Op-Ed: Birthright Israel NEXT continuing Jewish journey for young adults
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Op-Ed: Birthright Israel NEXT continuing Jewish journey for young adults

NEW YORK (JTA) — Ten years after its founding, Birthright Israel is a universally acknowledged success. More than 200,000 young Jewish adults worldwide have participated. Studies have confirmed the remarkable degree to which this free 10-day trip to Israel strengthens the Jewish identities of its alumni.

Less clear is the extent to which our community is engaging Birthright participants upon their return. Indeed, one of the questions heard most often in the Jewish philanthropic world today is “What are we doing to follow-up with Birthright alumni?”

The good news is that young Jewish adults are engaging in Jewish life in record numbers due in large effort to Birthright Israel NEXT. Tens of thousands, many of whom grew up without a strong Jewish identity and lacking any substantive Jewish educational background, are turning to Birthright Israel NEXT for ways to deepen the connections to Jewish life that they have been inspired to seek because of their trip to the Jewish homeland.

More than 10,000 young Jews in the United States alone took part in a myriad of Birthright Israel NEXT-related activities just last month. Over 700 Birthright alumni hosted Shabbat dinners in their apartments and homes throughout the U.S. Thousands more participated in local cultural and educational events in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and Atlanta.

Looking ahead to 2010, NEXT is quietly on target to stimulate the engagement of more than 100,000 young Jewish adults through an array of meaningful post-trip experiences carefully designed to increase the Jewish literacy of this group and build connections to the broader Jewish community. This figure does not even count what’s happening at colleges and universities across the country, where tens of thousands of other Birthright alumni have immersed themselves in projects and programs sponsored by their local Hillels and other campus-based organization. Hundreds more are signing up for Jewish and Israel studies courses as a way of continuing the Jewish journey they started on Birthright.

Much work remains to be done to broaden and deepen both the scope and reach of Birthright follow-up. We appreciate that this is not a job for NEXT alone. We see our role as that of a catalyst. We fully intend to continue to partner with a multitude of organizations, both established and emerging, to meet the needs of young Jewish adults and ensure they are on a path toward increased communal involvement.

Programmatically, our educational focus is to help Birthright alumni continue their Jewish journeys in four areas to which they were introduced on the trip: Shabbat celebration, Hebrew language learning, meaningful ways to connect to Israel and Jewish peoplehood.

Each of these areas holds great potential. The NEXT Shabbat program already has encouraged 4,000 young adults to host dinners and open their homes to serve 60,000 Shabbat meals to young adults. We sponsor Hebrew language programs (ulpanim) for young Jewish adults in 10 cities, and use SMS and iPhone applications to help hundreds more learn Hebrew each day.

We are building attachment to Israel by encouraging return visits, offering joint programming with Israeli consulates and introducing Birthright alums to Israeli peers working or studying in the United States. Through a variety of volunteer and service opportunities, we are helping young Jewish adults appreciate their connection and their responsibility to fellow Jews.

We appreciate the full extent of the time and resources that have been invested by so many in Birthright Israel in an effort to help secure the future of American Jewry. We are fully committed to making Birthright follow-up every bit as rich, textured, meaningful, absorbing — and life changing — as the trip itself.

Birthright Israel NEXT is dedicated to helping the American Jewish community nurture, educate and sustain future generations of young Jews. We welcome and will vigorously pursue partnerships with all who share our goal.

(Al Levitt is president of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the new chairman of Birthright Israel NEXT.)