Three Ways to Improve Birthright’s Impact: Outreach, Trip Customization, Strategic Thinking


Birthright Israel– we’ve all heard the hype and some of us think Birthright lives up to it while others don’t. As Birthright’s unofficial poster child, I’m here to offer three suggestions for how Birthright could improve its stickiness by increasing its outreach and maximizing its impact on program participants.

“Stickiness” is a word we use a lot in blogging and that is only just beginning to be used in the real world. In blogging, our blogs are sticky if a user comes to a site and then returns or subscribes. In other words, something about the concept of the website is attractive to the viewer, making her want to learn more. I hope that we will soon come to think of our nonprofits, foundations, and programming the same way.

Birthright’s Stickiness

Let’s use Birthright as an example. The key to Birthright’s success should be stickiness. Get those kids to Israel and make them care. Caring will change their Jewish identities, Jewish communities, and eventually Jewish continuity. Right?

But so far we’ve only gotten as far as to get them here and cross our fingers that the rest will happen. We’re so happy that we’ve managed to do that, that the philanthropists who have made it happen and those of us it’s worked for are busy sitting around congratulating ourselves instead of thinking about what needs to be done to make Birthright better, to maximize its effect for full impact.

I challenge the Jewish community to do more.

Keep reading for three ways to improve Birthright and my suggestions for follow up programming.

Three Ways to Improve Birthright

1. Outreach: Identify Who Isn’t Attending Birthright and Find Out Why. Then Fix It.

As a Jewish community, let’s say that our desired aim is that 100% of young adults visit Israel. This assumes that we believe Birthright is having the full impact of Israel and Jewish stickiness on Jewish youth. Let’s go with that assumption for the sake of argument.

So who isn’t going on Birthright? Are there sections of the college population that simply aren’t attending? The answer is yes and who Birthright isn’t reaching may surprise you. Did you know that Harvard and MIT in particular have very low participation numbers?

The next thing we have to do is find out why Birthright doesn’t interest them. Do non-participants think it isn’t valuable to their lives? Do they just not care? Or is there something about Birthright that could be changed to entice them?

2. Customized Trips: Marketing Birthright to Special Interest Groups

Birthright made a powerful impact in its first 7 years, but it’s time to reassess. What can it do now that goes beyond its founding mission? How can it reach out to more youth and get them to care about being Jewish and care about Israel? Birthright works great for the mainstream: providing a free trip to Israel that is fun, interesting, and exciting offers a peak experience for an 18 to 26 year old. But is it enough?

Yesterday I met with Tsvi Bisk of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and Jonathan Shapira of the Cleantech Investing in Israel Blog. One of the things we talked about is creating customized Birthright trips to reach those who aren’t attending.

I suggest creating hi-tech trips to Israel around the Birthright touring format, but focused more around their specific, professional needs. Israel epitomizes hi-tech enterprise. Israel is the paradigm for creative thinking. And Israel is all about social entrepreneurship.

Birthright already offers specially structured trips (college aged, post-college, political, hiking), why not take it to the next level and create a trip that would have professional stickiness?

The hi-tech sector is one of the most professional and cohesive sectors in Israel. They are globalized by nature, well educated, and more fluent in English as a group than almost anyone else in society. A stylized, customized, hi-tech trip– or one with any other kind of professional customization– would add on an extra incentive to participants and deepen Birthright participants’ potential connection to Israel.

This brings me to my next point.

3. Thinking Long Term: What Can Birthright Offer Future Participants Beyond Its Current Programming?

Birthright is firmly established. The Jewish world recognizes its potential (although some are still dubious) and participants are going to Israel in record numbers. But what about stickiness?

Are we doing everything we can to make Israel a living, breathing, modern entity to our Jewish children or are we in the memory making business of nostalgic photographs and “I remember whens”?

