Losing Out: How can Jewish organization harness this excitement?

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Taglit-Birthright Israel is considered by many to be the most successful Big Idea in the American Jewish community in recent years, sending hundreds of thousands of young people to Israel on a free, 10-day trip of connection and discovery. But even those who run and fund Birthright acknowledge that, nearly 14 years after its creation, the program has not figured out how to build on that success once the return flights lift off from the Tel Aviv airport.

“There are over 350,000 alumni of the Birthright experience. We haven’t effectively followed up with most of them,” wrote Jerry Silverman and Michael Siegal, the CEO and board chair, respectively, of the Jewish Federations of North America, in a recent oped in the Forward. “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.”

Even David Fisher, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation, the American fundraising arm, concurs. “Jerry’s right,” Fisher said in an interview with the Forward. “As a community, we have not done a great job of ultimately embracing this population.”

That may be because the “community” doesn’t know who, exactly, is in this “population.”

The list of names and contact information of those 350,000 alums is today’s Lost Ark, an elusive object fervently sought by many Jewish organizations. So prized is this information that Silverman and Siegal wrote: “[W]e 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.”

Birthright Israel claims that every local federation is invited to ask for the names and addresses of Birthright alums in its catchment area. “That information is available and continues to be available to every local federation,” Fisher said.

This is, to put it mildly, a ridiculous system, if it can be called a system at all. It takes no account of the unpredictable and peripatetic lifestyles of most 20-somethings. Consider the 25-year-old Birthright alum whose parents live in New York, who went to college in California, and who just moved to Denver, and therefore has multiple postal and email addresses. Where is his “local federation”? And is that local federation really the most effective institution to reach out to that demographic?

Fisher said that Birthright Israel doesn’t have a master list, and even if it did, would not share it broadly because that would violate the privacy of its participants and subject them to all manner of email solicitations from other Jewish organizations. Let’s unpack this reasoning for a moment. It’s hard to imagine that a communal list would violate privacy anymore than what already happens when you try to buy a pair of shoes online and then are bombarded with Facebook ads for a matching pair of boots. Anyone who lives online expects to be targeted online, young people especially, and there are many ways smart organizations manage this.

More troubling is Fisher’s suggestion that the Birthright “brand” would be diluted if participants were actually expected to read a few extra emails after they returned home — emails that would invite them to build upon their privileged experience and grow their Jewish lives in whatever way they choose.

Birthright NEXT, created in 2009 with still more philanthropic money, is supposed to be the conduit for this type of follow up, but if it was doing its job, well, the overall effort would not receive a failing grade. (See: above.)

It’s time to act as one community, and to do that we must elevate our trust in and expectations of each other. The recent Pew Research Center survey found that 44% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 had been to Israel at least once, and among those under 30, 48% have participated in a Birthright trip. Even so, attachment to Israel among younger Jews is substantially lower than their elders, as is participation in what has been the traditional markers of Jewish life.

Even the most brilliantly organized, inspiring, challenging, enjoyable, raucous, sexy, meaningful 10-day trip imaginable cannot make up for a lifetime of disengagement. And as the Pew survey shows, a whole lot of young people are disengaged from American Jewish life. This can’t be effectively addressed until the protective silos and bureaucracies and redundancies are replaced by true collaboration and a bold, comprehensive embrace.

Morlie Levin, CEO of Birthright Israel NEXT, declined to talk with the Forward for this editorial, but did submit a letter to the editor in which she wrote: “No single program provides a silver bullet for engagement.” That’s precisely why no single program can hold onto information about Birthright participants.

“The data would be measurably helpful,” Silverman said in an interview. “The gold mine is to try to learn about this 18-24-year-old constituency that you have information about for 14 years.”

Birthright began as the innovative brainchild of a few philanthropists, but it has evolved into a program also funded by organizations such as the JFNA and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli government and even the German government, through the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany. In other words, donors and citizens.

In other words, us.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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