birthright-israel-logo1-smallerI love Taglit and Birthright Israel. May they double and triple in size and contributions, and may they go from strength to strength. So you can imagine my glee at the most recent results reported this week on a longitudinal study conducted on a sample of the earliest participants of the program. It was a study to measure the impact of the program five to eight years out. You can read the full report here.

After ten years, the program that provides a free ten day trip to Israel to Jewish youth, has sent over 225,000 from 50 countries to Israel. According to the most recent research conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, participants have a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people and an increased interest in building Jewish families than those who did not participate in the trip.

Michael Steinhardt and his partners figuratively peed in their pants at these results. Steinhardt stood up during the meeting to implore federations and philanthropists to provide greater support to the only program that seems to be working among Jewish youth.

“In ten short years, Taglit-Birthright Israel has inspired a generation of young Jews to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish community,” said Gidi Mark (no relation to me hehe), CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel.

generation_taglit_cov_webWhat were some of the key findings from the study, which surveyed Taglit participants and non participants?

73% of trip participants felt that the trip was “somewhat” or “very much” a life changing experience for them (no comparative data on how a trip to Disney or Paris rates on the same question); trip participants were 23% more likely than non-participants to report feeling “very much” connected to Israel; and participants were 24% more likely than non-participants to “strongly agree” with the statement, “I have a strong sense of connection to the Jewish people.”

And now for the lead, which I am burying.

Those who participated in Taglit Birthright Israel, who are now married, and who do not define themselves as Orthodox were 57% more likely to have married a Jewish spouse than the non-Orthodox non-participants (Virtually all married respondents who were raised Orthodox were married to Jews, so they were excluded from this statistic.) (Note: if you read the study closer, you will note that a “Jewish spouse” in the study is a spouse who is Jewish at the time of the survey, they may have been raised in another religious tradition; but the results are still significant)

72% of trip participants who are now married, chose a currently Jewish spouse. Only 46% of trip non participants had a currently Jewish spouse. Spouses of Taglit alumni are three and a half times more likely to be Jewish now. Of those Taglit alumni who had a non Jewish spouse, about half, or 52% stated that raising their children as Jewish was “very important.”

And now for my issues with the study… the study compares trip PARTICIPANTS to NON-PARTICIPANTS. Participants are those that applied and were accepted to the program. Were they already committed to Jewish activities and active in campus programs and more likely to therefore be accepted to the program? Will this bias the results? Trip Non Participants are not those Jewish youth who are Jewish and did not apply to the program. No, they are those who applied to the program and were rejected or did not take the trip. The study does not explain why they were rejected. Perhaps they were not fully committed or active in their Jewish communities already? Non participants are also harder to track down several years after the first years of the program. This seems to muddy the results for me.

Can the differences be attribited to Taglit? The researchers say yes. Taglit says yes. I am presently unconviced. But, it doesn’t hurt, so let’s keep growing and funding it.

Some of the other timbits that I enjoyed from the study were:

Taglit alumni under the age of 30 were LESS likely to be
married than nonparticipants at the time of the survey. Uh oh, talk about continuity. Does trip participation hurt one’s marriage chances? 47% of NON participants were now married compared to just 25% of trip participants (Maybe participants met Israelis, dated them, and could not get them to commit?)

87% of participants felt at least somewhat connected to Israel, compared to 82% of non participants (not a big difference between the two groups for me)

Of the participants who never celebrated Hanukkah, a seder, or other Jewish ritual during high school, 30% felt “very much” connected to Israel after their trip. This compares to 10% of trip non participants. Therefore Taglit participants are three times as likely to be “very much” connected to Israel as non participants. (how large this pool was, I do not know)

42% of Taglit alumni read Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, or other Israel based media during the conflict in Gaza in 2009. This compared to 31% for non participants. Although this is a 35% difference, I still think it is a surprisingly high value even for non participants.

Attention federations… 39% of NON participants felt “very much” connected to the Jewish community where they currently live. This compares to 37% for Participants. (Headline: Taglit hurts connecton to local Jewish communities?) But on the other hand, wake up and smell the matza. Only a third of these youth feel a connection to their local community. What does this mean for the future of local Jewish institutions

Attention rabbis… NON participants and Participants were equal in their feeling of connection to Jewish customs and traditions (for both groups, 54% of respondents felt “very connected” to customs). 50% of participants are currently members of a Jewish prayer group, compared to 42% of non participants.

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  • I read the study in its entirety. As Larry says, the control group was made up of those who were rejected by Birthright. In the early years of the program, the rejection rate was 50% or a bit higher, due to lack of space.

