Birthright - what's next?

Post-trip programming should be as localized and competitive as the original project.

birthright logo 88 (photo credit: )
birthright logo 88
(photo credit: )
If you happen to see the enthusiasm of the thousands of students on the Birthright buses in Israel, it's clear that the idea hatched by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman has proven a great success. The big question being debated in the Jewish community is, what's next? After the intense 10 days, students return home with a renewed commitment to Israel and their Jewish identity. But for most, it's back to school, friends and a busy life. The brief experience leaves a great impression - it often changes attitudes. But if there is no follow up, it will fade to just another wonderful memory. WHEN STEINHARDT and Bronfman launched the project, they decided to depart from the classical hierarchical approach of the Jewish community. Historically, the few major establishment Jewish organizations played a lot of inside baseball with programming and activities. Steinhardt and Bronfman created a new model, one of competition. More than 20 groups qualified to become "Birthright providers." They were given benchmarks for the program but encouraged to create varied approaches. One group put the focus on the outdoors and biking, another on a secular modern Israel. Others included components of Jewish learning and Torah. Three providers - Hillel, Chabad-Mayanot and Oranim - rose to the top, each bringing thousands of students. Their marketing and programs succeeded, capturing most of the market. Other groups created smaller programs reflecting their niche. The wide variety of options drew students of varied interests. BUT WHEN it comes to post-Birthright programming, the old model of centralized programming, as opposed to competition, is emerging as the organizational strategy. New funding designated for Birthright will be used to create a new organizational structure for delivering programs across the country. The Jewish community does not need yet another organizational bureaucracy. Birthright should return to the entrepreneurial approach that has proven itself so well so far. The same spirit of innovation and competition that drives Birthright providers to work hard in enlistment and programming should be applied to post-Birthright programs. Imagine for a moment if a variety of local Jewish community groups empowered to reach out to Birthright alumni in their own areas. Creative energies would be unleashed. Synagogues, JCCs and Chabad centers, among others, would create a broad spectrum of programs for alumni, a whole new younger demographic of potential participants. Birthright alumni, in particular those who have already left college, could choose the gateway into Jewish life that interests them. THE EVOLVING organizational strategy of centralized programming, on the other hand, can have only marginal success. Birthright alumni are spread out across the county. While large concerts and other community events may attract alumni for a great evening, they will not have life-transforming effect. Centralized programming tends to reflect a narrow approach, one that will fail to touch the soul of many birthright alumni. Birthright has opened the hearts of close to 200,000 young Jews to Israel and Judaism. We as a community must seize the opportunity to harness this enthusiasm. Federations can be coordinators for the distribution of the names and addresses of alumni to local agencies and synagogues willing to provide programming. Birthright should establish benchmarks for local program providers. It should identify outstanding programs to be national models - and seek to encourage their duplication in other communities. Birthright could then encourage funders to support quality programs. Instead of establishing yet another national Jewish organizational structure, a localized post-Birthright movement could spark a national grassroots effort that would engage thousands of alumni. The writer is a Chabad emissary in Yorba Linda, California.