A Special in the Jewish Week

The New York paper The Jewish Week is running a piece I penned about the last two years of my professional life. (has it been that long?)

Here goes:

Reaching Birthright Alums: The Follow-Up Diet
by Rabbi Daniel Brenner
Special To The Jewish Week

Shimshon Shoshani, the man tapped by Prime Minister Netanyahu to steer Israel’s educational system back on track, is about as direct and honest a critic as you can find. A year and a half ago, when I was being initiated into the Birthright Israel world that he guided during his highly successful term as CEO, he felt that it was his duty to give me some blunt advice.

I sat in his Jerusalem office, drank some tea with him, and after we exchanged a few words in Hebrew he looked me in the face and he stated in clear English:

“Mr. Brenner, do not build another bureaucracy.”

It was quite a challenge. As the new head of Birthright Israel’s post-programming
for alumni of the free Israel trip for 18- to 26-year-olds (now dubbed Birthright Israel NEXT), I had been given the task of reaching out to more than 200,000 young adults, the vast majority of whom do not associate with Jewish communal life or even know what Jewish communal life might offer them. It was also clear to me that the existing Jewish organizations were struggling to reach, let alone engage, this demographic, and in most cases were actually turning them off from further involvement. To add to this, even our own organizational communication abilities were hampered. (Twenty-somethings change their e-mails and their addresses every 18 months or so.) Could we have a call center in Bangalore try to reach them all by leaving 200,000 messages on their cell phones? What would the message be? Could our small staff ever follow up with them?

So I cut a deal. I told Shoshani that all I wanted was to place one full-time professional informal educator in every major U.S. city. I can’t say that he was enthusiastic about the idea. But he didn’t kibosh it altogether, and so (with the generous help of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation) the pilot program took off.

Now, one year in, we’ve learned a few things about how to reach and engage some 200,000 young Jewish adults without building a bureaucracy. How? We placed young, full-time directors in five cities (Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami) and watched what unfolded. Operating without the overhead of shiny new buildings, these directors deployed a volunteer team of fellows — young leaders who had been selected and trained to initiate private gatherings — and they all got to work. They generally eschewed big social events, instead crafting small gatherings for 15 to 30 people. In this way, a volunteer staff was able to facilitate and support peer-driven events.

What did they do? Hebrew classes, cooking expositions, blanket making for a homeless shelter, hiking in a state park, visiting a nursing home, getting an update on Israel’s elections, celebrating Shabbat — the types of gatherings were diverse and brought in diverse crowds. The directors responded quickly to economic trends, partnering with local Jewish vocational services and employment agencies to help young adults navigate the job market. They also connected to Jewish cultural events, Israel events, and other local happenings. Within months, they had hundreds of people talking about Birthright Israel NEXT in their cities. We expect that as this momentum continues, these leaders will, for the first time, involve tens of thousands of young adults in their own Jewish communities outside our original five major cities. (To find out how this will spill over into existing communities, please get back to me in about five years.)

Second, we learned that the best of our online projects can result in intimate, in-person contact. It was our hunch that home hospitality and home cooking can be central to Jewish life even in a socially mobile and digital generation. So in the past year, Birthright Israel NEXT (through the generosity of Michael Steinhardt) has sponsored over 2,700 Shabbat dinners in private homes. All the hosts registered online, created Web pages, and opened their actual doors to an average of 14 guests. That is more than 40,000 dinner attendees in less than a year.

Third, we learned that there is a great thirst for Jewish content. While great educational programs and resources do exist, young adults do not know where to take the first steps to connect with them, and the work of leading young adults comfortably into the inner circle of Jewish education is just beginning. It is rather ironic that through a program that offers a free trip to Israel, young adults are now interested in the National Yiddish Book Center. But if you happened to be in Amherst recently, you would have found a busload of Birthright Israel alumni engaged in dialogue with Aaron Lansky, the center’s founder, and other scholars.

Have we reached all 200,000 Birthright Israel alumni? Not yet. But in the past year, we did involve over 60,000 young adults in our programs and are expanding that number each day.

During this time of cutbacks, when many organizations are going on diets to tighten the belts, I’m glad that we started our work with a svelte strategy. I thank Shimshon Shoshani for his advice and wish him luck as he takes on a truly daunting and heroic task.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT.