July 17, 2008
Extending the Birthright privilege
Organizers chart a new course to keep alumni connected beyond 10 days
(Page 4 - Previous Page)Come for Dinner ... It's on Birthright
NEXT Shabbat, the organization's latest initiative, which is being piloted this summer, asks alumni to host a Shabbat meal, with Birthright NEXT footing the bill -- $25 per guest, up to 16 guests per meal. Playing into the Gen-Yers' do-it-yourself Judaism, the menu, guest list, location, context and conversation are all up to the host.
"What we intend to do is to create for these kids a social environment that will bring them together in places where there aren't many Jews," said Steinhardt, who helped conceive the idea in keeping with his push for establishing Jewish life outside of institutional venues.
"They will develop a Jewish world around them, and in doing so develop a Jewish community, and that is the most important thing," he said. "What they actually do at the Shabbat dinner -- whether they sing 'Hinei Mah Tov,' light candles, do wine, or bread -- all those things are relatively incidental to having a Jewish communal event they feel good about."
About 900 people signed up to host this summer before registration maxed out, reaching an estimated 10,000 guests who will attend yoga dinners, Mexican fiestas, picnics on the beach, medical school study breaks, Moroccan feasts, knitting circle Shabbat -- whatever hosts could think of.
"When you look at all the incredible diversity, you're seeing that people feel like this is an opportunity for them to express themselves creatively," Brenner said. He has been heartened to see the feedback in the follow-up reports hosts are required to file.
One host wrote asking for help with the prayers she'd forgotten since Hebrew school, another said it was the first time he ever took off work to cook for friends and one alum sent in a picture of the candleholders he fashioned out of paper clips.
While some dinners have substantial Jewish content, organizers realize the Jewish substance can be a wild card in this laissez-faire programming, where the targets of the programming are empowered to create it. Some also worry that the follow-up with guests needs to be more rigorous.
Steinhardt has turned to another program he funds to experiment with adding more structure to NEXT Shabbat. The Los Angeles-based Professional Leadership Project (PLP) trains young adults to be leaders in the Jewish community. Starting July 18, 100 PLP participants across the country will host NEXT Shabbat dinners for Birthright alumni. PLP is providing hosts with resource information both for how to do a Shabbat dinner and topics of conversation. While Birthright NEXT has those things available on its website, PLP will be more hands-on in coaching the hosts.
Hosts will also collect information about their guests' interests, which PLP will pass on to Birthright NEXT, so they can follow up with specific ways the guests can stay involved, according to Rhoda Weisman, PLP founder and director. Weisman helped establish International Hillel's Birthright program in 1999 and 2000 for college campuses, and worked on Birthright follow-up until 2003.
"My hope for the Shabbat initiative is that they will develop a clear strategy about who they are reaching and how they are following up, and how alumni are moving forward in their Jewish journeys," Weisman said. "All of that takes a lot of thinking and planning, and a lot of time and a lot of piloting. I'm hoping that is the next step for Birthright NEXT."
Getting Communities Involved
PLP is also working with Birthright to place well-trained volunteers in lay leadership positions and to staff a new position: Birthright fellows.
Fifteen communities in North America, including Los Angeles, recently hired or are looking to hire fellows, Birthright alumni who will offer one-on-one Jewish journey coaching, informal education and programming resources. A $12.5 million matching grant in April from the Jim Joseph Foundation provides half the budget for hiring fellows.
Some large communities, including Los Angeles, have had alumni coordinators for a few years, usually hired through Federations. That position is currently open in Los Angeles, but The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hopes to fill it soon, which would bring Birthright staffing in Los Angeles to four -- a coordinator, two fellows and a development director.
"We're hoping we can strategize in a serious way about how people can get involved in L.A.," Brenner said. "L.A. has well over 10,000 alumni, and so far there has not been enough engagement of those alumni."
Jami Bachrad, who oversees Birthright support, marketing and fundraising at The Federation, agrees that more resources are needed, but she says programming has been strong, with an average of two events per month.
Birthright in Los Angeles has hosted an environmental retreat at the Brandeis-Bardin campus of the American Jewish University, a Friday night program with IKAR and numerous social events and cocktail hours, in addition to The Eight concert at the Echoplex in Echo Park last Chanukah.
Bachrad was hired through a B3 (Building Birthright Israel Brand) grant from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which placed Birthright advocates in ten communities.
Bachrad raises funds for The Federation's Birthright allocation and helps the community understand how important Birthright is on a broader scale. This year, she helped raise $300,000 on top of the $600,000 Federation already allocates to Birthright to sponsor two to three community Birthright trips a year. The B3 advocates in North America raised a total of almost $3 million in their first year, which will be distributed to underserved Jewish areas as well.
It's part of a broader picture of how funders are trying to get local communities, who reap the benefits of the Birthright infusion, to take on more of the Birthright burden.
Steinhardt thinks the community should be jumping at the investment.
"Our hope is that in the not too distant future, at least half of the next generation will have been to Israel with Birthright, and ideally a meaningful portion of those will participate in Birthright NEXT activities. And that generation, hopefully, will be better and stronger than the one that exists today," Steinhardt said. "I think it will be more spiritual, it will look to the ennobled aspects of Judaism. You can make your own judgment, but I think it will be a much better community."
Registration for Birthright Israel Winter 2008-2009 opens Sept. 10.