BOSTON – Despite the common perception otherwise, thanks to the ubiquitous busloads of enthusiastic American Jewish young adults that traverse the Israel landscape every summer and winter – Birthright participants don’t grow on trees.
Sure, with over 500,000 past participants under its belt and the infrastructure to embrace as many applicants as are interested in the free 10-day trip to their homeland, Birthright has evolved into a given part of some Jewish college students’ four-year experience, just like spending a semester abroad.
But what about the others, the great bulk of Jewish students who know nothing about Israel or even about their own heritage? And what happens to Birthright participants after their amazing 10 days experiencing the country’s history, vibrancy and culture? Do they file it as an excellent adventure, along the lines of running with the bulls in Pamplona, or does it spark a lifelong love affair with Zionism? Those questions are what kept Barry Shrage awake at night. The president since 1987 of Combined Jewish Philanthropies – Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation – Shrage was a firm believer in the power of Birthright to be a transformative experience.
“Either you have a grandfather who is a Holocaust survivor, you have parents who were very involved in the Jewish community, you go on Birthright… or you’re gone,” Shrage told The Jerusalem Post last month in a discussion about losing the battle to establish Jewish identity in the younger generation of American Jews.
“Things need to get better now; we can’t afford to lose whole generations of Jews,” he says. “We lost a great deal 70 years ago; we can’t afford to lose more. The question is, once Birthright has changed people, what do you do with it? How do you transform it into something permanent?” Shrage’s solution was to establish the IACT initiative in 2006, standing for “Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed.”
At three Boston-area campuses, the program trained its young, professional coordinators to treat the Birthright trip as a holistic experience involving recruitment beforehand, accompaniment during the trip, and engagement afterward.
The CJP IACT Initiative, which is run in partnership with Hillel International and is funded by the CJP and generous donors, has flourished – blossoming into a fast-growing national project that claims to engage 80 percent of returning 'IACT Campus trip'
Birthright alumni in Jewish life on campus .
This month, salaried IACT coordinators are taking up posts at 28 American universities from coast to coast to create a buzz on campus for Birthright trips, and to develop programming to keep Birthright alumni involved in Jewish and Israeli activities. In addition to receiving financial incentives for recruiting Birthright participants, they will also join the campus groups they put together on their bus in Israel.
Last month they gathered in Boston not only to receive a rah-rah speech from proud papa Shrage, but to undergo an intensive, two-day boot camp – organized by Israel-based project managers Upstart Ideas – to prepare them for the fall semester of winter Birthright trip recruitment, a period described by a veteran IACT coordinator as “a marathon run at sprint speed.”
A GROUP of more bubbly, motivated young American Jews would be hard to find, and the reason is simple: it’s because the product they’re selling is one they passionately believe in.
Almost all of the IACT coordinators have been inspired to pursue a path of Israel activism following a Birthright experience of their own. Many of them have returned to Israel multiple times, with some having served in the IDF, studied at Israeli universities and even made aliya. “I spent last semester in Israel as a MASA intern at Yad Vashem,” said Hannah Salzburg, a beginning IACT coordinator at the University of Vermont and a 2014 Birthright alumnus. “I could have stayed in Israel and been happy, but I came back to the US because I wanted to fulfill my soul – by making other people love, appreciate and respect Israel.”
Salzburg and her fellow coordinators gathered in a downtown Boston hotel to participate in sessions with titles like “Practical Recruitment on Campus” and “Social Media and Branding.” In addition to nuts-and-bolts seminars in effective budgeting and event planning, the conference featured presentations by originators of tried-and-true methods of post-Birthright programming, ranging from a Kindle Your Judaism book club, to an initiative of University of Florida Hillel director Rabbi Adam Grossman called Career Up! to an event called The Amazing Israel Race.
The conference also addressed the thorny real-time issues that are part and parcel of being an Israel activist on campus – proactively contending with anti- Israel and BDS activists – in a session run by StandWithUs senior campus strategist Max Samarov.
But the bulk of the two full days dealt less with how to defend Israel before its detractors than with how to promote Israel to potential Birthright participants who never entertained much thought about Israel or their Jewishness.
“What we’re doing here is to try to reach people who are the least likely to be reached, and entice them with the beauty, meaning, pleasure and joy of being part of a 3,500-year-old civilization – the Jewish people,” explained Cheryl Aronson, the CJP’s vice president of Israel and Overseas, and the person Shrage tapped to spearhead the IACT initiative at its inception.
According to Aronson, the Birthright trip is just the “first date to get second dates, and we recognize Birthright is the best first date we could dream of.
