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Birthright’s list

Rabbis Andy Bachman and Daniel Brenner are conducting a lively debate on the JTA Web site over whether Birthright Israel should be sharing its alumni list.

Bachman, a longtime leader in Jewish outreach and the religious leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, kicked things off with a piece (click here to read the full version) saying that Birthright should share the list if it wants to help boost participants’ invovlement in Jewish life upon their return from Israel:

… During the early days of Birthright planning, I was invited to a focus group with other Jewish leaders that included brainstorming on what to do once program participants returned home. Several of us made it abundantly clear that we needed access to the names of participants. Birthright officials made it clear that this would not be possible. At the time it was stated that this valuable list of Birthright alumni would be used for fund raising to help support and sustain the program — a rather counter-intuitive pursuit for engaging the young and disconnected, and one that only now, eight years later, is being launched in a serious way.

In my capacity as director of the Bronfman Center at NYU; as founder of Brooklyn Jews, considered one of the many success stories of local Jewish community organizers; and now as the rabbi of one of New York City’s fastest growing, multi-generational synagogue communities, my experience has been that Birthright has no desire to share the names of trip participants who live in and around Brooklyn.

The troubling implication is that Birthright is not interested in establishing partnerships with an array of great new grass-roots Jewish initiatives that have a proven track record at engaging young people — the clear, stated and laudable goal of sending them to Israel in the first place.

In cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Washington and New York — just to name a few — thousands of young Jews are not only being reached but being developed as integral players in the revitalization of American Jewish life (also one of Birthright’s professed goals).

So here’s my simple request to my friends at Birthright: Release those lists to the field and let those who are skilled in the art of reaching Jews where they’re at do the work we love to do. We are all partners in this endeavor of sustaining and revitalizing Jewish life.

Brenner, the executive director of Birthright Israel Next, responded with his own piece, in which he painted the nightmare scenario of Birthright alumni being hounded by a tidal wave of promotional material from synagogues and organizations:

Before I respond, though, I’d like to reflect on a topic on which few rabbis sermonize: data asset management. You might be thinking, What does data asset management have to do with Jewish education? Here is a story that hints at the connection.

Meredith Druss, a young Birthright Israel alumna, just started working with me in our New York office. After graduating high school in Plantation, Fla., and going to college at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, she joined a few friends and got a place in Manhattan. Is she on the Birthright Israel master list? Of course, and I can see that she went on a trip run by her Hillel. But on the list, she lives in Florida and goes to school in New Hampshire. Her e-mail on the list, which ends in “.edu”, is no longer her e-mail address. Her address and phone number have changed. In fact, the only thing the same is her name — and that too might change if her dating life heats up.

If Bachman had his way, I would send her name to the rabbis and other Jewish organizational leaders in South Florida. Now what would her reaction be if she opened her inbox and found e-mails from 25 Jewish organizations in the area? Would it take more than a minute before she cursed the day she gave her e-mail address to a Jewish organization? Now, what if we updated her information and she began to receive several hundred notices from organizations in New York?

You can see easily why this would be a communications disaster — and how easily we would lose the trust of young adults.

From there, Brenner insists that "sending out e-mails or e-newsletters or even funny viral videos will never be a replacement for building local connections," and warns that "If you begin to seem like a noodge, always poking your message into people’s Blackberry or iPhones, or wherever, they’ll begin to block you out."

All that said, Brenner adds, Birthright Israel NEXT is forging partnerships — and even sharing lists with federations and Hillels.In the last year, Birthright Israel NEXT partnered on Jewish education with cutting-edge organizations including Hazon, JDub, the National Yiddish Book Center, Nextbook, Limmud, Reboot, Moishe House, PLP and — here’s the shocker — we even partnered with some forward-thinking synagogues:

So what should rabbis or leaders of upstart Jewish organizations do?

First off, reach out to Birthright Israel NEXT and let us know what you are doing and how it is attracting Birthright Israel alumni. In addition, speak to the young adults in your sphere and find out who went on a Birthright Israel trip. Ask them to reach out to their friends from the trip. Pretty soon you will find that you have tapped into a group of people hungry for relevant Jewish engagement….

In case you are wondering who actually has the “Birthright List," Taglit-Birthright Israel shares the trip registration information with Birthright Israel NEXT, our funding partners in the Jewish federation system and our campus partners at Hillel. Access to names on lists are, and always will be, the focus of organizational bickering. But arguing about lists never will be a replacement for the genuine, one-on-one engagement that Birthright Israel trip participants need to find a place in the Jewish community.

Bachman responded with this comment to Brenner’s piece:

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Daniel. 

I’d like to be clear about a couple points:

1.  I don’t have a Bachman Plan.  I’m suggesting that the conversation about lists be opened up.  I get that your organization doesn’t want to bombard returnees with lots of email.  Surely there are ways to offer reasonable access that your data management experts can come up with.

2.  There are more ways to meet participants other than going to your staged events.  I have met several birthright participants at several events that we host in our synagogue; at Brooklyn Jews events, services and classes; as babysitters for our kids; at the Park Slope Food Co-Op; I even met one recently in line at the concessions at Citi Field.  In other words, if you’re an aware and actively engaged Jewish professional, you can have these types of encounters anywhere, organically, in life. 

3.  I’m not sure your research on synagogue professionals dedicated to serving young adults is correct.  I can think of many more than one synagogue (heck, if you include our shul, that’s a 100% increase according to our Data Management Experts!)

So how’s this for a start:  invite several “cutting edge” synagogue rabbis to a meeting and let’s figure out ways to engage young adults living in places where the synagogue has a real chance of engaging them.  That is something, to the best of my knowledge, birthright has never done. 

And Brenner returned the favor:

1. Sorry if I made you sound like General Marshall.

OK, so we are working on the “2.0” elements of our web—but the digital neighborhood most of our alumni live in is Facebook — so peer-to-peer is the way to go on this one. Check out Oy Bay! in San Francisco — great example of a community wide blog run by young adults. Anyone can start this sort of thing.

2. I agree and we are doing alot more than staged events. In DC we have a “Shabbat Hoppin’” program which picks a new shul each month and people meet up, check it out and then go out for dinner. We are trying our best to educate our alumni about programs in the U.S., in Israel, and beyond with all of our monthly newsletters. Just last month with listed all the community seders that alumni could go to, for example.

one other comment — az, nu? if it is organic then why shry about the list?

3. The good people over at Synagogue 3000 arranged for just such a meeting last year and I met dynamic rabbis from Boston and Seattle and other places. This was very helpful for me and I then asked my folks in those cities to connect with them. Last month I did a similar gig in NJ with about fifty rabbis. That’s how this stuff works, I try to make shidduchs….

anyways, thanks for cracking open the conversation.