You know that I feel very strongly about follow up programs. Here are some ideas for long term stickiness:

  • Ongoing meetings for Birthright alumni to get together and socialize casually
  • Parlor meetings, salon sessions, and mini-conferences where alums and future participants and others who have visited Israel or want to can get together and talk about Jewish issues of the day, including their own Jewish identity, Jewish continuity, and Jewish social change
  • Large scale physical meet-ups like conferences or regional events, such as the mega event that Birthright holds each winter in Jerusalem
  • Opportunities for Jewish engagement through community volunteering with Jewish organizations and organizations that represent our universal value of tikkun olam, including Israel programs: short and long term
  • Aliyah informational sessions with age and professionally relevant information and connections
  • An increased effort to connect Israelis with Jews in the US, whether they are visiting with tour groups, staying with their families, working at camps or in malls, or on some type of shlichut from international Jewish organizations
  • Localized places to meet in the virtual world through online communities— Birthright has tried to do this through its website, but thus far it hasn’t been a priority and participation reflects this. Regional groups should make a stronger effort in this arena and then work to connect to each other. It’s not your bubbe’s Jewish geography
  • Working to create international Jewish hubs of Birthright alumni so that a Jew visiting Paris or Buenos Aires or Kiev could join up with peer group companions on her visit and potentially participate in their Jewish community. Look to Chabad as a model as to how to get started
  • In cities with major Jewish populations, having a centralized Shabbat service and educational lecture, followed by a dinner or social event once a month especially targeted to young people
  • Jewish organizations (federations, synagogues, colleges, and universities) should join to offer adult education and continuing education classes to young adults on Jewish themes, including Jewish values, partnership, raising a family, etc. I have attended these classes and while great, I have often been the only person within 20 years of my age and the only single there. Most of my classmates had children my age or older– while this was great, we weren’t going to have a connection in the same why that I would with my peers, who would be in a similar life circumstance, be thinking along the same lines, and having to make the same choices as I would

For examples of some groups that are currently doing an excellent job trying to forward these aims, learn more about the US’s GesherCity iniative and Boston’s Havurah on the Hill.

Do you have other best practice models or organizations that are doing a great job with Birthright follow-up that we can learn from? I’d love to hear who they are and what they’re up to?

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13 Responses to Three Ways to Improve Birthright’s Impact: Outreach, Trip Customization, Strategic Thinking

  1. Dan says:


    I too, as you know, am a Birthright fan. So, I begin from that point. A great deal of what you speak of in #3 is already in the works. Last year, recognizing the importance of their alumni base, Birthright began ‘Birthright Next’. Between 2007-2008 Mr. Steinhardt et al. will have pumped (a not insignificant) $8.5 million into this project, aimed at the post-college crowd of Birthright alumni.

    “To that end, Birthright Israel Next consists of both a national and a local component that uses the same multi-entry-point model that has served the trip so well. Among other social and educational initiatives, the national plan is to host a series of immersion retreats, each targeting a different interest group within the Birthright alumni population. There will be retreats that center around the arts, Hebrew, spirituality, Israel advocacy, volunteerism, environmentalism and so forth. The first one, set for February in Niagara Falls, will center on Jewish identity in Israel.”

    For more, see “Birthright Day 11”

    I know from my experience with WUJS and the now defunct Alliance for Educational Programs in Israel, the long-term value of building upon relationships with program alumni. So where your ideas as outlined in #1 and #2 above have definite value, the real key is the last one. And you should push it to every single Birthright alumn you know!


  2. thenewjew says:

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your comment. I did read “Birthright Day 11” when it came out on the World Jewish Digest site; it was a good article and brought up some interesting points. It was the first I had heard of Birthright Next– and was glad to, of course– but I would also like to think of it as a call to action for Jewish communities to get involved. Of course there is leadership needed here, and Steinhardt has certainly proven himself to be the man for the job, but we have a communal responsibility to move this forward as well.

    I think we can both affirm that the program itself (whichever one we choose to talk about) has significant power, but its most significant impact will come from its ever expanding alumni base: how the organization chooses to use them, organize them, and cultivate their relationship symbiotically.

    I can say from my own perspective with long term Israel programs that this last item is an issue of particular grief for me. There’s no excuse for not doing it. Even if your resources are low, you can gain tremendous power from your alumni base that should not be underestimated.



  3. Dan says:

    How true; and you are correct: there is no excuse. Unfortunately all to many Israel programs do not cultivate their alumni. Some give lip service, others send an email newsletter every 3rd Purim. Most wonder why their alumni do not support them.

    Grief for you, a very sore spot for me. And I am speaking about some of the largest American Jewish organizations. They wonder why they can’t reach, or hold, the under 35 crowd. Duh.

