Boston Federation's Birthright follow-up program goes national

Just over a year later, a local program in Boston intended to provide follow-up of such returnees is going national in an effort to increase Jewish affiliation among American university students.

February 2, 2015 01:26
4 minute read.
Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state.

Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state.. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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In late 2013 the Pew Research Center released a massive study of American Jewry that showed a marked increase in assimilation and intermarriage. Following the release of the Pew Report, as it came to be known, the mandarins of organized American Jewry issued calls for renewed efforts to increase communal engagement, including greater outreach to the alumni of Birthright trips.

Just over a year later, a local program in Boston intended to provide follow-up of such returnees is going national in an effort to increase Jewish affiliation among American university students.

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2015’s expansion of IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, and Transformed), a program started by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, is intended to create a “holistic experience” based around Birthright trips, incorporating both pretrip preparation and follow-up campus engagement, according to organizers.

“Everybody and their mother were talking about it, but not too many people were actually doing it,” asserted CJP president Barry Shrage. “The opportunity is so enormous.”

CJP started in 2006 with a pilot program on three Boston area campuses, eventually expanding to 12 by 2014. Now working with Hillel International, the Boston Federation has looked outside of its traditional area of responsibility, with chapters at the University of Florida, University of Texas-Austin, The Ohio State University, University of Maryland, and University of California-Santa Barbara.

Although there are scattered efforts, most Birthright participants are not engaged in any sort of organized follow-up upon their return, despite studies indicating higher levels of Jewish affiliation and a lowered rate of intermarriage among returnees.

“Part of the problem was that on most campuses the Hillels were mostly catering to the traditional kids…so the opportunity for outreach was greatly diminished. The opportunity with the Birthright kids is that they are almost entirely kids who had never been to Israel, never had a Jewish education, non-traditional, non-Orthodox, not even traditional Conservative, so…all of a sudden it changes the entire atmosphere of the Hillel. So I thought it would be enormously important,” Shrage explained.

“We think that we can get up to 80 percent of the returnees, maybe more, maybe a little less, engaged in concrete activities,” he predicted.

IACT employs campus coordinators, paid by CJP through Hillel, who organize Birthright trips, leading their participants through pre-trip activities, the trip itself, and post-trip activities, explained Ariel Scheer, a coordinator at Northeastern.

Coordinators are generally within two or three years of graduation themselves.

“This model just makes so much sense, because I have been able to build relationships, many of them with [students] who were very distant from anything Jewish and didn’t want to get involved in the Jewish community or life here on campus,” said Scheer.

According to Cheryl Aronson, a CJP vice president and one of the movers behind IACT, it is a “systematic way to capitalize on the opportunity that Birthright gave us.”

“We have to put something in front of students to give them an opportunity to be part of the community and not wait until they leave university,” she explained, adding that the program generally targets underclassmen and those with minimal Jewish ties, those least likely to step into a Hillel.

While going on Birthright gives students a good feeling, she said, it is important to provide an outlet for that emotion after the trip, be it in the form of community service, Jewish learning or Israel advocacy.

“This is the most important, significant agenda and opportunity I’ve ever worked on in my career,” she averred.

At the University of Florida, IACT runs programs such as Krav Maga classes with Israeli soldiers, Negev nights with tents and nargilas, and films about Israel, said Hillel director Rabbi Adam Grossman.

“IACT is critical to our campus,” he said.

“Using a holistic approach to inspire with a journey starting well before and well after a trip to Israel, IACT provides the gateway for students to ultimately connect more deeply with Judaism and Israel in order to become the leaders necessary to build a strong and activated Jewish campus populations.”

The program has “all the earmarks of a critical initiative,” said Hebrew Union College sociologist Dr. Steven Cohen, who is not affiliated with the IACT.

Brandeis’s Dr. Leonard Saxe, who has been studying the effects of Birthright for years, agreed. By recruiting cohorts for Birthright trips and following up afterward, he said, IACT “allows Hillel to [fulfill] its mission better.” It “recruits larger cohorts of people,” creating a network effect that would be powerful even without follow-up.

Even the Jewish Federations of North America is getting on board, JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman told The Jerusalem Post.

“A few months ago the JFNA board of trustees approved a new initiative called J-Quest. Among other things, J-Quest will build on existing young adult engagement programs – like IACT and Birthright – and enhance Jewish immersive experiences and the necessary follow-up,” he said.

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