NEW YORK (JTA) – Birthright Israel and the Jim Joseph Foundation are hoping a new $25 million initiative can help create more Jews like Lindsay Litowitz.
Litowitz, 25 and now living in New York, essentially was an unaffiliated Jew when she graduated from the University of Florida in 2004. A free 10-day trip to Israel with Birthright shortly afterward drastically changed her career and Jewish path.
After the trip, she enrolled in graduate school at George Washington University to study economic development. But at a concert in Washington run by the local Birthright alumni community, something clicked: Why was she studying development in western Africa, Litowitz recalls thinking, when she knew so little about her own Jewish culture and language?
She took a leave of abscence from graduate school and moved to Israel for five months on a work study program with Livnot U’Lehibanot, which brings foreigners to learn about Israel and work on community service projects.
Upon returning to the United States, she went to work for Livnot. Now Litowitz is a consultant to several Jewish initiatives, including Birthright.
“It never would have occurred to me to go to Israel; it wasn’t on my radar,” she said. “Birthright was the gateway and the portal.”
Birthright has sent some 160,000 Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel since it was launched in 2000. It is widely seen as more successful than any modern Jewish identity-forming project in its ability to reach non-Orthodox young adults.
But the challenge has been to sustain the momentum of the Birthright trip and keep the participants from around the world involved in Jewish life. Last summer it created Birthright NEXT to focus on follow-up programming for alumni.
Over the next five years, the Jim Joseph Foundation will give Birthright NEXT some $12.5 million in matching grants to create a network of grassroots organizers to help bring alumni between the ages of 22 and 30 into the Jewish fold, the foundation announced Monday.
“Here you have 20-somethings who developmentally are at a point where they are making very key decisions about who they are, how they will live Jewishly and how they will identify, and this is an extraordinary opportunity to reach them,” the executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, Charles “Chip” Edelsberg, told JTA.
Combined with another $5 million that the foundation is giving to fund BIrthright trips, the $17.5 million grant is the largest by the foundation since it started making gifts last year.
Birthright alumni still enrolled in college show they are more likely to engage Jewishly once back on campus. Some 40 percent enroll in Jewish studies courses, according to a 2005 study by the Maurice Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, and Hillel says that some 50 percent of its participants are back from Birthright.
But follow-up with alumni of post-college age has been more difficult.
For many years the budget for post-Birthright programming was a relatively limited $1.5 million per year, according to Susie Gelman, the board chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation.
Professionals stationed in key communities reached about 13,000 alumni per year, primarily through the existing community infrastructure and the Jewish federation system.
But Gelman, a strong advocate of the Jewish federation system and the incoming president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said, “The federation system and Jewish organizations in general have found it challenging to engage many young Jews, especially the unaffiliated.”
The Jim Joseph Foundation grant will allow Birthright Israel to build on what existed previously, she said.
“We recognized that we needed additional resources in order to reach out to more alumni and offer them a wider variety of opportunities to explore and strengthen their Jewish identity and sense of connection to Israel and to the Jewish people.”
The new Birthright plan will train local directors and station them in 15 cities with high concentrations of Birthright alumni. Each director will hire five fellows, themselves Birthright alumni, in an outreach effort to other past participants.
Birthright’s vice president of education, Rabbi Daniel Brenner, will oversee the program nationally.
The program will hinge on how successfully the fellows can gauge what other alumni are doing socially, what they want Judaically and whether they can connect them with the local director.
Brenner says many of the fellows will most likely come from the pool of Americans who have led Birthright trips as counselors because they already have laid the groundwork for grassroots organizing.
“People did not recognize that the most important, energized young leadership from Birthright has already self-identified as such,” he said. Some have led five or six Birthright trips and have hundreds of participants in their Facebook profiles.
In some cases, Edelsbeg said, the local directors also will develop their own programming, but the goal is to help Jews who normally would be intimidated by walking into a synagogue or other Jewish institution on his or her own to find outlets within the existing Jewish community.
“It is very clear that the role of the local director is to help young Jews get connected to what already exists,” he said. “We do not want to create a parallel stream of Judaism. That is inefficient and irresponsible.”
The grant is a natural for the San Francisco-based foundation as it builds upon several other grants, Edelsberg said, pointing specifically to its recent $10.7 million gift to Hillel to create a network of “campus entrepreneurs” charged with finding Jews on campus who do not affiliate with Hillel houses and connecting with them on their own terms.
Until now, Birthright follow-up has consisted of a patchwork of local outposts and periodic programming that even those within Birthright acknowledge has missed a significant percentage of alumni.
Some fear that the $200 million spent to date on Birthright trips might not be reaching its full potential – a fear compounded by Birthright’s desire to increase the number of participants to 40,000 per year over the next five years. That comes to an annual cost estimated at $104 million.
“There is a sense of urgency and importance to this,” Edelsberg said. “We want to maximize the investment that has already been made.”
The new initiative also will build on successful models like J-Connect Seattle, which is run out of the Hillel of Greater Washington. J-Connect Seattle emphasizes pre-trip and post-trip programming to help build a community out of the 40 young Jews who are on each Birthright tour bus in Israel.
Michael Steinhardt, who founded Birthright with Charles Bronfman, said the Birthright NEXT initiative indicates a shift in focus for Birthright.
Birthright initially was concerned only with getting as many young Jews to Israel as possible and struggling to pay for those trips. But the success of the trips and an influx of money from the likes of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged $60 million for Birthright trips over the past year and a half, has allowed the organization to focus on follow-up as well.
“It is an acknowledgment that from the time we started in 2000 until very recently, the amount of energy and money available for Birthright follow-up was shamefully little,” said Steinhardt, the chair of Birthright NEXT. “It wasn’t a focus.”
Both Birthright officials and observers see the new program as an opportunity to use Birthright as a de facto clearinghouse for outreach.
“The number of people who have gone on these trips means that there is a social network of alumni, regardless of whether they are involved with existing Jewish organizations or not,” said Len Saxe, the director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
Saxe has conducted the lion’s share of research on the effect of Birthright on its alumni.
“The significance of the Jim Joseph gift to Birthright NEXT,” he said, “is that there will now be resources to help this nascent and evolving network of alumni organizations.”