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There are over 350,000 alumni of the Birthright Israel experience. We haven’t effectively followed up with most of them. We haven’t sufficiently welcomed them back from their transformative experience in Israel and connected them to further transformative experiences in our community, nor have we given them meaningful opportunities for leadership. It has happened successfully in a few places, but we have barely scratched the surface.
We need to function as a true continental community, because these young people are continental and mobile. We need employ technologies for interaction and connection to keep pace with this mobility. Particularly, we are imploring the gatekeepers to share this vast database of alumni contacts with us so that we have a mechanism to engage them in Jewish life.
Jewish Development Zones
We also have to strategically address those places where we are strong in numbers but weak in connection. Ironically, some of the areas of highest Jewish density in the country also have the lowest proportion of Jewish engagement. We need to think of these areas as “Jewish Development Zones” — areas in which we should invest in programs and experiences that will connect Jews in a communal structure at vital stages of life.
This will mean mobilizing our strongest and most effective funding institutions and philanthropists in order to target five of these areas immediately. In each of these zones, develop the “Jewish Head Start” model, build at least one new Jewish summer camp of excellence, inject support into the existing Jewish youth programs and develop magnetic Jewish engagement programs for unmarried young adults and Birthright alumni.
Clearly, these are not the only pathways to the Jewish future, but they are data-driven, measurable and immediate steps that we as a community can and should take. At the upcoming 2013 Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Jerusalem, in the forums, programs and hallways, we will begin unpacking the Pew study, tackling the difficult issues and processing new solutions. We propose these steps for action.
Furthermore, we must rise above institutional parochial agendas and interests. We do not work together as well as we should. The waste of time and resources that results from repetition in programs and services is overwhelmingly frustrating.
All of these initiatives will also require dedicated and long-term resources. Our collective history has proven that when faced with pivotal challenges, we rallied with bold solutions and we prevailed.
We will be steadfast in driving this agenda, changing the direction in which we are heading, and ensuring that we not merely survive, but also thrive and grow as a vibrant and meaningful American Jewish community.
Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman is president and CEO and Michael Siegal is chair of the board of trustees, respectively, of the Jewish Federations of North America.