Every year, thousands of young Jews take Birthright trips to Israel to experience the Holy Land firsthand. The quest can be an awakening or strengthening of religious and cultural identity.
But after spending a few weeks in Israel, the travelers return home with only memories of their trip remaining. This begs the question for many who want to continue to cultivate their Jewish identity after Birthright: what’s next?
NEXT is next.
NEXT is a division of the Birthright Israel Foundation that connects Birthright Israel trip alumni and their peers with meaningful Jewish living and learning opportunities nationally, locally and in Israel. NEXT launched its 2013 High Holidays initiative Monday, Aug. 5, to help Birthright Israel alumni and their friends connect to communities and create their own meaningful experiences during the holidays.
“There is no question that for many people, going on the Birthright trip is an igniter of new ideas,” said Morlie Levin, CEO of NEXT. “The idea of being part of something larger, the idea of exploring one’s Jewish identity, the idea of entering into a Jewish journey within a circle of friends, all of these seem to be triggered by the trip, and what we do is work with others to make sure that the flames that are lit during the trip have an opportunity to continue to burn.”
For the third year, NEXT is offering an interactive map online (birthrightisraelnext.org/highholidays) that will show services and events in U.S. cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, during the High Holy Days. And this year’s map is a much-improved version of the map that was available for the past two years.
“We now have a much deeper ability to filter and search,” Levin said. “We have for the first time the ability for users, once they find an opportunity they are interested in, to post it to their social media circles and invite others to it.”
Tools that will help people host High Holy Day meals — including Pinterest boards featuring recipes, table setting ideas and fun High Holy Day themes —will be available. Users can find events in their city and browse event details, including whether discounted or free tickets are offered.
A new feature this year will enable users to filter events based on their preferences. Users can search for egalitarian services, LGBT-friendly events and more.
“Young folks want more transparency in general,” said Yoni Sarason, Midwest regional director of NEXT, which includes the Pittsburgh area. “In this case [they want to know if an event is] welcoming, LGBT friendly [and] a place where young adults are going to feel comfortable.”
For the first time, NEXT is also offering resources and small subsidies to cover the cost of Rosh Hashana meals and Yom Kippur break-the-fasts.
Birthright is open to 18- to 26-year-old Jews. This age range is accustomed to getting news and information from the Internet, so that’s where they will find the interactive map.
“People use technology to gather information to connect themselves with one another,” Levin said. “But we also know that the one-on-one interaction that people have when they’re exploring their identity really takes place face-to-face. The work that we do tries to capitalize on both.”
But NEXT’s work is not just a single-minded national enterprise. NEXT works with partners around the country to get a sense of what each community needs on an individual level and what the unique challenges are as they relate to young adult engagement and connection. The three major areas of focus are consulting, convening and connecting.
Part of consulting is working with partners that can help NEXT understand an individual community’s needs.
NEXT is working with J-Burgh in Pittsburgh, for example. J-Burgh wants to provide interns that could reach out to people that have recently returned from Birthright or other Israel programs, Sarason said. Sarason will be in Pittsburgh next month working with those interns and telling them about the resources that NEXT can provide.
“What we’re really trying to do is understand each community and really pay respect to its history and uniqueness and figure out ways that work for that community,” Sarason said.
The convening aspect is the type of gatherings that NEXT is creating on a regional level. At these meetings, groups from around the Midwest learn from each other and take classes on engagement and branding and organizational leadership.
NEXT also tries to create a connection with the Birthright alumni. This could be anything from leveraging the most out of Birthright trips to getting young people to think about philanthropy. NEXT can connect people nationally who are working on similar things because it has a national and a regional approach at the same time.
NEXT’s flagship initiative, NEXT Shabbat, started in 2008. It has helped more than 7,000 Birthright Israel alumni host more than 16,000 Shabbat experiences for their friends, creating Jewish opportunities that have drawn a total attendance of more than 235,000 young adults. NEXT also has a Passover seder initiative. NEXT, however, has not yet implemented a map for any other occasions.
“There does seem to be a new sort of openness,” Sarason said, “from people that have recently returned from the trip to learning more about what Jewish community has to offer, in wanting to connect with other young Jews and in wanting to explore some of the things that came up on the trip.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)