Participation in semester or year programs in Israel
is directly linked to stronger Jewish affiliation and leadership – regardless of the Jewish background growing up, a study commissioned by Masa Israel Journey finds. Masa Israel, a joint project of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government which serves an umbrella for 180 semester and year programs in Israel, commissioned the study to measure the efficacy of long term Israel programs for future Jewish involvement and affiliation. The study was conducted by Professor Steven M. Cohen, Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner
and Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College, and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, principal of Research Success.
The study found that the longer the time participants spent in Israel and the more repeated the experiences, the greater the level of Jewish identification. The study surveyed over 13,000 Israel program participants, more than 11,000 of whom were Americans, and most of whom had been on short term experience or Masa Israel program from 2005 to 2010. It compared three groups who had been on short term programs: 1) those who been on Birthright
but not returned to Israel; 2) those who returned to Israel for another short term program; and 3) those who had been on Birthright and then went on a Masa program. The study also examined two other groups who had been on long term programs only — 4) those non-Orthodox young adults who had been on Masa Israel programs without going on Birthright, and 5) those who were raised Orthodox and had been on Masa. These two groups reported far stronger Jewish background and childhood Jewish education than did the three Birthright groups.
The study found that with each subsequent Israel experience, the level of Jewish engagement rose significantly. For example, for the married respondents, among those who did Birthright and had not returned subsequently to Israel, 50% married a Jewish spouse; among those who did Birthright and returned to Israel subsequently for a short term, 70% married Jews; among those who did Birthright followed by Masa, as many as 91% were in-married. In other words, short term program graduates who never returned to Israel reported intermarriage rates close to the national Jewish average for people their age. In contrast, those who went on to participate in a Masa program were far more likely to marry Jewish, doing so in more than nine out of ten instances.
This pattern repeated itself for numerous other measures of Jewish engagement. These included Jewish organizational affiliation, taking leadership in Jewish life, interest in working professionally in the Jewish community, attachment to Israel, and, for a small but significant minority – making aliyah. In other words, the study found that, on these measures of Jewish engagement, Birthright coupled with Masa can, in effect, provide a viable alternative route to very high levels of Jewish engagement for young adults with only moderate or limited Jewish background.
When asked if they had given thought to pursuing a Jewish professional career, 45% of those who did Birthright followed by Masa said yes, nearly identical to the 46% of Orthodox Masa graduates who said the same. Among those who had been only on Birthright, 12% indicated giving a Jewish career consideration; the number doubled among Birthright graduates who returned for a short term to 26%; and almost doubled again, to 45%, for Birthright graduates who did Masa. These patterns are similar to the evidence found in the recent Avi Chai study of Jewish leaders which cites a long term Israel program as one of the most widespread experiences shared by young American Jewish leaders
, along with day schools and Jewish camp participation.
Relating to Israel attachment, the Birthright/Masa cohort scored similarly to the Masa Orthodox cohort, as they did on other measures. When asked if they had recently gone to a lecture or class related to Israel, 72% of those who participated in Birthright/Masa said they had, similar to the 80% of Orthodox Masa graduates who also had. (When it came to reading Israeli newspapers the Birthright/Masa cohort actually outscored the Orthodox Masa group by 61% to 43%).
Significantly, 18% of Birthright/Masa graduates are currently now living in Israel, a slightly higher figure than the 17% of Orthodox Masa graduates now living in Israel.
“Over the years, a body of evidence has established the value of the short-term trip to Israel. This study is one of a small number that points to the significant added value of the long-term trip,” said Professor Cohen, who co-authored the study. “If ten days in Israel is very good for Jewish engagement—and it is—then ten months in Israel is even better. This finding points to the strong policy interest in promoting return travel to Israel among Birthright alumni, and the even stronger interest in advancing long term return travel, such as that sponsored by Masa Israel Journey.”
Last week, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors approved the operational part of its strategic plan which calls for the organization to focus its work around two main areas of activity—the first, a spiral of Israel experience for young adults. These would start with short term programs, like Birthright, through longer term programs like Masa, and include developing intermediate-length programs like summer school in Israel, with the overarching aim of strengthening Jewish identity and increasing attachment to Israel among today’s youth.
“The data from this study show that we are on the right track with our strategic plan,” said Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development. “We are convinced—and the data from this reports affirm—that a continuum of Israel experiences for young adults correlates directly to them feeling, thinking and doing more things Jewish and Israel with each step they take along the Israel experience spiral.”