Dear Birthright NEXT: From a Disgruntled Jewish Outreach Employee

By Prasnis Warszawa, a Jewish communal professional who, among other duties, recruits young people and runs their organization’s Facebook group.
Usually voices criticizing Birthright and Brithright NEXT come from the left who are pissed about their Israel politics. But under the surface, all us outreach employees are a little pissed. And on the heels of a damaging study, now Rabbi Andy Bachman, one of the enlightened figures in the synagogue scene right now, has given vent to our grudges on the editorial pages of JTA.
Andy opened with an opinion piece on JTA, saying,

The troubling implication is that Birthright is not interested in establishing partnerships with an array of great new grass-roots Jewish initiatives that have a proven track record at engaging young people — the clear, stated and laudable goal of sending them to Israel in the first place.

The ever-defensive head of NEXT, Rabbi Daniel Brenner responded with something akin to: But we shouldn’t bury them in email! Also he said:

As an organization, Birthright Israel NEXT works in 12 cities and partners with dozens of organizations … Birthright Israel NEXT partnered on Jewish education with cutting-edge organizations including Hazon, JDub, the National Yiddish Book Center, Nextbook, Limmud, Reboot, Moishe House, PLP and — here’s the shocker — we even partnered with some forward-thinking synagogues.

But Rabbi Brenner — the only organizations alumni recognize aren’t those orgs! In New York, the numbers are particularly bad — alumni know mostly the 92nd and 14th Street Ys, and by dismal numbers at that. This is the biggest, deepest, most diverse, and plentiful Jewish scene. And why only the orgs? What about all those independent minyanim?
Rabbi Brenner — it seems NEXT is shy on new ideas. I got a few: can we poll and survey the alumni about what kinds of programs they’d like to see? Alumni who opt-in can be added to sublists on cultural, environmental, religious, Israel, and others. How about doing this as soon as alumni get back from their trips? Email segmentation is a highly-regarded “data asset management” tool.
Rabbi Brenner — how about this one: can we engage in wide-ranging and open-minded conversations with us, the Jewish orgs, and not just cherry pick the ones who have the connections to reach you? I’m frustrated that people who butt kiss get NEXT partnerships and those who don’t, don’t. Why did Herschey Novack get a personal invite, but my org’s staff didn’t?
Rabbi Brenner — you advocate at the close of your piece “arguing about lists never will replace the genuine, one-on-one engagement” but you have ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND EMAILS. Is my job as youth outreach supposed to consist of whoring myself and my organization at (the very lovely) Israel Monologues every showing? Alumni will stop coming if those events become outreach networking buffets, don’t you think?
Rabbi Brenner — Can we just admit that BR/BR-NEXT have poorly conceptualized their relationship to the wider Jewish community? NEXT is the gatekeeper to these lists, yes, and you take your role seriously. But you’re clearly not doing enough and it’s time to restructure.
Rabbi Brenner — by the time you got to a final response to Rabbi Andy about NEXT’s changes for the future, the rest of us are already pulling our hair out in frustration. It’s lovely to see some changes here or there. But where is your council of outreach professionals that DON’T already work for you and drink your punch? Plenty of us would volunteer to give you advice, collaborate, and learn better what obstacles we face.
We care that Birthright alumni make meaningful connections to things that matter and don’t get email fatigue. We care. We care and we’re willing to work together. But “work together” means you must reach out and not selectively. It means you think creatively to overcome the challenges. It means not being so aimlessly defensive. Just say, “Hey, thanks, that’s a great idea, why don’t you come IN and help us.”
There are solutions to the challenges. If you don’t have them, we do.

16 thoughts on “Dear Birthright NEXT: From a Disgruntled Jewish Outreach Employee

  1. Public defender of Jewish orgs here, Daniel Brenner, chiming in. So first off, please do not take this out on your hair. I recommend blog therapy.
    Please remember that Birthright Israel NEXT is led by humans. I wish that I could “reach out” to every Jewish organization and spend time hearing what is on their minds but I work in a city with thousands of Jewish organizations and entrepenuers. Today I met a Jewish comic book artist. I could probaly spend a month only meeting comic book artists. But I have other things that require my time and energy. So, instead,we do two things: we go out and meet people at many gatherings and we open the door to people who reach out to us. And yes, we select who we work with based on mutual goals. Is there a better way? Do I need to rent out MSG? What are you suggesting that I do instead?

