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Study: Trip to Auschwitz Helps Students March to Jewish Identity

January 6, 2005
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A decade after taking part in the March of the Living, Bradley Laye still credits his experience with launching him along the path to a career in Jewish communal service. “The march was the thing that started it,” said Laye, now the CEO of Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach, Fla. “It was the seed for my Jewish involvement and love of Israel.”

The program’s long-lasting effect on Laye is not unique, according to William Helmreich, the author of a newly released study on the annual program, which brings Jewish teenagers from across the globe to Auschwitz and then on to Israel.

Indeed, said Helmreich, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, “people who went to the march long ago report that even 12 years later, the march had a very, very powerful impact on them.”

“The point of the program is to affect people’s lives, but many programs succeed and many fail,” he said. “What’s most impressive is the length of time of the effect.”

Jewish educators concerned with the long-term effects of their programs use tools like the new march survey to gauge the effectiveness of their offerings.

The new study, Long-Range Effects of the March of the Living on Participants, found that 94 percent of those who’ve gone on the program believe it is important that they marry a Jew.

This is significant, the study notes, at a time when intermarriage is prevalent. One-third of all Jews currently wed are intermarried, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which also found that intermarriage is rising at a steady pace and stands at 47 percent.

The new march study also found that 94 percent of respondents plan to provide their children with Jewish education; nearly 25 percent said that, like Laye, the march had affected their career choice; nearly two-thirds said the march had made them more tolerant toward other groups; and 85 percent said the program made them more likely to donate to Jewish causes — with 66 percent saying they had already done so.

The March of the Living, which has been running its trips since 1988, brings Jewish teenagers to Poland on Holocaust Remembrance Day to march from Auschwitz to nearby Birkenau, where the prisoners were actually gassed, followed quickly by a trip to Israel to mark the Jewish state’s Memorial Day and Independence Day.

Samra Vogel, who met her husband on the March of the Living trip in 1994, says she grew up going to public schools but, after the program, decided she wanted her children to go to Jewish day school.

“It was a very intense and emotional experience,” said Vogel, who has a 4-month-old baby girl. “It created such a strong conviction for me to lead an identifiable Jewish life.”

David Machlis, March of the Living’s vice chairman, said he was pleased “but not surprised” at the study’s findings.

“For a short-term program to have such a dramatic impact on people’s way of thinking and being, we’re very proud of that,” he said.

Helmreich acknowledged that those who choose to take part in such a program are, to some degree, a self-selecting group, probably more likely than others to be involved in Jewish concerns. Because of this, he said, the study focused on the increase in Jewish belief, identification and behavior that resulted from their experience.

Eighty-four percent of march participants, for example, said the program influenced their “thinking as a Jew.” Some 58 percent said it has affected their “behavior as a Jew.”

The study also found that 45 percent of those who have taken part in the program have visited Israel since the trip. Thirty-two percent of those who’ve returned have done so three or more times, while 19 percent did so twice.

“When you’re coupling the tremendous tragedy with the rebirth of Israel back to back, the impact becomes long lasting,” Machlis said. “It’s very, very powerful. You’re going from death and destruction to renaissance and rebirth.”

The study was based on telephone interviews with 300 randomly selected past participants during the spring of 2004. Participants from 1992, 1999 and 2003 answered the 49-question survey.

In 1993, the program undertook a similar study, interviewing 300 people who took part in 1988, 1990 and 1992. The findings of that survey were consistent with those in the more recent one, which offers a longer-term view of participants’ reactions to the program.

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