  4. thenewjew says:


    I look forward to focusing on a blog pillar having to do with Jewish service organizations and their alumni. I am gathering a list of best practices, so feel free to contribute if you have some particular favorites.


  5. Maya, congrats! It is about time all your hard work got some attention!

    A roundup of blogs about the nonprofit world

    How to Improve Jewish Community Involvement

    The New Jew, a blog about philanthropy and Judaism, is continuing an effort by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and Brandeis University to identify innovative ways to strengthen Jewish ties and encourage Jews to get more involved in public life.

    Last year, the foundation gave $1.5-million to the university to
    establish a two-year visiting scholar position on Jewish life. To seek “creative thinkers of every kind,” the university is holding an open competition to select the new staff member.

    While the Brandeis contest is winding down — finalists are expected to be announced in February or March — the author of The New Jew,
    Maya Norton, a nonprofit worker in Israel, is holding an online
    discussion on ideas inspired by the competition.

    The ideas being discussed include ways to fight anti-Semitism and racism on college campuses and the building of a “Jewish Activism Museum” to teach the religion’s values.

    What do you think? What ideas would you suggest? Click on the comments link below this post to share your thoughts.

    — Ian Wilhelm

  6. thenewjew says:

    Thanks for noticing. I did some marketing of the series, both for this blog to gain some currency and to bring more attention to the ideas we are discussing (thanks to you and everyone else who let me use their ideas as a platform for conversation).

    It’s definitely a privilege to be picked up the the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Good eye.


  7. Thank you! Hopefully more people will read your write-ups, and read your blog as a result!

  8. thenewjew says:

    Update Your Links–

    Please note the new address of Jonathan Shapira’s Cleantech Investing in Israel blog. I have changed the address in this post as well.
    It is now:

    Go check it out.

  9. Gary Kulwin says:

    Hi, Maya –

    Good post on Birthright. I personally think that the two most important issues, when considering the overall impact of Birthright, are the “mainstreaming issue” (how do program alumni eventually find their way into the core activities of Jewish life, as opposed to a parallel track of activities for Birthright alums), and the “activist issue” (where do highly committed young Jews, many of them ineligible to participate in Birthright due to prior Israel experiences, fit into the overall agenda of sustaining a new generation of Jewish life?). I wrote about both of these issues in a recent article in my blog (my apologies for trying to steal a little more free publicity here – and thanks, of course, for the PR that you have already directed to my site and ideas). I would be curious to get your feedback, as the “unofficial post child” for Birthright, on my thoughts.

    Also, on somewhat of a tangent: do you think that Birthright has made the Jewish community as a whole (i.e. not only the participants, but also the philanthropists and organizational sponsors in the Diaspora) more receptive to the idea of aliya? Here is a brief personal story: many years ago (1993), when I was leaving graduate school, I attended a UJC recruiting event for young Federation professionals held in Washington, DC. The one-on-one interview I had was going very well until I was asked the standard interview question, “where do you see yourself in five years?” I noted that I had lived in Israel previously, and was considering going back to eventually work in either the government or the non-profit sector.

    The tone of the interview immediately changed. I was brusquely told that there was no realistic chance that I would be recommended for a position at Federation (“how would we explain to our donors that one of our professionals has decided to go live in Israel instead of commit to Jewish life here?”). Indeed, another professional called my interviewer, in the middle of the interview, to see how things were going. I was shocked to hear her describe me – right in front of me, in the middle of our interview – as a “complete egotist, who clearly has unrealistic expectations about the kind of professional we’re looking for in the Federation system.”

    The interviewer recommended that I look for work at another Jewish organization instead, like Hillel, that might be more receptive to “non-conformists” like me. Indeed, I did wind up working for Hillel for three years, and after that I did obtain a position in the planning department of a major federation here in Florida. Nevertheless, the experiences of that interview has stayed with me, in the back of my mind, as a defining moment in understanding how the mainstream, organized Jewish community tends to think about aliyah and American olim.

    With changing attitudes and demographics over the last 15 years, the success of Birthright, and the pending General Assembly in Israel this year, I wonder if perspectives are shifting. Your writing seems to be “taken seriously” by plenty of people in Jewish philanthropy, both in Israel and the Diaspora, even though you are based in Israel. When it comes to attitudes about aliyah (i.e. Americans who make aliyah – it’s always been O.K. for everybody else to do so), are things really changing for the better now?

