ST. LOUIS (JTA) – Our engagement with the 100,000 American Taglit-birthright israel trip alumni will determine the shape of the Jewish community for years. While a growing body of research indicates that the trips provide a foundational Jewish experience, it is not clear that the Jewish community is effectively tapping into this potential for increased involvement.
Michael Steinhardt, one of the leading lights behind the birthright israel venture, announced plans recently to refocus his philanthropic work and has selected birthright israel follow-up programming as one of three primary target areas. The challenge facing him and the broader Jewish community is to identify initiatives to capitalize on this “new wave” of Jewish energy and effectively channel it into programs that strengthen Jewish involvement, especially among Jews in their 20s and early 30s.
Some think that follow-up programs should replicate the Israel experience in America. Advocates of this approach may propose such ideas as a mega-event concert series for birthright alumni or a birthright-emulating bus tour through the Jewish South. This approach assumes that trip participants are drawn to programs that re-create positive trip experiences close to home.
My wife, Chana, and I direct the Chabad on Campus serving Washington University in St. Louis, and we have successfully organized and staffed nine birthright israel trips. We have developed and cultivated close relationships with hundreds of birthright alumni.
Our experience has made it abundantly clear that instead of trying to re-create an Israel experience in St. Louis, we strive to integrate alumni into campus Jewish life immediately upon their return.
Each semester, for example, our Chabad center hosts a welcome back Shabbat dinner that is open to trip alumni and the broader campus community. We actively encourage alumni to participate in programs at Chabad on Campus and Hillel, including experiential Jewish learning, cultural programs and Israel programs. Indeed, a large proportion of Chabad’s current student leadership draws upon students whose first significant interaction with us was during a birthright israel trip.
One of the main reasons for our success in maintaining strong, positive relationships with birthright israel alumni is that we are “vertically integrated.” This means that we recruit students prior to the trip, participate during the trip as Jewish educators and follow up with the same students upon their return.
By creating one-on-one relationships with them, they begin to feel connected to our community even before the trip departs. This deep integration is unusual among trip providers and is the product of an informal relationship between the Chabad on Campus network in America and the Mayanot trip provider.
In an increasingly disconnected society, the value of personal contact facilitating integration of alumni into the community cannot be overstated. Returning participants should be welcomed by engaging Jewish professionals who listen with interest to their individual stories.
Facilitating opportunities for post-trip reflection helps solidify for participants a better understanding of the impact of the program on their Jewish identities. Professionals may also suggest further opportunities for Jewish involvement.
It seems apparent that the trip experience cannot be replicated “on foreign soil.” The immersive bus dynamic, the Mifgashim encounters with Israeli soldiers and the site visits are unique to Israel.
Even the “mega-event,” which can be reduced to a Jewish concert that tours major U.S. cities, would not compare to the original experience in Israel, for the substance of a mega-event is far greater than the performers or the philanthropists and politicians who address the audience.
Long after the participants forget which band played, they will remember that in the hall along with them were 5,000 young Jews from all over the world.
It is impractical and expensive to create a parallel universe of specialized programs just for trip alumni. Eventually the alumni need to be integrated into their local Jewish communities. The only question is timing.
Our experience on campus shows that the best time is immediately upon return. Of course, bus reunions play a role in helping integrate alumni, but their function should be focused on mainstreaming alumni, not creating a separate uber-class of young American Jews.
This is not to suggest that there is an array of successful programs that await returning participants. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the American Jewish enterprise is optimized for suburban, upper middle-class families with children.
Others, especially college students and post-collegiates in their 20s and 30s, are often treated as de facto second-class citizens since they lack significant resources to donate to the community and do not yet have children that need to be educated.
Alumni of birthright israel trips need not be insulated from these realities by the development of “alumni only” programs. Instead, the American Jewish community must be introspective and make necessary changes to encourage participation of both trip alumni and the young adult community at large.
Programming must replicate the best practices of the birthright experience. It must be authentic and meaningful, executed with a high level of professionalism by knowledgeable Jewish professionals using an even-handed approach to working with a variety of community groups.
This is the optimum way to translate the Jewish energy that participants bring back from Israel into deepened Jewish involvement in America.
Hershey Novack is the founding director of Chabad on Campus serving Washington University in St. Louis.