Birthright Alumni Follow-Up Program Trims Its Ambitions

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published January 05, 2011, issue of January 14, 2011.
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Birthright Israel NEXT, which follows up with young Jews after they return from the free trip to Israel offered by Birthright, is rewiring itself after a major shakeup of its top leadership.

The multimillion-dollar nonprofit, founded three years ago to deepen the involvement of Birthright alumni in the Jewish community, is considering reducing and redirecting its programming as debate continues over whether its purpose is even worthwhile.

Informed sources say that the organization may focus on connecting Birthright alumni to programming created by other organizations instead of creating its own programming through NEXT staff in branch offices around the country.

Long a target of criticism for its sizable budget, its monopoly over the list of Birthright alumni e-mail addresses and the practices of its former New York affiliate, NEXT appears to be transitioning into a less ambitious role. It was launched as a program of the Birthright Israel Foundation in 2007, after some funders and other observers began to express concern as early as 2002 that little was being done to build on the experiences of the trip’s alumni — a cohort that has since grown to 260,000 young Jews.

NEXT, which became an independent organization two years ago, currently has offices in seven North American cities and a national headquarters in New York. Local staff run social events and classes, though the organization is best known for a program that sponsors subsidized Shabbat meals in the homes of Birthright alumni. The organization spent $3.3 million during six months in 2009, the only period covered in currently available public documents.

News of the group’s possible change in direction comes seven months after the hiring of former Hadassah chief Morlie Levin to run the organization. NEXT’s founding CEO, Rabbi Daniel Brenner, was first demoted to chief of education and programming, then left in December for a position at Moving Traditions, a Jewish engagement group for middle school and high school children.

When Levin’s hiring was announced in April, NEXT claimed to be planning an expansion that would place local staff in three to eight additional cities. The future of those ambitions now seems to be in question.

According to an informed source who would not speak on the record because discussions are still ongoing, the organization is considering becoming a “concierge” service for Birthright alumni, connecting them with programs run primarily by other organizations.

The source said that the organization has not reached a final decision about the local branch offices, but is considering replacing local NEXT employees with Birthright follow-up coordinators on staff at area Jewish federations.

Levin said that she expects branch offices to remain open, and to coordinate with follow-up coordinators on staff at other groups.

Financial pressures may have contributed to the change in plans. Michael Steinhardt, an early funder of the project, has earmarked new donations specifically for the Shabbat dinner program, which will continue. The Jim Joseph Foundation, another of the original funders, has committed to NEXT only through the spring of 2013.

Steinhardt and representatives of the Schusterman Family Foundation, also a major NEXT funder, were unavailable for comment.

“We now have a situation where we’ve got almost a quarter of a million Birthright alums. It’s a big number,” said Levin. “We have to find ways that are effective and efficient to target folks.”

Brenner, who has led the organization through much of its existence to date, described the possible wind-down of portions of NEXT’s programming as a sign of the organization’s impact. Brenner said that he sees the existence of organizations like Moishe House and Next Dor, which support communities of recent Jewish college graduates and can take on NEXT’s programming, as a sign of his former group’s success.

“I’d like to think that we contributed a great deal to it,” he said.

According to Levin, the organization is currently engaged in what she called a strategic repositioning — a precursor to a strategic planning process. Moving forward, she said, the organization would concentrate on connecting Birthright alumni to Jewish activities and building communal capacity for engaging Birthright alumni, but would also continue to incubate new programs like the NEXT Shabbat.

Levin also weighed in on the long-simmering controversy over access to the e-mail list of Birthright alumni, saying that she had discussed allowing alumni to opt-in to e-mails from some organizational partners.

Meanwhile, NEXT faces skepticism from some who question the impact and viability of Birthright follow-up in general. A March 2009 study of Birthright Israel alumni in four North American cities, issued by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, found that engagement by Birthright Israel alumni with NEXT and its affiliated programs was low — in three of the cities, less than half had heard of NEXT, and in all of the cities, 5% or less said that they participated “a lot” in NEXT programs.

“We have exquisite and highly reliable data about the impact of the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Brandeis University and a critic of NEXT. “We don’t yet have evidence of the effectiveness and the impact of the follow-up programs.”

NEXT officials respond to the Brandeis study by pointing to a 2010 study, commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation and executed by SRI International, which found high levels of satisfaction among Birthright alumni who had participated in NEXT. The survey found that more than half of a sample of participants from summer 2009 Birthright trips had heard of NEXT, although only a fifth had participated in a NEXT program.

But Saxe, who is an author of the 2009 Brandeis study, said that his results hold up. “Our sense is that follow-up programs are not attracting the majority of [Birthright] participants,” he said. Saxe said that he plans to publish new data in the spring.

His skepticism of follow-up programs is not universally shared. Steven M. Cohen, professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, said that programs like NEXT are key to the long-term impact of Birthright.

“The evidence indicates a single trip to Israel is a gateway to further involvement, and if there isn’t a repeat trip to Israel or other Jewish activities that follow, then we don’t see much long-range impact,” said Cohen, who is a frequent foil of Saxe. “I am not convinced that a single trip alone is enough to ensure a lifetime of Jewish engagement.”

NEXT’s former New York-area affiliate, the Jewish Enrichment Center, which drew criticism last year for programming that resembled an Orthodox outreach group, is no longer part of NEXT, though it still exists as an affiliate of the Birthright Israel Foundation. NEXT’s national office has sponsored some New York-area programming of its own.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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