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 as 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 Prof. Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner and research professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College, and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, principal of Research Success.
The study found that the longer the program on which participants spent time in Israel and the more repeated the experiences, the greater the level of Jewish identification.
The study surveyed more than 13,000 Israel program participants, more than 11,000 of whom were Americans, and most of whom had been on either a short-term experience or a Masa program from 2005 to 2010, or both.
It compared three groups who had been on short-term programs:
• those who been on Birthright and not returned to Israel;
• those who returned to Israel for another short term; and
• those who had been on Birthright, and then went on a Masa Israel program.
The study also examined two other groups who had been on long term programs only: those non-Orthodox young adults who had been on Masa without going on Birthright, and 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 10 instances.
HERE are three examples of Masa Israel alums from Colorado whose Jewish identities have been strengthened as a result of their long term experiences in Israel:
• Having grown up with one Jewish parent in a home in Colorado that celebrated Christmas, Israel was not on Alison Hortig’s radar as a child. After traveling to Israel with Birthright during college, Hortig knew she needed to return.
Upon her graduation from the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied interior architecture with a focus on historical styles, Hortig enrolled in Masa Israel’s “Saving the Stones,” a five-month conservation program in Acre to reconnect to Israel and develop her career.
Upon completing the program, Hortig hopes to continue Israeli conservation work.
• After visiting Israel with Birthright as a CUstudent, Elina Moyn knew she needed more time in the country.
As a senior, Moyn decided to study abroad at the Masa Israel accredited-Tel Aviv University overseas program. There, Moyn took Israeli history courses with professors who had lived their academic subjects, improved her Hebrew and developed friendships with Israelis.
Back in the US, she works full-time in financial services and as a Hebrew school teacher.
• After completing her US army service, during which she spent time in Iraq, Rachel Rubens decided to head back to the Middle East to learn Hebrew at Ulpan Akiva, hoping to gain the necessary skills to learn more about her religion.
While in Israel, she also took part in Masa’s “Building Future Leaders” seminar series and crafted an outreach program for other Jewish soldiers in the US Army.
Upon returning to her home in Colorado Springs, Rubens became involved in the Jewish community, volunteering the local synagogue and attending services and Shabbat dinners.
She works at a technology consulting firm and looks forward to pursuing an MBA in business management with a MS in Jewish studies.
“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 Prof. Cohen, who co-authored the study.
“If 10 days in Israel is very good for Jewish engagement — and it is — then 10 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 Israel, 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 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.”