The Secret To Wooing Birthright Alum
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The Secret To Wooing Birthright Alum

It’s the Holy Grail for engaging millennials. One woman might have answers.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

What’s the trick to attracting Birthright alumni?

Rebecca Sugar, executive director of the Alumni Community, New York’s largest provider of post-Birthright programming, has spent the last decade researching that question and planning programs based on the results. With three years of focus-group research under her belt, she has some thoughts on what is effective and what isn’t.

“Personal invitations matter,” said Sugar, who has headed the organization since its founding in 2003. “Alumni don’t connect to the abstract idea of Jewish community. They want to see friends they know, and they wanted to be invited by the people they know.”

Her findings are backed up by data. A March 2014 Pew Research Center study found that millennials are increasingly unmoored from institutions. Half of young adults between the ages of 18 and 33 describe themselves as political independents and 29 percent (3 in 10) say they are not affiliated with any religion.

“The assumption that alumni will jump into Jewish communal life when they get back is incorrect,” according to Sugar, who said the alarming disinterest in institutional life among young Jews begs a fresh approach. “Ten days in Israel is highly impactful, but it’s a blip in the broader picture,” she noted.

A recent study by UJA-Federation of New York on voluntary dues in synagogues corroborated the Pew Center’s findings. Survey results found that Jewish young adults are far less interested in affiliating with Jewish institutions than their older cohorts.

Sugar is confident that transforming the mindset of young Jewish adults who previously thought of themselves as “outsiders” depends upon sustained, targeted and personal engagement.

“We’re not asking them to find their way in,” she said. “We’re giving them a personal guide.”

This summer, the Alumni Community, a partner of the Jewish Enrichment Center (JEC) in Lower Manhattan, is piloting the Madrich initiative, an effort to integrate past Birthright trip leaders into personalized alumni programming. Former madrichim, or trip leaders, will be given a stipend to run consistent programming, including a reunion among those who shared a bus on Birthright travels, within weeks of their trips’ return. Events will focus on getting to know individual alumni in order to customize events to their liking. For alumni who do not show an interest in formal events, madrichim have funds for book clubs, Shabbat dinners, and even return trips to Israel. Sugar declined to provide the exact amount of the stipend.

More than 400 madrichim have already signed on to participate.

Gil Adler, a 2005 Birthright alumnus, will be one such madrich. Adler, who became very involved with the Alumni community after his return from Israel, described the “emotional high” he experienced on the trip in Israel, and the challenge of keeping that up after his return.

“When you come home, the excitement and passion is going to dissipate unless you get involved,” said Adler, a 31-year-old financial controller originally from Bergen County, N.J. “The alumni community was right there when I got back, inviting us out for cocktails with half of our bus, or inviting interesting speakers. They allow the high to go on as long as possible.”

For Adler, his connection to Israel remained firm, and during his first summer after college, he returned to Israel to join the army where he served for two years.

Returning to the U.S. after his service, he wanted a way to give back. “Becoming a madrich was the perfect thing,” he said. Since 2009 he has staffed 10 Birthright trips, and upon returning to New York joined the Alumni Community’s efforts to keep students involved.

On Facebook, he remains connected with more than 200 alumni, and he personally keeps in touch with 20 to 30 former participants. The Pew study found that while millennials might not be interested in joining traditional Jewish groups, online networks are new and thriving communities, with 81 percent of millennials on Facebook.

“It’s not the traditional staff, participant relationship,” he said. “They realize I’m one of them. If I reach out and tell them about an event, they’re going to come. The trip organizer can’t do that. Birthright can’t do that. Only someone who is the same age, from the same area and who shared the same experience is going to keep them coming back.”

Founded in 2003 shortly after Taglit-Birthright began sending Jewish young adults to Israel, the Alumni Community, now 12,000 strong, has steadily expanded, even as other efforts to engage the same cohort have struggled. Birthright NEXT, the official alumni outreach branch of the Birthright Israel Foundation, closed up shop in May. NEXT’s CEO, Morlie Levin, retired quietly at the end of December, and its managing director, Liz Fisher, also left the organization.

Smaller and more specialized projects, including One Table, a program based on the success Birthright Next had for several years in helping to sponsor Friday night Shabbat meals for Birthright alumni, and the 100 Point Challenge, an incentive-based program run by the Orthodox outreach organization Aish Hatorah New York, are seeking to fill the vacuum left by Birthright NEXT.

The Alumni community is privately funded by Birthright founder Michael Steinhardt and businessman and philanthropist Aaron Wolfson. Though the organization merged with Birthright Israel NEXT in 2010, then two split shortly after. Sugar attributed the split to a difference in “approach” but did not elaborate. The Birthright Foundation could not be reached for comment.

With Steinhardt and Wolfson dedicated to the project’s growth, the community has grown. Every few years, the Alumni Community produces a wedding book. To date, there have been 150 matches.

Courtney Simmons, another active participant in the Alumni Community, met her fiancé through a trip on Reloaded, subsidized visits that bring Birthright alumni back to Israel. While traveling in the Golan, she met her husband, who was not an official trip participant, at a hotel where the group was staying. The two reconnected back in New York at a Shabbat dinner sponsored by the Alumni Community.

“I did not go in thinking I would meet someone, but it makes sense that I did,” said Simmons, who is currently pursing a masters in educational theater at NYU. She described her initial Birthright trip as important, but sustaining connections upon her return is what mattered more.

“Most participants have zero religious connection. Some leave with community, a sense of pride, and the desire to learn more. But without someone pushing you to continue, that dissipates.”

Sugar’s isn’t the only organization mining personal connections to woo the potential Jewish millennial here. Base Hillel, a relationship-based engagement initiative sponsored through UJA-Federation of New York and Hillel International, launched last month in August in two New York locations. The program will match Jewish millennials with local rabbinic couples in the hopes of growing a larger Jewish social network. Moishe House, one of the fastest-growing outreach initiative for Jews in their 20s, boasts seven New York hubs and increasing numbers.

Though none of the these groups, including the Alumni Community, has access to the official Birthright lists, the holy grail of Jewish millennial engagement, Sugar said that over a decade of face-to-face networking is the most reliable way to get the word out.

“Young Jews go from feeling like outsiders to participants,” she said. “But these alum are not just going to jump into communal life. They need to be asked, by the right people, at the right time, in the right way.”

hannah@jewishweek.org

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