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Birthright Works Hard on What Comes NEXT

January 21, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Lauren Shapiro (left) and Ariel Kohane touch up paint on a classroom door during a service project with Philly's Birthright Israel NEXT cohort. Photo courtesy of Jared Jackson
Dressed in scruffy clothes and wearing gloves spotted with red and blue paint, Lauren Shapiro was wielding a brush as a way to deepen her connection to the Jewish community.

The St. Joseph's University alum, who grew up in a small Jewish community in Colorado, recalled that while attending college, she often felt like the only Jew on campus. Going on a Birthright Israel trip after graduation, however, led her to understand that she wanted to get more involved.

"I seriously had no Jewish friends growing up, so it was cool to meet other people my age that were Jewish," said Shapiro, as she touched up spots on the area she was painting. She joked that she'd been surprised to finally discover that her family wasn't the only one that had celebrated Jewish holidays while she was growing up.

The 23-year-old was one of about a dozen Birthright alumni who'd teamed up with Greater Philadelphia Cares to repaint and refurbish John Welsh Elementary School in North Philadelphia as part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service.

The crew was organized by Birthright's alumni group, Birthright Israel NEXT, which seeks to keep alive the passions ignited on the 10-day trips to Israel.

NEXT has been in Philly for about a year-and-a-half, and the day of service was meant to act as a kick-off to its intensified efforts to connect with alumni.

The group's push comes at a time when many in the Jewish community wonder about trip follow-up after the phenomenal success of Birthright's first decade in operation. Between 5,000 and 8,000 young adults from the Philadelphia region are believed to have participated in the program. In all, more than 220,000 people worldwide have taken the trips.

One of NEXT's popular programs is its Shabbat initiative, which encourages alumni to host Friday-night dinners in their homes, with the organization picking up the tab. Birthright pays up to $18 per person for a maximum of 16 people.

Brandeis University professor Leonard Saxe, who co-wrote both a book and a recent study on the effect that Birthright trips have had, said that programs such as the Shabbat dinners have been successful, in part, because they allow the Birthright generation to approach Judaism in its own way.

"This generation is particularly concerned with ownership," said Saxe. "It's not that they're just passive participants in programs. They're looking for ways that they can own the experience and use it to find meaning in their own way."

One of those who has taken advantage of the subsidized dinners is Temple University senior Arkadiy Landa.

He insisted that he'd be holding Shabbat dinners regardless of whether NEXT encouraged them, but liked the fact that Birthright was willing to contribute monetarily.

"When you host a Shabbat, you're invested in it," said Landa, as he daubed paint on a classroom door. He added that "being able to host a Shabbat dinner is a different level of Jewish involvement than being a guest at a dinner."

Adam Oded, director of NEXT in Philadelphia, said that the group's biggest mission is to encourage people to "incorporate Judaism into their own lives" and, if they like, bring it into their homes as well.

A Push for Volunteering

The Martin Luther King Day of Service was also part of the group's renewed push to offer volunteer opportunities, especially on days when many people are off from work or school. NEXT held similar events on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and has outlined plans for volunteer days through May.

Among the other initiatives being touted with the relaunch is the opening of NEXT's new "secular beit midrash," as Oded called it -- secular because no rabbi's on hand, he explained -- at its space near Eighth Street and Passyunk Avenue.

"It's a place where people can come and study Jewish texts, without having a rabbi looking over their shoulder and telling them what it's supposed to mean," said Oded, who called it "a safe space to come and learn Jewish texts."

The group also plans to host speakers about once a month, beginning on Thursday, Jan. 21, with a discussion with Temple University professor Lewis Gordon, director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies there.

Israeli movie nights and collaborations with other young Jewish organizations are in the works, and NEXT is also beginning to reach out to young Jews in the Philadelphia suburbs.

For more information, log on to: philly.birthrightisraelnext.com.

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