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Launched in 2007, NEXT at its peak, in 2010, had branches in seven cities, with plans for additional offices in up to eight cities, all doing their own direct programming for Birthright alumni. Birthright NEXT was originally an arm of Birthright itself, but it reorganized in January 2009 as a separate entity to further its post-trip programming. Still, five out of its six board members also sit on the board of Birthright. Effectively, Birthright’s leaders have now decided to channel money that was going into alumni programming into funding for more young people to visit Israel via Birthright.
“On some levels, the core question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Do we spend another dollar on follow-up or sending somebody on a trip?’” said Isaac Shalev, a former Birthright chief operating officer.
Donors, too, seem to be backing funding for trips rather than follow-up. Recently, an influx of new funding for Birthright Israel has come in, including $100 million from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The Israeli government, which contributed a quarter of the $700 million in funding raised by Birthright Israel since its inception in 1999, promised $100 million in additional funds from 2011 to 2013. Its focus, too, is on increasing the number of young people visiting Israel.
NEXT’s board chairman, Al Levitt, voiced enthusiasm for the alumni group’s shift toward becoming “a facilitator and connector.” Levitt, who is also president of the Jim Joseph Foundation, one of NEXT’s larger funders, said, “I think the change has been positive.”
Still, the nature of the commitment and involvement by NEXT’s new local partners appears to vary widely. Birthright NEXT offered the Forward a sample of 36 local partners from such cities as Boston, St. Louis, San Diego, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Milwaukee. One of the most enthusiastic was the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which negotiated with NEXT to rebrand its own programs for Birthright alumni as NEXTDC. Meanwhile, Eliana Leader, executive director of Georgia’s Young Israel of Toco Hills, another partner, said her synagogue’s relationship with NEXT simply meant that if a local Birthright alum sought greater involvement in synagogue life, Birthright NEXT would direct him or her to her congregation.
Through all this, the role of one center for Birthright alumni appears unchanged in substance, even if the form has evolved. In 2011, the Jewish Enrichment Center was NEXT’s exclusive New York affiliate. It was a relationship that drew criticism for allegedly directing Birthright alums to an organization with a perceived exclusionary focus on ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The JEC is no longer associated with NEXT, but has an affiliation with The Alumni Community, in New York, which is devoted to educating local Birthright alums on ways to enrich their Jewish life after Birthright trips. Rebecca Sugar, who is New York director of The Alumni Community and former director of the New York office of NEXT, said her organization’s direct programming includes Sabbath dinners, lectures on Israel and occasional social events.
Michael Steinhardt, co-founder of Birthright Israel and prime supporter of The Alumni Community, wrote in an email to the Forward: “The Alumni Community remains the primary provider of post-Birthright Israel programming in the New York area, as it has been for the last eight years. We work successfully with 15,000 alumni annually and continue to grow our program to meet the increasing demand for the kind of quality education we offer.” No other Birthright follow-up program, Steinhardt concluded, “does more to educate young Jews in this demographic about their culture and the richness of their history.”
Contact Seth Berkman at firstname.lastname@example.org