A program designed to keep Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni connected to the Jewish community after their free 10-day trip to Israel will cease operation June 30 to be replaced by a different initiative now being finalized, organizers announced this morning.
NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, popularly known as Birthright NEXT, has touched tens of thousands of Birthright alumni since it was founded in November 2008, according to Jennifer Goldstone, chief operating officer of the Birthright Israel Foundation. But she said a new initiative is now warranted.
“We want to build on the successful work of NEXT and redirect it in a way that responds to the market and the current environment,” Goldstone told The Jewish Week.
She said that funders no longer believe a large stand- alone organization like NEXT is as likely to succeed in the future as a “more integrated activity based in the Foundation. …
“It will look different and feel integrated in all of our work. We are having input from Taglit-Birthright Israel. We believe in an integrated experience and so will work closely with our colleagues in Israel.”
Although the new program is still being finalized for presentation June 24 to the Foundation’s board, Goldstone, who is also interim CEO of NEXT, said it would have the same objective of NEXT – providing a bridge for alumni from the trip to their Jewish community.
“Donors are asking what alumni do when they get home, and we want to help alumni express themselves Jewishly,” she said. “We are not going to run programs, but will establish the best way for our returning participants to access [the Jewish community].”
A task force of about 20 past and current funders and professionals and co-chaired by Mark Charendoff and Laurie Blitzer, who is also vice chair of the Foundation, has been working for months to develop the new initiative, which Goldstone said will “play on the strength of what the Foundation is able to establish. … We are being careful and deliberate about how we go about assessing what the next stage should be.”
Among the things under consideration, she said, is making greater use of “technology to educate alumni about the myriad of programs offered online and in their communities. … For us, this is an evolution for an even better engagement of our alumni. It most likely will not be called NEXT.”
Birthright NEXT’s strategies have shifted over the years. At one point it was primarily engaged in creating community-based programming. It later shifted to train “engagers” – those who would work with the alumni in their local communities after they returned from their trip to Israel. Over the years, 450 people were trained.
“They would consult with local federations in how best to serve this population,” Goldstone said. “And we also provided micro grants to more active alumni who wanted to do service projects that helped further their passion to express their Jewish identity.”
In addition, NEXT provided stipends to cover the expenses of alumni who wanted to have their own Shabbat dinners with fellow Birthright alumni and other friends in their home. The money was enough to cover the cost of the challah and the food. In addition, each host received a box with candles, candlesticks, a Kiddush cup, Shabbat prayers that were in Hebrew and transliterated, as well as explanations of the prayers.
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Each alum was able to host a maximum of three Shabbat or seders, and a total of 16,000 dinners were held before that project ended last December after five years.
Goldstone said that although it was “a great program,” it required “a lot of infrastructure.”
“There was also a popup Shabbat movement getting traction, so we had to reassess whether the effort was necessary by us. We are happy to see the Shabbat practice taking off in other places.”
Since the founding 15 years ago of Taglit-Birthright Israel, the organization has provided free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews worldwide between the ages of 18 and 26, about 80 percent of whom have been from North America. This summer, the total number of Taglit-Birthright Israel participants is expected to surpass 500,000.
The Birthright NEXT website said there are now more than 285,000 Birthright alumni in the United States.