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Debunking the myth of the ‘Birthright list’
by Daniel S. Brenner
Guest Columnist
May 07, 2009 | 1826 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
NEW YORK — Ever since I began steering “post-programming” for Birthright Israel NEXT, I’ve had the frustrating question, “Why can’t I get the list?” thrown at me by well-meaning organizational leaders, rabbis and fundraisers — as well as people who are trying to sell various Jewish books, films and kitschy T-shirts.

They all sense the great potential in engaging the 200,000 Birthright Israel alumni. And my response to them all is basically the same: “Sounds great, but sorry, we don’t give out the list.”

Rabbi Andy Bachman, who I’ve known since my college days, added his name to those who would like to see the list released. While I am tempted to give him the same “Sounds great, but …” response, his thoughtful questions demand a more thorough answer.

Before I respond, though, I’d like to reflect on a topic on which few rabbis sermonize: data asset management. You might be thinking, what does data asset management have to do with Jewish education? Here is a story that hints at the connection.

Meredith Druss, a young Birthright Israel alumna, just started working with me in our New York office. After graduating high school in Plantation, Fla., and attending college at Dartmouth, she joined a few friends and got a place in Manhattan. Is she on the Birthright Israel master list? Of course, and I can see that she went on a trip run by her Hillel.

But the list says she lives in Florida and goes to school in New Hampshire. Her e-mail on the list, which ends in “.edu”, is no longer her e-mail address. Her address and phone number have changed. In fact, the only thing the same is her name — and that too might change if her dating life heats up.

If Bachman had his way, I would send her name to the rabbis and other Jewish organizational leaders in South Florida. Now what would her reaction be if she opened her inbox and found e-mails from 25 Jewish organizations in the area? Would it take more than a minute before she cursed the day she gave her e-mail address to a Jewish organization? What if we updated her information and she began to receive several hundred notices from organizations in New York?

You can see easily why this would be a communications disaster and how easily we would lose the trust of young adults. So, what can we do?

First, we need to encourage Jewish organizations to set aside the resources of time, energy and staff expertise needed to engage young adults. While Bachman’s synagogue is taking steps in this direction, I know of only one synagogue in the United States that has a staff person dedicated to young adults. Young families receive most of the attention, and for good reason.

So how do we find young adults who might be interested? Meredith’s geographic history is not an exception but the norm. Most young adults go on the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip when they are in college, away from their hometowns, and the vast majority changes e-mails and addresses and all the rest. One of the things that I realized very early on about Birthright Israel NEXT is that sending out e-mails or e-newsletters or even funny viral videos will never be a replacement for building local connections.

In fact, the more local e-mails we send, the fewer are opened. Send one each week and your open rates fall into the single digits. We try to send e-mails once a month and, contrary to Bachman’s claims, pleas for contributions have not been a feature of our e-mails. Expensive consultant types call this type of thinking “data asset management,” but I refer to it as simply the noodge factor.

If you begin to seem like a noodge, always poking your message into people’s BlackBerry or iPhones, or wherever, they’ll begin to block you out. In other words, the local lists themselves have very little relevance to engaging people in Jewish life — that is, unless you are able to locate people’s interests and then custom-create an e-mail they actually would want to read.

That is where your data asset management guru asks about CRM, customer relationship management — a fancy term for the input that helps you understand the interests of your online users. The only way such input can be developed is by engaging your users online in other areas in a way that they control. This happens numerous ways through Facebook applications and other social networking arenas that we are just beginning to discover.

So if we don’t fork over the lists, what do we do?

As an organization, Birthright Israel NEXT works in 12 cities and partners with dozens of organizations that are attracting young adults. In the last year, Birthright Israel NEXT partnered on Jewish education with cutting-edge organizations including Hazon, JDub, the National Yiddish Book Center, Nextbook, Limmud, Reboot, Moishe House, PLP and — here’s the shocker — we even partnered with some forward-thinking synagogues.

So what should rabbis or leaders of upstart Jewish organizations do?

First off, reach out to Birthright Israel NEXT and let us know what you are doing and how it is attracting Birthright Israel alumni. In addition, speak to the young adults in your sphere and find out who went on a Birthright Israel trip. Ask them to reach out to their friends from the trip. Pretty soon you will find that you have tapped into a group of people hungry for relevant Jewish engagement.

Unfortunately, when I personally invited Bachman to come out to the “Birthright Israel Monologues” show that we recently put on in Manhattan, he declined, complaining that it was “entertainment on behalf of the Jews.” Pity, because he missed an opportunity to meet many young adults who live in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. I contrast this to the time that I invited Herschey Novack, a Chabad rabbi from St. Louis, to the “Monologues” show when he was visiting New York.

Learning that one of the actors was from St. Louis, he spent more than 10 minutes speaking with her and her friends after the show, and I think they became friends on Facebook. She should expect an invitation for Shabbos any day now.

In case you are wondering who actually has the “Birthright List,” Taglit-Birthright Israel shares the trip registration information with Birthright Israel NEXT, our funding partners in the Jewish federation system and our campus partners at Hillel. Access to names on lists are, and always will be, the focus of organizational bickering. But arguing about lists never will replace the genuine, one-on-one engagement that Birthright Israel trip participants need to find a place in the Jewish community.

(Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner is the executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT.)

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