    Those who went of trips were not necessarily any more committed to Judaism than those who weren’t; in most cases, selections were by lot. The selection bias wasn’t that, but was most likely the fact that the non-selectees, over time, developed serious relationships with others, and Birthright isn’t really set up to accommodate couples, married and otherwise. Thus the selection bias was towards those who were not in serious relationships. (One indication of this was that Birthright participants were a bit younger than non-participants. Take two guys: Both are, say, 20 when they apply for a Birthright trip, but only one is selected. The non-selectee plans to apply again next year, when he’s 21, but during that year, he falls in love. If his partner isn’t Jewish, he won’t apply because she (I’m assuming heterosexuality) is ineligible. If his partner is Jewish, he probably won’t reapply because accommodations are three to a room, and Josh and Jessica don’t need Joe around at night watching. This, not lack of commitment on Josh’s part, is the difference.

    Based upon this hypothesis, Birthright does work in increasing in-marriage. This is probably not because of propaganda or cajoling on the part of Michael Steinhardt to in-marry, but because Birthright’s main mission is to increase awareness and affection towards Israel, and one is more like to find that in a Jewish mate than a non-Jewish one, especially on college campuses where anti-Israel propaganda is rife.

  • Yes.

    I don’t think dating a Jew or non Jew would affect one’s decision to go on a trip. To go away for 10 days to Israel for free versus be away from a bf or gf for 10 days while in college is not a biggie, and if it was, then once again, the non participants are a flawed control group.

    Also.. with limited space in the early years, I would bet 5 pounds of Yehuda Matzot that the association chose the most active youth for the open spots on the trip, and once again skewed the results.

    Either way, Taglit does have an influence. I have seen it anecdotally, and I whole heartedly support it.

  • As far as I know, Birthright’s registration system basically operates under first come-first serve among the eligible. That being said, in so far as the aim of the program is to increase connection to Israel and Jewish engagment among the unaffiliated you would think that, if they were giving preferential treatment for certain groups to go on the trip (which they explicitly say they don’t, so that’s a big allegation to make against birthright), they would want to select the LEAST affiliated Jews. What would be the motive in sending only the most active Jews on a program designed to make Jews more active? Wouldn’t you want to target the people most in danger of assimilation?

    In any case, the report says that they looked for any pre-trip differences between participants and non participants and controlled for them statistically when they found them.

  • In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the research team at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University that conducted this study. We are very happy to see that our work is generating so much discussion, but we would like to clear up a few details in your post. I refer specifically to this section:

    “And now for my issues with the study… the study compares trip PARTICIPANTS to NON-PARTICIPANTS. Participants are those that applied and were accepted to the program. Were they already committed to Jewish activities and active in campus programs and more likely to therefore be accepted to the program? Will this bias the results? Trip Non Participants are not those Jewish youth who are Jewish and did not apply to the program. No, they are those who applied to the program and were rejected or did not take the trip. The study does not explain why they were rejected. Perhaps they were not fully committed or active in their Jewish communities already? Non participants are also harder to track down several years after the first years of the program. This seems to muddy the results for me.”

    We compare participants to non-participants because there is no other reliable method for determining the effect of the trip on participants. Our previous research has shown consistently that at the time they apply to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, there are very few differences between those people who are fortunate enough to end up on a trip and those who do not, including in their commitment to Jewish activities, campus programs, and local Jewish communities. The only significant difference between participants and non-participants in our analysis for the long-term follow-up study was that participants were slightly younger than non-participants at both the time of their application and at the time we reached them to conduct the survey. There were no statistically significant differences between participants and non-participants in terms of gender, ritual practices when they were in high school, the denomination in which they were raised, Jewish education, or parental intermarriage. Because applicants who are eventually divided into participants and non-participants are so similar at the time they apply with the biggest difference being simply who goes and who doesn’t, the pool of non-participants serves as a natural control group and we can reasonably conclude that that the differences we find after the trip are a result of the program’s impact.

    Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent well over 200,000 young Jewish adults to Israel in the past ten years, but how many have applied? It is hard to determine exact numbers because people who apply one year but don’t get a spot can and often do reapply and go on trips in subsequent years, but our previous research shows that in each round of trips, there are roughly half as many spots available as there are applicants. For reference, see page 7 of this report:

    It shows the number of participants and non-participants who applied to each round of trips from Winter 2002-2003 to Summer 2008. Taglit-Birthright Israel and its trip organizers do an admirable job of providing trips to as many applicants as they can, but they just don’t have enough money to provide trips to every applicant in any given round. That is why applicants are rejected –- there aren’t enough spots for everyone.

