Birthright Israel has changed the face of the Jewish community, but what happens to all those college students once they come back? They’ve been exposed to the truth of their beautiful heritage, but how do they stay connected once they leave the shores of Israel?
Birthright Next was established by the Birthright Israel Foundation as a means to extend program alumni’s excitement for things Israeli and Jewish related once the trip was over. But the plug was pulled this spring for a variety of reasons.
“Participants signed up for the free trip, not to become active in Jewish life,” noted Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, director of the OU NextGen Division, which oversees Israel Free Spirit—the Birthright Israel program offered through the Orthodox Union. “Birthright Next was a follow-up to a product that alumni never actually bought. It was bound to encounter problems.”
While the OU runs several successful follow-up programs for its own Birthright Israel participants, in the wake of Birthright Next’s closure, the OU is stepping up to fill the void for other trip organizers by expanding one of its signature programs, Heart to Heart.
Heart to Heart began an independent grass roots movement of active Jewish students sharing the beauty of Torah Judaism with non-active Jewish students who are living in their dorms and attending the same classes. Heart to Heart worked because it was friends sharing what they loved with their friends.
For seven years, Heart to Heart, led by founder, Hart Levine — one of the foremost young Jewish leaders in North America — developed a network of college student leaders who invite their peers to Shabbat meals in their apartment or dorm rooms.
“The goal is for any Jewish student to feel they have a place within the Jewish community and foster friendships on their campus,” said Levine.
Heart to Heart, which became a part of the NextGen umbrella in 2011, is aiming to complement their existing programs by seeking out recent Birthright Israel alum. Until now, Heart to Heart worked with Shomer Shabbat students who hosted meals for their peers. With the program’s expansion, Heart to Heart will reach out to Birthright Israel alumni and coach them in how to create their very own Shabbat meals, inform participants about Jewish opportunities on campus and even reimburse them for the meal expenses involved.
And while the Taglit-Birthright Foundation does not disclose alumni information, as one of the 15 trip providers, Israel Free Spirit — working through the OU — plans to work with other providers to identify alumni on campuses across North America.
“Person-to-person connections are really the core approach of Heart to Heart and how many people begin their connection to our faith,” stated Levine. “Our goal is still to connect Jews to Judaism, and to Jewish community by creating meaningful experiences with friends in a more organic campus setting— and we hope to expand our reach by working with the Birthright Israel alum network.”
Summer of 2015 will add more 1,850 Birthright Israel alumni from Israel Free Spirit alone to the 500,000 alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Heart to Heart and the Orthodox Union will be here waiting for them.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.