Birthright Israel NEXT is ceding its follow-up role in connecting young Jews to their Jewish identity after the free trips they take to Israel via the Taglit Birthright Israel program.
The 4-year old program is replacing its staff in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities where there are large concentrations of Birthright alumni, for whom NEXT, until recently, directly created and hosted activities. Instead, NEXT has hired regional directors who are directing alums to already established organizations. These include Jewish federations, Hillels and synagogues that host religious and social events on a regular basis.
“As the number of Birthrighters increases almost exponentially each year, the notion that one organization can provide sufficient outreach and opportunity to such a diverse audience was called into question,” said Morlie Levin, CEO of Birthright NEXT. She described NEXT’s new role “as a catalyst and concierge basically.”
The reduced role, which began in January, is designed to end two years of uncertainty surrounding the program, Levin said. Her own hiring as NEXT’s CEO in 2010 followed a March 2009 report that found that 44% of Birthright alumni no longer in college did not attend any Jewish program after their Birthright trip. The study, by Leonard Saxe of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, found that 39% reported attending just one or two programs. Only 4% of Birthright alumni took part in more than five follow-up programs.
The disappointing findings appeared to have swift consequences. Following the 2009 study, Birthright’s financial support for the separately incorporated NEXT dropped to $968,000 in 2010 from its peak of $6.5 million the year before. NEXT’s total revenues from all sources in 2010 came to about $4 million, down from $8 million the previous year.
In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, Birthright allocated just $702,000 to the group.
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