Each year for the past 10 years, thousands of young people in their late teens and early 20s have participated in one of Birthright Israel's free, 10-day educational trips to the Jewish state. The hope has always been that, by the end of the journey, these Diaspora visitors will develop strong ties to the Jewish state — and to Judaism as a whole.
But what happens to all that energy and emotional stimulation that comes from visiting the Jewish homeland after the participants return home?
"That's what I am here to address," noted Adam Oded, 40, director of Birthright Israel NEXT: Philadelphia, a branch of a national alumni organization.
Oded oversees efforts to hone in on the energy and enthusiasm that the estimated 6,000 to 7,800 Birthright alumni who live in the region felt while traveling through the Jewish state.
An alumni association component has been in existence here, in various, part-time capacities for several years now, according to Rabbi Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT.
But last June, Oded was hired to be a full-time employee to keep the first wave of alumni — now in their mid- to late-20s or so — engaged in the Jewish community through social programming, such as concerts, retreats, volunteer opportunities and Shabbat activities (like a fine-wine Shabbat or a 1920s murder-mystery-themed one).
Brenner explained that NEXT, created in fall 2007, operates with a budget of about $10 million per year, which comes primarily from family foundations, but also from a few private donors. The money is used to reach about 150,000 to 200,000 alumni worldwide.
Philadelphia was selected in 2008 as one of five cities to be part of a new initiative to develop programming for alumni by hiring five part-time fellows in their mid-20s — all alumni themselves — who receive a stipend for helping Oded plan peer-led, entertaining events that seek to reach about 1,000 people per year.
"We're looking to keep them involved, period," stated Oded, who has been worked with many Jewish organizations throughout his life, spent a number of years living in Israel post-high school, and even served a stint in the Israel Defense Force.
"Adam and I are not in the [target] age group," noted Brenner, 39, who is married and has three kids. "We're old geezers. They're taking the lead. They're running it. Ultimately, that's what it's about."
The events the fellows organize are wide-ranging.
They include holiday programming, such a Chanukah celebration that included a moment of silence for the victims of the terror attacks in Mumbai, India; an ongoing series of discussions exploring different aspects of the Israeli elections; blanket-making sessions for charity; bar nights, usually centered around a sporting event; Judaism and Hebrew-language classes; belly-dancing; and even arranging a selection of pictures that alumni took in Israel for display at the Old City Jewish Art Center.
Some events are collaborations with similar area organizations that cater to the 20s' and 30s' crowd, such as the Collaborative, the Chevra, Moishe House and the Jewish Graduate Student Network, noted Oded.
Brenner said that Philadelphia NEXT doesn't have an official office, as the key demographic prefers less formal, more welcoming spaces.
Instead, Oded — a part-time professional disc jockey who specializes in Israeli alternative music — chats up alumni over falafel at his regular hang-out, a table at Cafe Olé, an Israeli-owned coffeehouse and eatery in Old City, as well as by cell phone, e-mail or online at a host of electronic meeting places, like Facebook and MySpace.
The goal, explained Brenner, is to sustain the connection these young men and women felt in Israel, and keep these young Jews engaged in between college and starting a family.
Letting young people embrace Judaism "on their own terms has proven to be really effective," said the executive director. "We're putting it in their hands to create their community."
For more information, call 917-951-2400 or visit: philly. birthrightisrael.com.