her on twitter at @Liz_Fisher. The photo of Liz and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg was taken by @TheChaviva.

Who Do We Serve?: From North to South

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.

 

Graphic Notes, Who Do We Serve?

Graphic notes, click to enlarge!

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.

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.