July 17, 2008
Extending the Birthright privilege
Organizers chart a new course to keep alumni connected beyond 10 days
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Plugging Into the iPod Generation
"The core mission of everyone connected with Birthright is to get people on trips, to make sure we have tens of thousands of people going on Taglit-Birthright, opening the door to Jewish identity, because we see that the impact of the program is remarkable," said Jay Golan, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation, which is the umbrella organization for both Taglit-Birthright and Birthright NEXT.
"That said, people were coming back very energized and not finding an infrastructure or relationship that they could link into comfortably," he said. "That has to do with the fact that close to 60 percent of Birthright participants are unaffiliated or marginally affiliated, and 10 days gave them a spark, but it didn't give them substantial exposure to the established Jewish world. The integration process is more difficult than anyone had anticipated."
On one side, the Jewish establishment, which for years has hoped for greater involvement from young people, has been somewhat stymied in figuring out how to make itself appealing to the iPod generation. On the other side, the established organizations might not be where this generation wants to end up at all. Gen-Yers -- those born from the early '80s to late '90s -- are looking for social networking and creative empowerment, and they often prefer to build their own Jewish milieu rather than step into one already established.
While many alumni have taken the initiative and set up their own Jewish social networks -- face-to-face ones in addition to the 600 or so Birthright-related Facebook pages -- others seem to be at a loss as to how to actualize the commitment they made to themselves at the end of Birthright to be more involved Jewishly.
"There is no question that participants in Taglit-Birthright have been impacted significantly in their attitudes about Jewish identity, about Israel and about being part of the Jewish people," said Leonard Saxe, a social psychologist at Brandeis University who has been evaluating Birthright participants since the program began.
Saxe recently coauthored with Hebrew University's Barry Chazan "Ten Days of Birthright Israel" (Brandeis University Press, 2008), a book that documents the strong and lasting impact Birthright has on participants. But Saxe is just now embarking on a long-term study of early alumni to find out just how deep the imprint went.
"Whether they now lead lives where the Jewish community and Jewish identity is central to them -- that's the long-term outcome question," he said.
Birthright isn't willing to leave that question either to chance or to a Jewish community that doesn't seem to be stepping up with the right answer.
"In many ways, the focus was on funding the trips in the belief, albeit wrong, that communities would develop exciting post-trip programming for young adults," said Jeff Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. "That has not been forthcoming from other organizations."
Over the last few years, Birthright board members and professionals realized that they, more than other Jewish organizations, were in the best position to work with alumni: they had the credibility of the Birthright brand, and they had proven they know how to engage this generation.