Long-Term Learning with Onward Israel: The “Identity-Israel” Connection

by Nettie Aharon

“So tell me, what are some ways that I can make sure that my college-aged daughter stays Jewish?”

If you’re like me, this probably isn’t the kind of question you’d want to encounter shortly after midnight, while standing in the throes of a snail-paced check-in line at Ben Gurion airport, awaiting to board a transatlantic flight. But alas, there I was.

In fact, the person posing this question and I discovered that we were actually on the same flight to Boston; she was flying home, and I was headed to a conference hosted by the Network for Research in Jewish Education (NRJE). She asked what kind of research I am involved in, and I proceeded to share an overview of our work at Rosov Consulting. She then asked her question about her daughter “staying Jewish.”

Following a brief pause – in which you might imagine my imaginary self screaming out for help – I asked her whether she had heard about Onward Israel. Onward provides Jewish young adults with eight-week summer internships in Israel, with the goal of bolstering participants’ relationship to Israel, connection to Jewish identity, professional experience, and personal development. The Rosov Consulting team has partnered with Onward for the last six summers in evaluating the outcomes produced by the program, and we are slated to continue this partnership over the next four summers, totaling ten years of collaboration. I have been part of the research team for this evaluation work since 2015. Over the years, our findings have pointed to Onward’s short-term and long-term successes in building up participants’ professional confidence and capacity, while strengthening their connection to Israel and Jewish peoplehood.

A curious finding that emerged from our conversations with alumni this past summer centered on how alumni responded to questions pertaining to their connection to and involvement with Israel and Jewish life. When asked how they relate to Israel today, several alumni chose to speak about their engagement with Jewish life. For example, alumni described gaining a greater appreciation for different ways of practicing Judaism, finding meaning in Shabbat, or viewing their attendance of High Holiday services with newfound importance. It seems that their experience in Israel, which focused primarily on their careers and professional development, also inspired them to think more about their own Jewish identity and where they see themselves in the Jewish community. Paradoxically, when asked how they relate to Jewish life and their Jewish identity today, several alumni discussed their engagement with Israel. For example, some spoke about their increased knowledge of Israeli society and politics, how they speak with others about Israel, and about the camaraderie they felt in Israel.

The reflections of these Onward alumni, both about their time on Onward and their experiences thereafter, showcase a clear link or overlap in how they perceive Israel and their own Jewishness. Three years after participating in Onward, these alumni seem aware of an explicit, strong bond between Israel and their Jewish identity. This stands in contrast to what we commonly heard in our conversations with participants at the onset of their program: that Israel and Jewish identity are somewhat disparate entities.

While we are unlikely to ever have a definitive answer to my airport buddy’s quest for her daughter — to “stay Jewish” — our Onward study presents an interesting opportunity and may even defy some current assumptions. Many are concerned about the increased distance from Israel among this generation of young Jews; what we see here is that an immersive Israel experience, even one who’s dominant mission is professional development, may well serve as a point of entry to Jewish life.

Nettie Aharon, M.P.H., is a Senior Project Associate at Rosov Consulting.

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