By Martin Nochimson
Once there was a vast void in Jewish programs addressing the needs of young adults. There were programs from birth (“Mommy and Me”), programs for preteens, programs for teens—and then the void. Off went our kids to college and after four years, many of these impressionable young men and women began to falter in their Yiddishkeit, their religious commitment eroded by the overwhelmingly secular environment of the contemporary college campus.
And then came NextGen. Working hand in hand with NCSY, NextGen, established in 2011, is dedicated to supporting teenagers when they graduate from yeshivot, day schools and public high schools to college campuses and beyond.
The NextGen team, under the leadership of Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, who has been involved with Jewish youth since he was an NCSY advisor, is comprised of top professionals including Rabbi Ilan Haber, director of the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC); Rabbi Yehoshua Marchuck, director of Alumni Connections; and Penny Pazornick, North American associate director of Israel Free Spirit/Birthright.
NextGen’s flagship program, JLIC, currently found on sixteen campuses throughout North America, places Orthodox rabbinic couples on college campuses to serve as Torah educators within the Hillels, helping Orthodox students navigate the challenging college environment. These talented educators offer weekly shiurim and classes, bring guest speakers and events to campus and make key aspects of Orthodox life, such as kashrut, chagim and Shabbat easier to observe. Today, we are proud to say, more than 1,700 students are actively involved or connected with the JLIC educators on a regular basis, and over 3,000 students on a more casual or informal basis.
Under the guidance of Rabbi Marchuck, who was an NCSYer since he was thirteen, Alumni Connections keeps in touch with NCSY graduates who go on to secular colleges, and connects these young people with Jewish organizations on those campuses. Why is it important to seek out these students? To ensure that they remain meaningfully engaged in Jewish life during this vulnerable time in their lives.
Each year, NCSY provides as many as 8,000 alumni for us to track. But we don’t only contact former NCSYers; we also search for students who were involved with OU synagogues, OU Advocacy (formerly the IPA) and our Birthright program. In order to reach students, we employ various data collection methods: we gather information from students at regional Shabbatons, as well as from NCSY staff, student surveys, OU synagogue rabbis and Birthright trips.
The talented Alumni Connections team recently developed an app—Jewniversity Resources—that provides students with information about Jewish life on campuses throughout North America, including the availability of kosher food, minyanim and other aspects of religious life on campus. The app is quickly becoming an indispensable resource for high school educators, community rabbis, youth directors, parents and, of course, college students. To keep information current, the Alumni department launched #ChaiSpy, a contest that encourages students to share information about Jewish life on their campuses to their peers nationwide.
Yet despite all of the tremendous success we’ve had in maintaining connections with our alumni, NextGen is not satisfied. Rabbi Felsenthal thinks big. At the most recent NextGen staff retreat, our professionals chose a goal they felt would define NextGen for the coming year: to create a database of every Jewish high school student in North America. Our goal is to motivate students to voluntarily provide us with their information. How? By using “gamification,” a strategy often used in marketing and customer-loyalty programs that rewards users with game-like features such as points and badges. NextGen is on the cutting edge of gamification.
Another pillar of NextGen is Israel Free Spirit/Birthright. While I’m sure you all know about Birthright and the tremendous impact it has on unaffiliated young Jews, you may not know that the OU is one of the largest and fastest-growing organizers in the Birthright program.
This past year, our Israel Free Spirit/Birthright program had an award-winning and record-breaking season; we managed forty-eight buses and brought nearly 2,000 participants on a life-changing journey to our homeland. Recently, the OU was recognized by the national Birthright organization for the educational excellence of our Birthright programs. OU Israel Free Spirit/Birthright program is consistently rated the highest in participant satisfaction. In fact, 17 percent of our participants opt to extend their Birthright trip in Israel to attend yeshivah or seminary, compared to an average of 3 percent on other Birthright trips.
We also ran a number of specialized “niche” Israel trips, including Birthright Yachad for individuals with disabilities, a special program with JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others) for participants who have overcome their addictions, a bicycle trip, an arts and entertainment trip, a technology trip and more. Each of these trips included itineraries that are tailored to the interests of its participants. For example, the technology trip visited Google headquarters and the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.
I have saved what is perhaps the best for last, because it involves not only a program, but also an extraordinary individual. Heart to Heart, an affiliate of NextGen, originated with a young man by the name of Hart Levine. When Hart was a young collegiate at the University of Pennsylvania, he created a grassroots organization to reach out to unaffiliated Jewish students on campus. He went around campus looking for students with Jewish-sounding names and invited them to share Shabbat meals. The meals grew; soon he was hosting dozens upon dozens of students for Shabbat dinner. Over time, his program mushroomed—he called friends on campuses around the country and brought the program there. His student-run and student-inspired organization has Orthodox college students bringing their unaffiliated Jewish peers closer to their heritage via student-run Shabbat dinners. Heart to Heart soon came under the OU umbrella. This past year, more than 1,450 Jewish students, most of them uninvolved in Jewish life, attended Shabbat dinners at eighteen college campuses.
Hart Levine, in short, represents what NextGen is all about.
Before signing off, I want to mention the well-publicized survey of American Jews recently released by the Pew Research Center. As many have noted, the results are depressing, but not terribly surprising: the study found a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.
What are we at the OU doing about these dire statistics? We—through the work of NCSY and NextGen—are working to ensure that young people do not fall through the cracks, that college youth get the religious support they need during a very challenging period of their lives and that unaffiliated Jewish kids on campus have a religious address to turn to. By strengthening Jewish life on campus, we are working to ensure the Jewish future.