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Birthright and Beyond

January 28, 2010
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Birthright Israel recently marked its 10th anniversary, and we can only hope that it will be around for at least another decade. It is widely acclaimed as one of the most successful innovations to hit the American Jewish scene in decades.

The program, which offers free 10-day trips for young Jewish adults in the Diaspora, was the brainchild of mega-philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, who were seeking new ways to help reverse the trend of disaffection and alienation of our college and post-college population.

They created a rare partnership between philanthropists, Jewish federations and the Israeli government, all of whom understood the vital need to create new initiatives to connect the next generation with meaningful Jewish experiences.

Already, some 200,000 Jews from around the world have reaped the benefits. While some participants clearly click with the Jewish state more than others, the exposure provides all of these young people with a direct connection to their heritage.

Many of us know at least a few individuals whose lives were changed forever -- finding a marriage partner, charting a new career path as a Jewish educator or even going as far as making aliyah. The trick is how to make the relationship last for those who may have enjoyed the trip, but stopped their exploration there.

It took a little too long for Birthright and its proponents to realize that even more critical than those 10 days of fun in the sun is meaningful follow-up to help keep the spark alive.

Still, the realization did come, in the form of Birthright Israel NEXT.

In this age of collaboration, NEXT officials recognize that partnerships with other groups will help fulfill the mission of enhancing Jewish literacy and making Jewish connections.

As Al Levitt, the new national chairman of Birthright Israel NEXT, recently wrote: "We see our role as that of a catalyst. We fully intend to continue to partner with a multitude of organizations, both established and emerging, to meet the needs of young Jewish adults and ensure they are on a path toward increased communal involvement."

With some 4,000 alumnae living in the Philadelphia area alone -- and our own Birthright Israel NEXT in place -- this community clearly has significant work to do.

The recently released Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia shows that, in general, young adults remain the least engaged in Jewish community and causes, and the least connected to Israel.

Chances are that most of these respondents never had a Birthright experience. Let's hope that Birthright, Birthright Israel NEXT and their partners find the resources to stick around for the next generation, before they are lost forever.

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