    Tracking down anyone when the last information you have from them is several years old is difficult, but we had a significant advantage in tracking down participants. As we report, Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni are nearly unanimous in saying that they enjoyed their trips, and so many are eager to share their stories with us when we contact them. Their enthusiasm for the program is what made it so much easier for us to track them down -– they wanted to be found so they could talk to us about their experiences. We had no such advantage in tracking down non-participants. Nevertheless, we made every effort to find as many people in our sample as we could. We used whatever e-mail addresses and phone numbers were available in the Taglit-Birthright Israel registration database, Facebook and other social networking platforms, data enhancement services, and extensive internet searches. Ultimately we were able to achieve a 62% response rate for participants and a 42% response rate for non-participants. If we include data collected from relatives of applicants who we were unable to interview directly, those rates rise to 72% for participants and 56% for non-participants. For a study of this type and scope, these response rates are more than sufficient to draw scientifically valid conclusions.

    We thank you for your interest in the results of our research and join you in your wish that Taglit-Birthright Israel may go from strength to strength.

    Matthew Boxer
    Research Associate
    Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University

  • I worte the following on my blog:

    The Jewish Week in reporting on the findings says, “the most dramatic finding of the new study asserts that Birthright participants are far more likely than non-participants to marry Jews and to want to raise Jewish children”.

    Well, I am not sure if that’s exactly what the report shows.

    The new study of the effects of the birthright israel trip states that “Non-Orthodox Taglit participants were 57% more likely to have a Jewish spouse than non participants.”

    That is true if you compare the married participants to the married non-participants. But that is leaving out some important information. The study also notes that non-participants are more likely to be married (by my calculations, 57% more) than birthright participants. In other words, it is not that there are more Jews marrying Jews but there are less Jews marring non-Jews.

    Why should that the non-participants are getting married faster than the participants? The study offers a possible explanation that since participants are more likely to want to marry a Jewish person they “spend a longer time searching for a suitable partner”. The assumption being that the birthright participants will “catch up” to the non -participants in terms of marriage and maintain the differences in terms of intermarriage.

    But is that a fair assumption to make? The 2001 National Jewish Population Study shows that there is a very significant drop in the importance of marrying a Jew as the single moves into their 30’s.

    The birthright study also notes that there is no significant differences on dating patterns (Jewish vs. non-Jewish) among the participants and the control group. It would seem then more likely that over time the birthright participants will catch up with the non-participants as far as their intermarriage rate goes as well.

    The study also shows that out of those who married Jews, 21% of spouses of birthright participants were converts to Judaism, as opposed to 5% of the Jewish spouses of non-participants surveyed. (Since the figures do not include Orthodox participants we can assume that almost all of these conversions were not halachic, but that is another issue).

    So what does this all mean? If we can believe the figures that are presented to us, it shows that birthright was effective in getting some Jews not to marry non-Jews but was not effective in getting them to marry Jews. Instead they have either put off marriage or convinced their non-Jewish partner to convert.

    Not bad for a mere $650 million.

    Charles Lebow

    • Thanks Charles for that insightful analysis. I think you’re going to earn the ire of a lot of folks with this observation and I’d love to see a response from the study folks.

    • Very insightful.. I felt a stronger sense of marrying within Judaism after the trip and believe it or not, I met my husband on birthright! Our one year anniversary is in 5 days!

  • My daughter recently was rejected for the birthright Israel opportunity. She worked hard on the application and certainly wanted to go. She excelled in college and will attend law school next semester. I am her only jewish parent and I have taught her much about the history & practices of the jewish faith. However, why should she bother? She apparently isn’t good enough despite her best intentions about her jewish heritage. A fellow called her and was abrupt on the phone and then worked to dismiss her application. I will turn my back on Judaism now as it has turned its nose up at her. I will encourage her to follow a loving faith that embraces her efforts.

    • Philip, you do realize that the Birthright Israel application process isn’t based on merit, right? There are about 4-5 applicants at least for each available position. The only people who get preference are those who have applied before and didn’t get in. I know many people who have applied several times before they finally got in. I would just urge you to urge your daughter to apply again – it’s a great experience! I assure you, Judaism has not turned up its nose on her.

  • Ck,
    Thank you for taking the time & effort to explain the program a bit more to me, it is appreciated. I had only heard from a few who attended & spoke so highly of the program. I wanted it for my daughter. I did not know that space was limited. I did not feel she was any more deserving than anyone, it is not how I raised my children. I just wanted her to have a chance.
    So perhaps there will be another opportunity.

    Thank you,

    • Phil, I sent you an email. Next time she wants to go, just drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do to help, ok? Ok! Send her our best wishes on her first year of law school!