  2. And one other thing — we have already surveyed Birthright Israel alumni about what they are interested in. But even when you email them about a program that they supposedly are interested in, the chances that they are going to get involved via such a process is minimal.

  3. I have to say, Rabbi Brenner’s responses, both here and to the original article, have struck me as a bit rude and condescending. Of course you are only human, and of course there are a lot of Jewish organizations. The “list”, however, is a legitimate issue that deserves discussion. Birthright Israel is NOT fulfilling its promise. Jews walk away having enjoyed a 10 day trip, but are not finding their way to all of the incredible opportunities out there. Many of them are like the fourth child at the Seder – they don’t even know how to ask the questions that might lead them to the organizations that meet their interests.
    Partnering in 12 cities is great, but Jews don’t just live in NYC, LA, Boston, etc. They live everywhere. Asking a person who went on a Birthright trip to tell their friends about your organization does not work – most Birthright trips include people from across the country. My trip friend in NYC telling me about a great independent minyan does me no good if I live in Knoxville. And without the list going out, no Jewish organizations in Knoxville know that I exist.
    Limmud, Hazon, etc are GREAT organizations. But they are also, frankly, very insider organizations. The Jewish knowledge threshold to those opportunities are often higher than what Birthright Israel returnees can climb. I have not met one person at a Limmud conference who saw it as the immediate next step after Birthright Israel. More approaches and opportunities need to be presented to returnees.
    Opt-in lists could work – I am on many listservs that present both information and opportunities and events relevant to the content (ex: Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity newsletter). I read the content, and easily skim the information about events not happening near me. I don’t suffer from email fatigue.
    I have been on Birthright, I have recruited for Birthright, and I have staffed Birthright. And I currently work for a Jewish organization which works with Birthright. And that, by the way, is why I am not signing my name to this post. I don’t want my organization suffering because of my opinions.

  4. I have an idea. Instead of opt-in lists, email spam and trying to cater to young Jews who have no idea what they want, much less what they will want in 5 years, or what they need today, get a list of organizations – 100, 200, however many.
    Upon return from Birthright, randomly select 5 organizations (perhaps one each in 5 different categories – religious, social justice, etc.) and pair them up to an individual. Let them try to engage the individual for a period of time, and encourage the individual to attend a few of their events, after which the person can opt-out of those organizations that didn’t interest them, and new organizations can be cycled in place of the ones they chose not to participate in.
    If it’s randomized, every org will have an equal chance at engaging young Jews, and most importantly, young Jews will be exposed to a wide variety of Jewish activity.

  5. “Usually voices criticizing Birthright and Brithright NEXT come from the left who are pissed about their Israel politics.”
    SO not true. I’ve heard righties criticise BR for its davka secularism.

  6. Or the fact that young men and women spend 10 days in confined settings while experiencing a firestorm of emotion. I’m being tactful with language here, but everyone who has gone on a BR trip knows you hookup by day 3 or you’re out of luck.
    There’s plenty of criticism to go around. BR worked for me (I’ve explained how in previous comments), and it has worked for many others. Let’s get to pragmatic proposals for improvement. Isn’t that why Rabbi Brenner is here?

  7. Please! People don’t want email list’s so the can “reach out”. They want the list to spam for their fring self serving “organizations” NEXT which is part of birthright israel has every right and obligation to get the ball down court and it doesn’t need any help from email list vultures.

  8. Thank you to you all for engaging in this conversation. I can’t say that I like being called defensive and condescending, but I do enjoy the creative input. Our email and online outreach is always in a process of change and this exchange mirrors the conversations that we have in house about our communications. We already deploy an opt in function via a crm and we have open listings in our opportunities section, and a randomizer in our getting back section. They all, unfortunately, have limited success. I am more in the shibley telhami school when it comes to media effectiveness…media is trumped by non media interaction. I.e. Communication from friends is where it is at. We do, however, get great community building ideas by soliciting them via online grants and shabbat programs, etc so it is important stuff to pay attention to.

