Israel Experiences: Taking Stock of Taking Stock, with the Goal of Taking Flight

May 26, 2020 | News

With the travel industry expected to be among the last to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard to say when and how the Israel Experience program sector will find its feet again. When the Second Intifada decimated travel to Israel in 2000-2001, Birthright and other Israel Experience providers enabled large parts of Israel’s travel industry to stay afloat. It wouldn’t be surprising if we see a similar pattern in the coming months.

The present forced hiatus provides an opportunity to take stock. As evaluators of more than a dozen different varieties of Israel Experience programs over the last 10 years, we’re asking ourselves what we’ve learned about our own work in this sector. You might say, we’re taking stock of taking stock.

One of the most distinctive and perhaps unique features of this corner of the field of Jewish education is the incredible range of outcomes that program organizers seek to realize from a similar set of experiences. At one extreme there are programs where Israel provides a backdrop to a drama whose main plotlines hardly touch upon the story of the modern State of Israel. Israel, essentially, serves as context; the programs focus, instead, on the personal lives of the participants, their relationships with their partners or families, and aspects of their Jewishness. At the other extreme, Israel’s story is all that organizers are interested in; effectively, Israel is the only content. The program goal is that participants become motivated and empowered to tell Israel’s story. And then there are a great many programs (the majority) that relate to Israel as both context and content. They seek to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of Israel along with other desired outcomes: personal growth, career development, Jewish self-discovery, community activism, and more.

Our team has had the opportunity to help programs from across this spectrum make sense of what is created through the experiences they provide. One of our first clients, Repair the World, asked us to examine the social justice commitments associated with “immersive Jewish service-learning programs” in Israel. One of our newest clients is Sydney’s Y2i (Youth to Israel), a consortium of funders that enables every rising eleventh grade Jewish student in their community to experience a six-week program in Israel. Y2i is interested in the longer-term Jewish and communal outcomes of the programs they support.

Each client comes with a distinct evaluation agenda. Each new engagement requires us to develop new quantitative and qualitative instrumentation to examine the specific cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral outcomes in which they have a special interest. And yet, because all of these clients are interested in learning at least something about how participants think and feel about Israel after spending time in the country, our team has the luxury of adopting or adapting survey questions we’ve previously employed. We’re able to draw on a bank of validated questions, that is, survey items already tested on hundreds if not thousands of respondents from tens of different countries.

Some members of our team have worked with numerous Israel experience providers. We thought it would be helpful to the field, under current circumstances, to share our perspectives. When the Israel experience sector reignites, evaluation will be even more important than it was before. If fewer communal dollars are available to support such programs, or if in the short term trips look different to account for health risks associated with foreign travel, then funders, providers, and participants will want the clearest possible sense of what benefits are associated with different programs.

With that in mind, we asked our team members to pick out one survey or interview question they find especially useful when exploring how people think, feel, and act in relation to Israel following time in the country. As you’ll see, our team members wrestle with the work of evaluating these experiences as much as those who design them wrestle with the ultimate outcomes they hope to achieve.

Tehilla Becker (Project Associate) has worked with Ta’am Yisrael and is now working with Y2i.

I’m a big fan of the two Israel experience questions that touch upon willingness and ability to advocate for and support Israel following program participation. (“To what extent are you willing/able to: engage in pro-Israel advocacy on campus; give others a flavor of what Israel is like; educate others about Israel; get involved with charities that support Israel?”) These two questions, together, provide a small window into two related outcomes: participants’ sense of competence and their sense of obligation toward Israel advocacy. Responses inform us as to how effective the programs are in motivating the participants and their efficacy in giving them the skills to share some of what they experienced.

Nettie Aharon (Senior Project Associate) has worked with, among others, Honeymoon Israel, Masa Israel Journey, Onward Israel, Makom-Moishe House, and Ta’am Yisrael.

I like the sentence completion question: “Israel is _______________.” I find this can be eye opening in so many ways. Do people respond with a one-word adjective (e.g., unique, complicated, etc.)? Do people respond with multiple descriptive sentences? And furthermore, when this question is used in pre/post work, we can learn even more not only about what in their thinking about Israel may have changed over time, but also about how (i.e., the ways in which) they think about Israel may have changed over time. We really see responses across the gamut. I’m reminded of our “7 Years Later” work for the AVI CHAI Foundation where one participant described Israel in the exact same way he did seven years earlier: “Israel is my home.” (Interestingly, when we first talked to him he lived in the US; seven years later he had moved to Israel). On the flip side, there was another respondent who shared that Israel is more nuanced and layered than how she had understood it to be seven years previously, when she had approached it more as “black and white.” This response is a window into transitioning from a dualistic way of thinking in adolescence to an approach of multiplicity during emerging adulthood.

Liat Sayfan (Senior Data Analyst) has worked with Masa Israel Journey, Onward Israel, multiple teen initiative programs in Israel, and Honeymoon Israel.

I feel that our survey items sometimes don’t address this topic well, because they come with lots of assumptions embedded in them. When people respond to them they don’t necessarily uncover their complicated perception of Israel. For example, if we ask people about their readiness or ability to advocate for Israel, the question seems to assume that if someone advocates for Israel, they are not critical of Israel’s policies; and if they don’t advocate for Israel, they are critical of Israel. But it could be that they are simply not active about their opinions. When people are asked “How emotionally attached are you to Israel?,” there is often an assumption that people’s responses are concerned with the State of Israel, but it could also reflect their attachment to the people they know there. For technical reasons (we don’t want to give respondents whiplash) or for political reasons (clients don’t want to be seen asking questions that assume a deeply negative view of Israel), we rarely ask about negative feelings or opinions about Israel’s policies. This can create a feeling among survey takers who have complex relationships with Israel that they cannot respond in a way that represents them. That’s why I prefer open-ended questions. They provide more space for nuance. 

Alex Pomson (Principal) has worked with, among others, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Repair the World, Masa Israel Journey, and Onward Israel.

I really like a question we’ve used in many projects. It begins “to what extent would you describe Israel as…” and then presents respondents with 8-12 highly varied images of Israel such as: “a fun holiday destination,” “a place where minorities are treated unfairly,” “a place to be safe from antisemitism,” and “a land promised by God.” In the most efficient fashion, by exploring the conceptual images that apply to Israel, this question exposes some of the most fundamental ways in which people relate to Israel, leaving room for a wide range of orientations. We have found that these stark images (our colleague Liat has suggested they’re really stereotypes) make visible differences between, for example, generational cohorts, political views, and denominational orientations. These images also help reveal the particular Israel to which respondents have been exposed during their program experience. Getting at such weighty matters with so few survey items is priceless.

We expect that these questions and others like them will be even more useful than they have been until now. When programs resume, participants may be limited, along with the types of on-the-ground experiences that can occur. Knowing what experiences are most likely to lead to which outcomes for participants will lay a strong foundation as this sector starts anew.