    Kol Tuv, GK

    P.S. It was good to read the posts by Dan. I just discovered the eJewishPhilanthropy website through his responses to this article, and I am certainly going to be a dedicated reader in the future.

  10. thenewjew says:


    My first reaction is that your interview was wacko. Sorry to say she was not alone. I have also had people say outlandish things to me (including a professor of Jewish studies who seemed completely ignorant on every aspect of Israeli life). On some level it’s sort of like wondering if people in Canada drive cars or people in Africa wear clothes– ignorant on a ridiculous level, but willfully so in a way that is as off-base as your interview described you.

    You have my full recommendation for eJewishPhilanthropy. I only ask that stay committed to your first blog love in Jewish philanthropy. Dan and I cover similar issues– for instance you will see us covering news stories at about the same time– but from different angles which I find interesting to read. I’m glad to have a partner and competitor like him in the Jewish blogosphere.

    I did see your previous comments about my status as a Birthright poster child. I absolutely think that Birthright has brought the idea of aliyah home, so to speak, because it makes travel to Israel a reality. During the heart of the Second Intifada, someone I knew told me they were thinking about going to Israel and I told them I thought it was a really bad idea, that it was just too dangerous. When I went on Birthright in 2004, someone say to me, “Why don’t you just go to Baghdad, they’re equally as safe.”

    So I think Birthright has reconceptualized aliyah by making the idea of Israel closer and more intimate in the Jewish psyche so that we are going and our children are going to Israel, and people are returning and saying what a great time we had an how inspired we are. Birthright makes Israel real.

    Also consider that with modern technologies, even places of great physical distance in the world are not psychically far. If I can talk to a relative or my friends as often as I like on the telephone, regular communicate through social networks like Facebook (as I would if I lived in Boston and they lived in San Francisco), and we can send photos back and forth from our digital cameras, we don’t seem so far away.

    Advanced technologies also mean that I can make a living through the internet as a blogger, freelance writer, what have you. It’s not a full absorption with fluency in Hebrew or live in poverty/return to your country of origin scenario as it once may have been. (Keep in mind I’m talking about Americans here.)

    Last, Nefesh B’Nefesh is a young organization that started around the same time that Birthright did. NBN has done an amazing job making aliyah (with “stickiness”) a reality. I didn’t come through them, but I know that they are tremendously helpful as an organization, very committed to what they are doing, and generously open with their services.

    So yes, with today’s advanced technologies, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s vision and services, and Birthright’s power, I do think that aliyah is a much more viable reality than it ever has been before.

    I’ll head over to your blog shortly to keep up with your good work. In the meantime, please feel free to advertise, as you call it, and toot your own horn here. It’s all symbiotic in the Jewish blogosphere.


  11. Gary Kulwin says:

    Don’t worry, Maya – your blog will still remain my favorite (after my own, of course). 🙂

    BTW, I agree that NBN is a really impressive organization (from what I have heard about them). I read that the organization originated in Boca Raton, Florida (not far from where I live). It’s interesting to me that both NBN the Ben Gamla Charter School (an idea which you know I love) both originated here in South Florida. I seem to be living in a hotbed of Diaspora Zionist activity. Maybe because the climate is so similar, we feel closer in spirit to Israel? Maybe because of all of the Jewish seniors living here, who grew up with memories of Israel’s birth and development, there is more Israel consciousness? Can anybody come up with a better explanation?

    Kol Tuv, GK

  12. thenewjew says:


    It’s really interesting when you put it like that. Ben Gamla is of course in your area (in that it has a very distinct physical location), but you’re right in saying NBN is from your neck of the woods as well. I didn’t think about it like that.

    I’m not sure your climate is that similar to ours. Aren’t you very humid? Haifa and Tel Aviv are our wet heat locales, while the south is warm, but dry.

    I think the Jewish senior theory is a good one, but perhaps only a start. A good idea to be thinking about and I’d love to hear some other theories or what you think could be contributing factors.

    You better watch out, there are Zionists everywhere around you. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? That advice may be coming to you rather late as it seems you’ve already taken it.

    Interested in your opinion on the Muslim school in New York. What do you think?


  13. […] In the meantime, check out my idea for technology trips to Israel here: “Three Ways to Improve Birthright’s Impact: Outreach, Trip Customization, Strategic Thin… […]

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