  9. What is missing in this conversation is honesty. Where is the honesty about BRINEXT. WHo is asking why is the BRINEXT organization that is in NYC an ORthodox outreach program. The very antithesis of what a bri particpant is looking for when they come back.. the city with the largest alumni base has a Orthodox outreach program (JEC) as its bri post programming base. Lets talk about that. Why again bri whose participants are self identified mostly as just jewish or Reform(ed) has this for its come home org. Daniel Brenner is arogant, evasive, non responsive and unable to spend the millions given to him for post. Only the shabbat programs have met success.. maybe give out more alcohol flasks!!

  10. another alternative to giving organizations the BR email list would be to create a comprehensive, interactive engaging website with GOOD SEARCH FORMS that would allow BR alums to look up events in their area. That way organizations can market themselves through the website, and people can search for what they want to engage in. they should also be able to sign up for email lists (which itself would give organizations feedback of things BR alums are interested in).
    To be successful you would need some really good programmers to create the site. But that shouldnt be an obstacle to BR. and in BR’s regular email to alums it can encourage people to look at the website for listings. This might be a better starting base for engagement than the current system.

  11. MS, I think most of what you mentioned is already being done in one form or another.
    A top down approach with BR trying to help 50,000 Jewish orgs spam people will probably not be effective.
    Instead of BR trying to solve this problem, let’s put the onus on the local Federations who spend a lot of money subsidizing these trips (and I’m assuming have contact info for local Jews who go). Perhaps they should offer alumni events where local organizations can come to meet and engage BR alums.

  12. A childhood friend of mine grew up with two born-Jewish parents but in a very minimally Jewish home with an X-mas tree, etc. Very little exposure to Judaism. We grew up in a vastly predominantly Christian community. She never set foot in a shul except for my bas mitzvah. Fast forward to a year or two ago, when I ran into her. She told me she had recently returned from BirthRight. I was SHOCKED! She’s the last person I would have imagined doing that. She is not a far-left person at all, but had a lot of criticisms of BirthRight – It wasn’t as exciting or moving as she expected and I got the sense that she had conflicting feelings about all the propaganda, the culture of BRI, etc. She didn’t know where to go from here in terms of being a Jew. I expressed pleasant surprise that she was interested in her Jewish heritage and identity.
    That day, I asked her if she wanted to come to my house for Shabbos dinner the next week. She was unbelievably thrilled. I mean really, really excited. I discovered that when she came back she had absolutely no connection to Jewish community/ies… just like before the trip. This was really sad to me. This wasn’t NYC or any major city – Just a small town. So that may have been part of it. But basically Birthright got her excited about her Jewishness and then left her feeling like she didn’t have any way to connect or any sense of where to go from here. I’m glad I was able to reach out and have her for a traditional Shabbos meal so she could experience Judaism here at home in a non-Israeli context. She attended my seder this year, too. She lives in a major city with a huge Jewish population now, but is dating a non-Jew and has no connection to a Jewish community other than when she’s invited to my house or another friend’s house for holidays.
    This friend is the prime example of someone hungry for ways to engage but clueless about how to proceed. She is at a way too basic level of Jewish knowledge & involvement to attend an event like Limmud, otherwise I’d recommend that.

  13. Hey Feygele.. Isnt this whole thing about Brenner and his leadership? Its about Next yes, but he is the leader. In my letter yes i said some harsh things, but i was going after an institution that Next supports called JEC. JEC is the representative for Next in NY, and its everything that is wrong about post bri programming. Look I am inside and i know this business well. And i know that JEC is not what jews returning from birthright are looking for.. not to be prosteletyzed by a kiruv organization. Im just saying that so much money is being diverted by Next to a orthodox institution.. and Brenner is the leader of the org that is approving this. Daniel if you have done the research, tell us, tell birthright, tell the organizers.. tell someone.. i havent heard squat.

  14. Why don’t Birthright attendees give birthright 2 email addresses. Their junk email and their regular email.
    And ask them to check their junk email once a week so affiliated organizations can reach them.
    Then give the junk email to the other organizations.
    Would that work? Might it be one step forward?

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