Dina Silberstein, 28, never knew how to make a place for herself in the Jewish community, or even why she would want to. Yet last Sunday she found herself scribbling her signature all over a sign-up sheet, signaling her interest in not one community organization, but five.
Two trips to Israel — one with Taglit-Birthright and the other with Masa — made the difference, Silberstein said, motivating her to give up a gorgeous autumn afternoon and attend the launch of the alumni division of Masa, the umbrella organization for some 160 Israel programs of five months or longer duration.
With the jury still out on whether outreach to alumni of Israel programs actually works, both organizations are embarking on new, or renewed, efforts to connect participants like Silberstein to the broader Jewish community.
“Birthright and Masa are a powerful injection of Judaism and Israel, and if we don’t create ways for alumni to express their passion, and their interest in being leaders, then we’re not really leveraging the investment we made in them,” said Avi Rubel, Masa’s director of North American operations.
Masa, a unit of the Jewish Agency founded in 2003, serves participants between the ages of 22 and 30. It has 20,000 alumni, and has attracted more participants in the last several years, as the bleak job market in the U.S. has spurred more young people, to opt for educational programs or internships in Israel.
Birthright, which since 1999 has provided free trips to Israel for over 250,000 diaspora Jews aged 18 to 26, has given its name to a generation.
While large numbers of Jews have now experienced Israel through Birthright and/or Masa, outreach to Israel program returnees is tricky because it’s hard to provide ongoing follow-up programming that matches the intensity of the Israel experience, said Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives at Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, a major Birthright backer.
“Alumni programming is an art unto itself. Very few people have done it successfully,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociology professor at Hebrew Union College who has conducted research on the impact of Israel programs on Jewish engagement.
Indeed, Rubel took Teach for America and the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme, or JET, as his models while designing Masa’s follow-up program. He likes that the alumni themselves run both groups’ associations.
“These are young adults; they don’t need babysitters,” Rubel said.
A 2009 Brandeis University study of Birthright alumni’s connection to the alumni organization, NEXT, revealed low levels of name recognition and participation, although other studies show that the trip itself makes participants more likely to feel connected to Israel and to raise Jewish children.
Part of the problem for NEXT was “unrealistic expectations,” one insider noted. “You can’t replicate the magic of the Birthright bubble,” he said, adding that Jewish federations, synagogues and JCCs have not been successful in involving Birthright alums in local activities.
The new strategy for NEXT is to be more realistic, more focused and more willing to partner with existing Jewish groups.
“Any one organization can’t provide programming that will touch hundreds of thousands of alumni,” said NEXT’s chief executive officer, Morlie Levin.
NEXT is in the middle of a six-month transitional period that will culminate in a formal announcement in January of a new strategy and 12-month budget, she said.
The budget is not yet final but should remain close to, or slightly less than, the current amount. In 2009, NEXT spent $7.3 million, according to its most recent available tax forms. Masa’s alumni-outreach budget is $150,000, Rubel said.
Instead of emphasizing direct programming, then, both Birthright and Masa want to use new outreach methods that shift the focus to the creation of alumni networks, and the connection of those networks to other organizations.
Masa’s longer-term trips would seem to be a natural outgrowth of the 10-day Birthright experience, but it wasn’t always so. Several of the original mega-funders of Birthright were upset when the Jewish Agency for Israel launched Masa, saying the funds should have been invested in Birthright to alleviate the problem of thousands of applicants being wait-listed because of lack of funding.
But in recent years the two organizations have worked together, with Birthright marketing Masa to its enthusiastic returnees looking for a more in-depth Israel experience.
For the majority of young men and women coming back after Birthright, “the Jewish community is opaque,” Levin said, with many alumni unaware of “what exists Jewishly on the ground.” “We believe that one of our responsibilities is to make the opportunities much more transparent.”
To be sure, Birthright alumni will continue to host the organization’s famous Shabbat dinners complete with a “Shabbox” containing accoutrements like a challah cover, and Masa will offer Hebrew classes. NEXT will also maintain some of its branch offices, although Levin couldn’t say at this point how many.
Masa has set up a lay leader development initiative for its returnees with local federations. It will sponsor six alumni fellowships with PresenTense, the social entrepreneurship incubator, and is setting up Masa volunteer chapters at the Israel Action Network, an advocacy organization.
“If in 20 years, the boards of directors of all of the Jewish institutions have Masa alumni, Israel will be in safe hands. They’ve got it in their blood now,” Rubel said.
NEXT will also be working more closely with the Jewish federation structure than it has in the past, and is talking to PresenTense, too, Levin said. It will deepen its relationship with Moishe House, a Jewish communal-living organization for 20somethings, and with Masa itself. More than half of Masa’s participants first went through Birthright.
“We’re thinking in network terms, we’re thinking in collaborating terms, we’re thinking in partnering terms,” Levin said. n