Well, I hate to say I told you so.
The news that Birthright Next is apparently winding down – its leadership is leaving, its flagship program is shutting down — has come as a surprise to many. But not to those who have followed the program closely, and watched its revolving door of talented staff fail at their mission.
From my perspective, having worked with some of those staff members and having been brought in as an advisor before the initiative was even launched, Birthright Next is/was a case study in how not to spend millions of philanthropic dollars. Despite the sincere efforts of some truly excellent individuals, it was top-down, bogus, and superficial.
When I first heard that a group of philanthropist including Michael Steinhardt was planning a follow-up to Birthright Israel, a program to hold the interest of all those young people being sent to Israel for free, I was excited. While I’ve long had my qualms about Birthright — most importantly, its significant right-wing bias — the program was indisputably reaching thousands of young Jews, and giving them a powerful, first-person Jewish experience. Over the years, the data on Birthright’s long-term effectiveness has been decidedly mixed. But it was a bold initiative, and has changed the lives of many of its participants.
It was also well-funded, and the prospect of significant resources being invested in follow-up programming was exciting. There are so many excellent programs out there, I thought, and so many underfunded ones. If Birthright Next brought one-tenth as many participants to them as Birthright Israel has brought to Masada, it could provide a huge boost to grassroots and grasstops efforts across the country.
I was dismayed, then, to learn that, in fact, Next wasn’t going to bring Birthright alumni to these programs, but rather, invent a new program and bring it to Birthright alums. This felt very last-century. Why, in an open source, Web 2.0 world, in which participants co-create their own content, would a room of self-appointed experts create a new program to compete with what’s already there?
Not only would such an effort undermine the good work others were already doing, I said at the time, but it would be unnecessarily risky. There are already dozens of market-tested programs out there: educational initiatives, retreats, social justice actions, you name it. Why not help them, boost them up with some good consulting and resources, and take advantage of their built-in market research? Why reinvent the wheel when so many wheels are already rolling?
For whatever reason, Next wasn’t interested in this advice. They went about hiring a huge staff, spending gazillions of dollars, and creating a suite of new programs, organizations, and publications. Top-down city.
Not only that; in its early years, Next gained a reputation for being arrogant. Aware that lots of people wanted a few of those gazillions, my experience was that they didn’t return calls, they copied ideas without attribution, and they did everything their way, all with the gloss and patina of Jewish management consultants. They were the professionals. We all rolled our eyes.
Trouble is, when you’ve got so much money swishing around, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. Let me tell you a little story. Twelve years ago, one of my Forward colleagues and I founded the first Jewish online magazine, Zeek. We had no money, but, like our irreverent siblings at Heeb, we had energy, attitude, and a community that supported us. We watched insanely well-funded competitors arise like venture-capital behemoths, and then collapse like houses of cards. Rest In Peace, Guilt & Pleasure. And Jewcy. And a half dozen others.
Birthright Next programs were similar. As my friends in Texas say, they were all hat and no cattle. Plenty of good graphic design, and some good ideas, but ultimately bogus. They were marketing campaigns, not communities.
Next did try to adapt. Its Shabbat dinner program was a step forward: rather than creating programs for millennials, it funded millennials to create programs (i.e. Shabbat dinners) for themselves. Its Alef/Nextwork program, in which Jewish professionals shared ideas about how to engage young people, became a useful hub even if it was duplicative of other efforts, and would have been better off hosted at an existing site. (Reinventing the wheel once again.)
But even as it tried to adapt, Next learned the hard way what people had long been saying about Birthright proper: When you give stuff away for nothing, that’s how much people think it’s worth.
In my years in the Jewish professional world, I’ve seen this dozens of times. Want to get good numbers that you can report to your funders? Give stuff away. Free beer! Free dinner! Free trips to Israel!
Never mind that over the long (actually rather short) term you’re creating a culture of entitlement, and a generation that doesn’t think it should have to pay for anything Jewish. Never mind that when the spigot of free Manischewitz is turned off, the eager target market drifts off to do something else. Hey, did you see how many people came to our Chanukah Party?
Ultimately, Birthright Next’s emphasis on evaluation laid bare the folly of this approach. It wasn’t sticking. All the money, all the experts, all the free stuff weren’t building durable Jewish connections. Arguably, giving Judaism away made it seem cheap, disposable, and desperate.
Things could’ve been different. Imagine a “Spiritual Birthright,” where participants get a free Jewish retreat, or Limmud, or educational weekend of their choosing (subject to appropriate criteria, of course). Imagine a “Social Justice Birthright,” where participants go on an AJWS or Avodah program, and are subsidized by Birthright Next. Imagine a “Political Engagement Birthright,” where the costs of an AIPAC Conference, J Street Conference, or other political event are covered (in an ideologically neutral way). Imagine a Jewish Arts Birthright, a Jewish Communal Living Birthright. Outsource the expertise, but provide the information and the resources for disaffiliated Jews to make use of it.
And ask for something back. Ask that those who receive money give back to their communities, share their experiences, or otherwise ensure that this isn’t a blank check but an investment where returns are expected.
Now imagine coupling those programs with a network of program providers, like Alef/Nextwork has created, so that the result is a suite of consulting, networking, and shared learning for professionals. Instead of inventing a new program, imagine if Next had worked on strengthening existing ones. They’d have saved a lot of money, learned from the market instead of tried to control it, and grown the Jewish community instead of their own organization.
They’d also still be around today.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.
The original column stated that Michael Steinhardt contributed money to the founding of Birthright Next. It now reflect the fact that others funded it as well and that Steinhardt’s contribution amounted to only 11% of Birthright Next’s total revenue.