Birthright Israel NEXT, the nonprofit agency designed to continue engaging the young adults who took advantage of the agency's free trips to Israel after they return home, is downsizing and reshaping its operations in Philadelphia.
Though details are still being finalized, officials say NEXT will be revived this winter in partnership with the volunteer-run Moishe House and Tribe 12, a nonprofit umbrella organization for independent programs serving the Jewish community.
The collaboration comes nearly three months after the Philly NEXT office quietly shut down without public explanation in late October, the phone lines disconnected and, for a time, all mention of the office completely erased from the national NEXT web site.
Morlie Levin, chief executive officer for the national organization, said the closure wasn't a question of interest, but of finding the best way to bring Birthright alums even more exposure to Jewish life and learning. Philadelphia, with so many strong community partnerships already in place, presented an opportunity for collaboration "that I haven't seen in any other city," Levin said in a phone interview, a week after telling the Forward that she expected branch offices to remain open.
"Our mission has not changed at all," she continued. "It's very important for us that we find ways to leverage not only the investment that's been made for the trip, but also the learning that we have made at NEXT."
But what's happening in Philadelphia — one of the first visible shake-ups in the three-year-old nonprofit since Levin took over the top leadership post last summer — could foreshadow a national shift from fully-staffed NEXT branches to roving coordinators who connect alumni to programs created by or with other organizations.
When NEXT announced in April that Levin, formerly the head of Hadassah, would take over from CEO Rabbi Daniel Brenner, the agency said she would lead an expansion that would add local staff in up to eight additional cities. Brenner became chief of education and programming, then left in December for a position at Moving Traditions, a Jewish research and engagement group based in Jenkintown. Chief operating officer Isaac Shalev also left.
Levin said she's still in discussions about adding a NEXT presence in several cities, but acknowledged that those programs, like the existing branches, must be flexible in order to reach the growing number of alumni — now more than 250,000.
A NEXT Pioneer
Philadelphia was among the first five cities to pilot the NEXT concept in fall 2007. At that time, NEXT was still a project of the Birthright Foundation, which primarily raises money for the free trips. Funding came from the Jim Joseph and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family foundations, which together pledged $25 million for the engagement efforts over five years.
By the time NEXT became officially incorporated as its own organization in late 2008, there were seven branches, each with a full-time director, part-time administrator and team of engagement fellows who were eligible to work for up to three years.
In Philadelphia, that staff — plus office space, equipment and programming — added up to about $300,000 a year.
Birthright alum gathered for an average of 11 programs per month, including visiting a rented summer house at the Jersey shore. More than 600 alum continue to connect via the Philly NEXT Facebook page.
While everything seemed to be wildly successful, former fellows said they were told in September that their term would not be extended. Birthright officials said director Adam Oded had moved on to a "different opportunity," leaving them in a prime position to experiment with a new model. But Oded would not confirm that he had left for another job and declined to respond to other questions.
Levin is quick to point out that Philadelphia won't be the first city to try a different approach. In addition to the remaining branches, NEXT now runs programming in Chicago, Seattle, Washington D.C., Boston and San Diego through partnerships with local federations and Hillels.
Though they still have to sign a contract, Levin said NEXT will help fund a staff member who would coordinate programs through Tribe 12's Collaborative, which runs an extensive menu of social gatherings for Jewish 20s and 30s, including subgroups for women, men, couples, arts enthusiasts, sports lovers and so forth.
While the lone staff member will take the place of what had once been seven, Levin said she believes NEXT could generate an even higher level of programming by igniting participants to organize activities.
Ross Berkowitz, executive director of Tribe 12, said he envisions running three to five NEXT programs a month, perhaps more co-branded with the Collaborative. Some could be continuations of popular programs that NEXT already started, he said, such as an informal Hebrew conversation hour at a local coffeehouse. Keeping the NEXT brand is important, he said, because, like the Collaborative, which doesn't have an overtly Jewish moniker, Birthright's internationally known name appeals to a lot of people "who are unengaged and will often not come to Jewish programming."
"There is something special about the Birthright brand," Brenner agreed, noting that assimilated young adults might shy away when they see all sorts of Jewish organizations' names associated with a program. "The Birthright brand communicates for a lot of young adults, 'I will not be judged. They embraced me, and took me to Israel and I will not be judged.' That's an incredibly, incredibly powerful message."
NEXT will also support the local Moishe House, which began participating in the organization's Shabbat program last summer. Instead of throwing the usual potluck dinner, resident Rebecca Karp said NEXT provided funding to purchase a kosher meat meal and also sent a package with a kiddush cup, candlesticks, cards with the blessings and song suggestions. Karp said she was looking forward to the opportunity to reach out to the contact list of local Birthright alum and run even more NEXT programs through the house.
Jeri Zimmerman, director of the Center for Israel and Overseas at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said she was glad to see NEXT partnering with other groups, which would position it to play "a better role in helping connect people to young leadership" already working with each other, the Federation and the broader community.