No, I’m not interested in a professorship at Brandeis, although free tuition and living expenses at Hornstein and a six figure salary are of course appealing. Nevertheless, here are three basic ideas for Jewish communal innovation. If one of these gets implemented, I expect a cut of the benjamins.
Three Ideas for Jewish Communal Innovation
- Israel Alumni Corps
- Birthright Alumni Corps
- Adult Israel Trips
1. Israel Alumni Corps
Create an international alumni organization from all those who have participated in long-term Israel programs. These are people who have demonstrated concrete efforts at involvement and interest in Israel. Establish a United States board, which would logically be run through the Federation system, with a partner branch in Israel for those who have made aliyah.
As everyone knows it is difficult to track down alumni once contact is lost. Move from this point on with recent and current members. Maximize usage of social networking tools such as Facebook to gather members and use full force advertising along Jewish cultural networks to attract and recontact lost members– who may desire to be connected but have lost contact because no such organization existed.
Regional groupings will naturally form from national entities. Encourage and support these efforts. Let loose the full connections of the Federation and Jewish community to let young people promote programming of Jewish activities and new Jewish ideas through their activism.
Why is this important? It is widely acknowledged that the Jewish community loses young adults who are between childhood family commitments such as Hebrew school, the progression to Hillel in college (ideally), and then a long space to partnering and the raising of a family.
An international group comprised of Israel program alumni will be the start of a global Jewish effort to reinvigorate this lost demographic and gain the momentum that comes for the energy of young professionals seeking identity and passion affiliations.
At present, the only obvious options for the post-college years are Federation based “young leadership groups” based on income and monetary contributions. Internships are available for pre-entry level positions, but these are primarily for college students.
A coalition must be established whose goal is to channel energy, not money, on behalf of the next generation of young Jews that will assert their identity as Jewish adults and allow them to have an impact on the Jewish community. An Israel alumni corps is perfectly posed to fulfill these goals.
2. Birthright Alumni Corps
You know by now how I feel about Birthright, so I won’t dwell again on my positive feelings for it. Even more than the gap for long-term Israel participants is the need for a tracking and connecting efforts among Birthright alumni.
Birthright does a good job of keeping in touch with its past participants, partially because its 1999 start with strong initial capital investment means that the organization was always tech savvy and partially because it serves a client base that is the first generation to have grown up in the internet age and is therefore has the most web expertise of any demographic.
As mentioned, these 18- 26 year olds are also in the lost age bracket. Birthright is a huge step in Jewish cultural identity for most participants, 75% of whom are secular and reclaiming their Jewish cultural identity. Resulting from the fact Birthright does not discriminate upon type of Jewish identification and includes those who have no Jewish communal affiliation, those whose mothers are not Jewish, and converted Jews (aka Jews By Choice), it casts a wide net.
Because so many participants may not come from traditional Jewish families, it is exponentially more important to help them reconnect with Judaism upon their return. This means making classes available in hub communities that meet the time availability of young professionals and that are heavily subsidized so that even those in low income brackets can afford them.
They should cover a wide array of subjects including Jewish history and culture, basic and advanced religious education, and both modern and Biblical Hebrew lessons. The courses can and should be outsourced to local non-profits and synagogues, but the fundamental conditions of scheduling and price should remain the same.
Why is this important? Because if these support systems and connections aren’t offered through local Jewish communities, widely advertised and readily available, then Birthright’s efforts are only a positive memory and fading longing.
Not everyone can afford or would want to go on a longer term Israel program, but the vast majority of those returning from Birthright are greatly moved by their experiences and looking to become more deeply involved in Judaism and their community.
There is the capacity and potential here for amazing evolution, but we must take that first step and strengthen it into a lasting connection. A Birthright Alumni Corps, perhaps as a second tier to the Israel Alumni organization, would do just that.
3. Adult Israel Trips
I mention adult Israel trips last because it could be argued that they already exist. This is true. Adults (older adults) who want to visit Israel can go on Federation sponsored missions, travel alone or with their families, or volunteer through numerous organizations like Sar-El, a three week army volunteer program. However, no standardized tour group tour options akin to Birthright are readily available.
Most parents of 18-26 years olds were born in the late 1940s and 1950s where assimilation was the order of the day. Synagogues were built to resemble churches, teenagers got confirmed in white party dresses, and Chanukah became eerily allied with Christmas. Intermarriage rates were high.
I do not intend to criticize that generation or their parents, but only point out the disservice it did to adults who are now seeking affiliation with Judaism and feel ignorant because their own Jewish upbringing did not supply the same options children growing up today are lucky enough to have.
Therefore, I believe a Birthright-like trip should be available for adults. It should cost money and be at a slower pace (the 5 and 6 am wake ups and breakneck itinerary are not recommended), but the trip could be a little longer as well.
The key thing is that it reflect the model that Birthright has so successfully established giving a view of the entire country, at least geographically, meetings with Israelis, and a Shabbat stayover in Jerusalem. Now, many sponsoring organizations are also recommending reading lists and providing orientation sessions and follow up groups that would be especially beneficial to a more mature audience.
An adult Birthright is not a priority because that population is seen as having had their chance– but as Birthrighters today are learning, you can’t seize an opportunity until you know it is available. As the priority is the next generation of the Jewish community and the families they will raise, emphasis is placed upon their experiences and justified with limited funding.
This may also be due in part to the regret that Baby Boomers feel about their disconnected Jewish past. While older adults look to a future filled with supporting their elderly parents, Medicaid issues for themselves, college tuition and accrued debts, their prospects in the Jewish community are relegated to the role of synagogue dues payers and grandparent figures deserving of respect. But that is not enough.
This limited view slights their experience. Older adults seeking first-time Israel experiences should be offered an opportunity to do so. In Islam, the haj to Mecca is one of the pillars of the religion. It is only right that every caring Jew visit Israel once in her/his life. An adult Israel program could make this dream an actuality.
References You May Find Useful
I found these after I wrote the post and see that a number of the ideas are overlapping. I view this as a positive that we are thinking about where we can go with this as a Jewish community and how to advance our collective future. Click on the link below for recent articles on the topic at hand.
- “Effective Birthright Israel Follow-Up is All about Mainstreaming Alumni”
- “Report: A Fifth of Jewish Foundation Dollars Going to Jewish, Israeli Causes”
- “Like Abraham and Sarah, Jewish World Should Welcome All into a ‘Big Tent'”
- UJC Funds Needs Far and Wide; Birthright is One of Many Worthy Causes” (Howard Rieger and Joseph Kanfer)
- “Jewish Organizations Must Step Up Funding to Birthright, a Proven Success” (Charles Bronfman)
- “Mega-Philanthropists Must Refocus on Wider Needs of Community”(Dr. Misha Galperin, President, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington; response to Charles Bronfman)
- “Want to Build Jewish Identity? For Group, it’s Back to the Aleph-Bet”
- “Say It Loud, I’m Jewish and Proud: Study Finds Identity, but Less Affiliation
Above links sourced from JTA.