They’re Shown It, But Can They Own It?

[The below essay originally appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, Volume 8 - Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century - What Should We Do Differently? - published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

In the past 13 years, more than 300,000 young Jews – almost 200,000 from the United States alone – have experienced a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. As the website says, “The trip aims to … build an understanding, friendship and lasting bond with the land and people of Israel; and to reinforce the solidarity of the Jewish people worldwide.” It is an apt “operational” definition of Jewish peoplehood.

The words signal the issues of concern that motivated the project in the first place: a lack of knowledge about Jewish history, religion, and tradition; a dearth of personal Jewish experiences, and little (or more often no) exposure to the land and people of Israel and Jews worldwide. These issues are byproducts of longstanding social and cultural trends that have been the fodder for numerous articles about Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people. The 10-day stint in Israel is meant to address those issues by providing a personal encounter with the land and the lore, and perhaps most profoundly, the Jewish people.

The awareness that one is part of something larger, something global and timeless, is what marks the beginning of what we might call peoplehood. But for one to feel a part of a people, one must first recognize themselves within a people. Trip-goers are shown it, but can they own it?

One thing that happens on a Birthright trip – and often for the first time – is the realization that Judaism is more than a religion. Time and again we have seen that realization slowly to sink in. We can almost read the internal dialog:

“I’ve never seen so many Jews in one place before. It makes me feel proud, but I’m also confused. Here, being Jewish seems to mean something different for everyone. How come I feel so comfortable (or uncomfortable)?
I want to know more…”

Those on the trip and those they encounter may define their Jewish identity in ethnic or nationalistic terms, or in different terms altogether. This can be a difficult thing for young Diaspora Jews to grasp, but it can also be a fascinating thing to explore. Judaism is revealed as the complex, living, evolving entity that it is. And in the process of exploring, Birthright participants emerge with more questions than ever about what the Jewish part of them is and how it ultimately will – or should – guide their actions and choices.

Our challenge, then, is not to assign or assume Jewishness, or a sense of peoplehood. Our job is to help these young Jews make sense of their new questions, and understand their Jewishness in the context of all of their other identities. In that process, peoplehood becomes something larger – the result of connecting to something that is at the same time common across people and deeply profound personally.

What can we do to ignite the process of personal discovery? How can we interest young Jewish adults to explore Judaism’s depths and meaning in their own lives? We believe the answer lies in providing opportunities for ownership of Jewish living and learning experiences. This is what peoplehood-building looks like in the 21st century.

At NEXT, we take the spark ignited on a Birthright Israel trip and work with partners to fan it into a fire. We use choice and ownership as our guide, connecting young Jews to myriad events and opportunities that appeal to their individual interests and inclinations. But we are also cognizant of the fact that organized Jewish activities are not for everyone. For some, finding meaning and making community is not a function of attending organized activities run by others but happens rather within a circle of friends, at home.

That insight galvanized NEXT to develop a do-it-yourself approach to holidays, Shabbat, and community-building that enables young Jews to create authentic Jewish experiences on their own terms. We also provide all of the resources and funding necessary to help them along the way. More than 20 young Jews have received support to fund their own community projects through Natan/NEXT Grants for Social Entrepreneurs. Over 6,400 Birthright alumni have hosted 16,000 Shabbat and holiday meals through NEXT Shabbat and Holiday grant programs. With an average of 10 people at the typical Shabbat meal or seder powered by NEXT micro-grants and educational material, we now know that this approach truly resonates with Birthright alums and their peers.

In looking at the words of young Jews who hosted Passover seders this year through our holiday grant program, we begin to see the true impact of owning a Jewish experience:

“Inclusivity and education are two of the most important values that I associate with Passover and the seder tradition. I wanted to host a seder to share these values with many friends of mine who had never attended a seder and had very little knowledge of Passover. For my Jewish friends, it was a great opportunity to discuss the different traditions we had grown up with and reconnect with our roots.” – Sam, New Orleans, LA

For others, owning these experiences allows them to create Jewish experiences in places where they cannot be found:

“Hosting a seder is a great way for me to connect with my heritage and celebrate the traditions that I grew up with. Going to school and living in Hawaii, I am physically isolated from my relatives back on the mainland. In Hawaii, my close friends are my family and I am more than happy to share my traditions with them.” – Matthew, Honolulu, HI

In these words, we start to see the things that connect one to a people – seeing one’s values reflected in a holiday, reconnecting with roots, and finding psychic comfort in sharing traditions despite physical separation.

At the same time, by providing ways for young Jews to own their journeys and experiences, we instinctively do something different that is profound in itself. We create spaces and opportunities where they aren’t asked to check their complexity at the door. Within these spaces, they are able to explore who they are as a Jew and as a person, and make their own determinations about what constitutes a meaningful experience.

This has ramifications for the larger conversation. Emphasizing Jewish “peoplehood” is not enough. For a large and growing share of the young Jewish population in the Diaspora, a sense of being part of the Jewish people occurs among peers and in a community that values authenticity, learning and debate, and interaction with the outside world. That’s when real ownership happens.

How such communities can be built, nurtured, and replicated is the question to which the peoplehood conversation must turn.

Morlie Levin is the CEO of NEXT, a division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

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.