Jackie Garonzik came back from her birthright israel trip two years ago feeling “a strong pull toward Judaism.” In the first few months back at Johns Hopkins University, the pre-med student explored Jewish groups on campus and “would go to Shabbat dinner for a little bit.”
But before long, despite the reunions and the e-mail invitations to Jewish activities at her local Hillel, Garonzik recalls that “normal life infiltrated.”
Now on the cusp of graduation, she still considers the trip “one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
But with four busy and expensive years of medical school on the horizon, Garonzik doesn’t expect to get back to Israel anytime soon. And she doesn’t feel her commitment to Judaism has changed since she went on birthright as one of the first participants in the free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults.
While plenty of birthright alumni have gone on to be much more involved in Jewish life, Garonzik is hardly alone.
As a result, two years and 28,000 alumni after its launch, birthright is starting to focus on improving its follow-up efforts.
“There’s no question that no matter what we tried to do in terms of follow-up, it fell short of what we needed to do,” said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, executive vice president of birthright’s North American operations.
A splashy and expensive program for Jews aged 18 to 26, birthright is supported by philanthropists, federations and the State of Israel.
Its backers had hoped the trips would spark lifetime commitments to Judaism and Israel among young Jews who had never been to Israel on an organized trip. But until now the program — preoccupied with issues like recruitment and security, especially in the wake of the Palestinian intifada — has focused on little more than the trips themselves.
“The telling point of whether this extraordinary project has been worth it will be what the alumni do when they come back,” he said. “We haven’t been set up to do anything with that yet, though we have made some meager attempts.”
Birthright has funded a handful of pilot follow-up projects throughout North America, and many of the 20 groups that run its trips have also made efforts. Now birthright is hoping to spearhead something larger and more systemic.
It recently hired Barry Chazan, an education professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to oversee follow-up programming. Chazan will move to New York for two years, with the goal of bringing various organizations together and developing more coordinated efforts for birthright alumni.
At the end of the two years, Chazan hopes to see hundreds of “terrific, diverse local kinds of connections and links” for alumni, as well as a “national partnership of key agencies that deal with this age group that are working together.”
Speaking by phone from Jerusalem, Chazan also stressed the importance of engaging alumni themselves in the planning process.
Birthright is surveying trip providers and community organizers to find out what sorts of follow-up programming already exist for alumni, according to Simon Klarfeld, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, one of birthright’s founding partners and a key player in the follow-up plans. It hopes eventually to circulate a “best-practices” guide, he said.
In addition, birthright is exploring how different types of trips might more effectively engage participants long term, particularly those who are not on campuses and easily reached.
Klarfeld said birthright is “trying to find out who’s out there already doing programming” for Jews in their 20s, then match them with alumni, “rather than birthright becoming the programming arm for twenty- and thirty-somethings.”
Birthright is also exploring offering more “niche trips,” Klarfeld said, such as ones for law students or young lawyers, or for people interested in particular topics, like social justice, peace and coexistence or the environment.
Some birthright alumni have gone on to greater Jewish involvement, whether returning to Israel for volunteer or study programs, becoming Jewish activists on campus or, in the case of some participants on programs sponsored by religious outreach groups and religious movements, becoming more religiously observant.
According to a new study commissioned by birthright, alumni a year after the trip, particularly college students, do tend to think and behave differently from peers who did not travel to Israel. For example, they are more likely to believe it is important to raise their children as Jews and to be involved in campus Jewish activities.
However, they are no more likely to participate in ritual activities, such as holiday observances. And they are still not overwhelmingly involved in Jewish activities — only 24 percent of the students report that they often participate in campus Jewish activities.
What happens after the one-year mark still remains to be studied.
The challenges to keeping birthright alumni involved are significant: finding the human resources to offer personal attention to alumni; offering compelling programming that can compete with non-Jewish activities and interests; and simply maintaining the correct contact information for a highly transient demographic group.
Israel trips are a “jump start to Jewish life,” said Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, executive director of Mayanot, a Lubavitch group that has run birthright trips for 2,000 young people.
But “the bottom line is that it’s 19, 20, 21 years of disengagement, then 10 days in Israel, then they go back to regular life and it’s parties, boyfriends and a life not necessarily engaged in Judaism,” Rabbi Gestetner said.
Chabad houses throughout the country have run various programs for birthright-Mayanot alumni, and the alumni receive regular e-mail newsletters. But Rabbi Gestetner said the group lacks the manpower to keep up with everyone in as meaningful or personal manner as it would like.
“Ultimately it really boils down to people, and that’s a lot of work,” Rabbi Gestetner said. “E-newsletters are great, chat rooms are great, but it is limited.”
Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which is the largest single provider of birthright trips, agrees.
“There’ a direct relationship between the amount of staff support to the effectiveness of birthright israel follow-up efforts,” he said. “If we had a birthright israel professional on every campus who would do both recruitment and follow-up, we could be very successful.”
Although Hillel has not done as much follow-up as it would like, Rubin said a number of birthright alumni have gone on to become “student activists,” making up 30 percent of participants in Hillel’s national leadership conferences.
“Certainly some of them would have gone through Hillel anyway, but a large proportion would not,” he said.
In addition to a shortage of manpower and the tendency of alumni to get distracted by other interests when they come home, another challenge has been the fear by many birthright officials of turning off alumni by coming on too strong when they return or by immediately asking them for money.
“The last thing we want is to do a typical Jewish community routine on these young people, which is to say, ‘Hey you’ve been to Israel, now we have all these things for you to do back here,’ ” Rabbi Zimmerman said.
For that reason — and to the frustration of some in the Jewish world — birthright has been highly protective of participants, releasing the names and contact information to only a handful of Jewish groups.
It is now releasing contact information to Jewish federations, but on the condition that federations agree not to solicit funds from birthright alumni for at least a year after they return.
A variety of follow-up efforts — and success stories — are out there, but most of them are on the grassroots level. Among them:
# For birthright’s first two years, Hillels took two approaches to alumni — both attempting to mainstream them in ongoing Jewish activities and offering reunions and other special programming for them. In the past year it has run an intensive pilot project in Los Angeles, Baltimore and San Francisco. Called Shearim Gateways Initiative, the project involves a combination of Jewish learning and social activities.
# Mayanot encourages participants to stay in Israel an extra week to study. Nationally, the group distributes regular e-mail newsletters to alumni, and its network of Chabad houses around the world have stayed in contact with trip alumni through reunions, special Shabbat dinners and movie nights.
# For the past year and a half, the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation has offered birthright returnees their choice of two free Jewish-themed books and hosted an on-line Jewish book discussion group. About one-third of the North American alumni reached by e-mail — 3,468 people — have ordered the books, with the “Historical Atlas of the Jewish People” and the first volume of the Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud being the most popular choices.