“Using the Birthright immersive experience as a carrot and then translating people’s passion about Jewish identity into reality provides such an opportunity to transform Jewish life on campus.
Birthright is a starting point, but if they continue to have really good Jewish experiences during the rest of their college careers, it can solidify their commitment to Jewish life and to their Jewish community.”
One huge advantage that IACT has over other Israel advocacy endeavors is its partnership with Hillel International, which gives it access on campus, credibility and the organizational infrastructure, all vital elements that were needed for the initiative to expand beyond its Boston-area scope.
“I knew that for our expansion nationally to be successful, we had to partner with Hillel,” said Aronson. “When our coordinators want to do something on campus, they don’t have all of these walls and boundaries that other organizations do. They have Hillel’s credibility and the gravitas of belonging organically to the campus.”
It’s a two-way street, with the IACT coordinators implement- ing a much-needed element of Hillel’s mandate: Israel engagement.
“The IACT coordinators are an amazing gift to Hillel,” said Eric Fingerhut, Hillel International’s charismatic president and CEO, before addressing the coordinators in Boston.
“One of the challenges we have is that we’re like a one-room schoolhouse. We have to be great at spirituality, serve lots of kosher food, host social gatherings, be in tune with other social justice issues on campus. It’s a huge portfolio. So to have a dedicated person on campus connecting students to Israel and specializing in building relationships around Israel is a real asset.”
Fingerhut said that he was sold on the IACT concept as soon as he took over his post at Hillel three years ago.
“On my first day on the job, I came to Boston and met with Barry, who recapped the history of the IACT program and expressed his frustration that the opportunities that existed with the amazing success of Birthright were not being maximized. He said he wanted to expand the program but only in partnership with Hillel; otherwise, it wouldn’t work. I stuck out my hand and said, ‘We have a deal.’” Since then, IACT has annually expanded its reach, with the 2016 school year finding it penetrating campuses such as the University of Miami, NYU and the University of Southern California, totaling some 400,000 students nationwide.
ACCORDING TO IACT coordinators attending the conference, the Jewish students on each campus have their own complexities and nuances that affect their starting point with issues related to Israel and their own Jewish identity.
“What I’ve learned about Jewish students in Texas is that in order to be a Texan – to do culturally Texan things – it directly conflicts with culturally Jewish things,” said Zack Silverman, the 24-year-old University of Texas IACT coordinator.
“As you go more Texan, you move away from Judaism, whether it’s hunting, barbecues which are predominantly pork, or church culture, which means most students do social things on Saturday.”
Before they can be pulled in for Birthright, many of his students need to be convinced that they are Jewish, added Silverman. Once their sense of identity is validated, the process of getting them on a Birthright trip becomes easier, and the transformation they undergo in Israel stays with them upon their return.
Nomi Mitchell, the IACT coordinator at Boston University, works with a large Jewish population in the student body who are generally much more culturally Jewish than those students in Texas.
However, she still has her work cut out for her.
“There will always be those students who may know what Birthright is but they would never seek me out for information. I have to seek them out,” she said. “That’s why tabling on campus or running small information sessions in the dorms or frats and sororities is so beneficial.”
ONE OF IACT’s biggest fans is the Birthright organization itself, which reaps the benefits of the coordinators’ work.
According to Jeff Reinstein, Birthright’s North American recruitment director, IACT’s advantage is integrating a pre-Israel, an Israel and a post-Israel experience.
“The campus communities that are taking Birthright trips together and have someone who made the connection between them have the highest success levels for follow-up after their trips,” said Reinstein.
“IACT’s work is amazing – they’ve been able to put staff on campuses that were either underfunded or understaffed and have fixed both those things. It’s made a huge impact and has been a game changer for some campuses.”
At the end of the two-day conference, the coordinators gathered up the tools they had been handed by the speakers and their colleagues and, with stars in their eyes (of the six-sided variety presumably), prepared to head off to their respective campuses. Their goal? To bring in Jewish students, one at a time, to have a discussion about their place in the world.
CJP president Shrage likened their task to throwing a rock in a pond, the effect of which may not be seen immediately.
“If one kid goes to Israel, there are changes; 20,000 – even more. And with 500,000, there can be a wrinkle in history that can change the whole world and be potentially revolutionary for the future of the Jewish people,” he told the rapt audience of young coordinators.
“Every kid is potentially a major change agent, and what you can do for them is to introduce them to Israel and Judaism. If you get people to Israel, it changes everything.” The writer was a guest of CJP-Boston.