Orthodox Israel Trips Keeping Young Jews Engaged


Forget Jew vs. Jew. How about Jew-influencing-Jew?

That’s part of what’s at play in a new study by leading Jewish demographer Steven M. Cohen that looks at the influence of an Orthodox-led Israel trip on non-Orthodox teens.

“The divide between the Orthodox and the rest of us is not as deep or impassable as one might have thought,” said Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College (HUC-JIR).

Non-Orthodox teens who attend an Orthodox program receive a “cross-cultural” experience, he said. The experience resulted in increased levels of Jewish connection and Jewish identity for trip alums compared to similar young adults, many of whom haven’t gone on any organized Israel tour, according to the study, which was released Tuesday.

Though there have been many studies on Birthright Israel trips, the free 10-day Israel tour for young adults, and post-trip studies of adults who have been to Israel, this is the first national study of teen Israel trips, said Cohen.

The study surveyed 1,784 teenagers who participated in the Orthodox Union’s The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ) since 2007.

“People who are coming from different cultural ideologies are less likely to be influenced by one another,” said Cohen, categorizing Orthodox Judaism as a separate ideology. However, he said, “That didn’t seem to be the case here.”

The study compared responses from TJJ alumni to three other recently collected data sets: the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of Jewish Americans, the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York and the 2010 Birthright survey of applicants. Respondents in those three studies have, for the most part, not gone to Israel on an organized trip. While some of the respondents in the Pew and Jewish Community surveys might have been on a trip similar to TJJ, Birthright stipulates that applicants have not been to Israel on an organized program.

Results found that 86 percent of TJJ alumni said raising their children as Jewish was very important, compared to 69 percent of Birthright applicants.

Additionally, 80 percent of TJJ alumni fasted for the whole of Yom Kippur compared with only 48 percent of 18-29 year olds in the statistically adjusted 2013 Pew survey, and 75 percent of TJJ alumni stated that it was very important to marry a Jew compared to 55 percent of Birthright applicants.

TJJ is run by NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s teen program. It’s designed for public high school teens looking to learn more about their Jewish heritage. During the four-week trip, participants travel around the country touring historical and modern sites of Israel.

Though the Conservative and Reform movements both have youth programs that send teens to Israel, no comparable study has yet been conducted. Cohen noted that it would be “interesting” to see how results from similar programs might compare.

Cohen added that the program is conducted in the context of Israel becoming a “divisive and contentious issue” in American Jewish life, said Cohen.

“Especially on college campuses, Jewish students will be challenged about their positions on Israel,” he said. “Bringing young Jews to Israel before they reach the campus setting is even more critical to helping them contend with the resistance they will face.”