By Alex Pomson and Yehudit Werchow
When Masa Israel Journey was launched in 2004, almost all of the five-and-a-half-thousand young people who participated in the program’s long-term Israel-based experiences were under the age of twenty-four. They were taking a gap year or experiencing a semester abroad. Just a few hundred were college graduates.
In recent years, the demographics of those coming on programs has changed. Today, about a third of Masa’s twelve thousand participants are older than 21. Most of this population are post-college and pre-family; in today’s world, what has been coined “emerging adults.” While this change alone is interesting, the implications of this change are especially intriguing and provocative for Masa and for community partners interested in effectively engaging this demographic group.
A team from Rosov Consulting is working together with Masa Israel Journey to study the outcomes produced by the different programs for which Masa provides a platform. Having completed a retrospective study of Masa alumni who participated in programs between 2005 and 2014, we have also been studying, in real time, a cohort who participated in Masa programs between July 2014 and June 2015, and who are now between six and twelve months out of the program.
Within this cohort there are more than 1,500 participants who were post-college and under the age of thirty at the time they came to Israel for between four months and 12 months. Based on an analysis of their self-reported participation in Jewish programing and educational experiences before they enrolled in Masa, 65 percent of this population was previously engaged in a relatively limited way in communal Jewish activities or in Jewish educational offerings such as camps, supplementary schools, day schools and youth groups. The one (almost) common denominator among the group is that 85 percent of them had visited Israel at least once before.
What makes this cohort so unique is that their choice of a Masa program does not fit with popular perceptions of post-college millennials and of the programs in which they participate. Jewish programs in North America that attract Jewish millennial participants tend to be self-curated, short-in-duration, easily accessible, and ask for a low threshold of commitment. Often, these programs don’t trumpet their Jewishness.
Post-college Masa programs call participants to put a great deal more skin in the game. The programs are at least four-months long. Whatever their programmatic content, they require investing time in different mandatory curriculum components such as learning Hebrew as a second language, participating in a diverse range of Jewish experiences, engaging in social action work, traveling the land, and learning about Israeli society, culture and history. By definition, there is no disguising that these are Jewish programs. Although subsidies are available, sometimes covering full cost, these post-college offerings range in price between $5,000 and $15,000. The access bar is quite high.
When surveyed about their reasons for coming on one of these programs, the participants’ interest in personal and/or professional growth loomed large. Gaining work experience and getting to know oneself were strong motivations, as was the desire to have fun and experience adventure. Participants were not primarily drawn to Israel by a search for Jewish experiences. What pulled them to Israel was a curiosity about the country and the opportunity to experience living there; what Masa’s messaging calls ”living like a local.” They saw Israel as a site for their own personal and professional development.
Evidently, most participants found what they’re looking for. Six months after they returned home, their knowledge of day-to-day life in Israel and Israeli culture had increased three-fold, they were twice as knowledgeable about ways to be involved with Israel, and their sense of connection to Israel and Israelis had increased significantly.
Given their relatively unengaged backgrounds and the relatively high bar for entering the program, it is worth learning more about what attracts these people to Israel and what exactly accounts for the ways in which they change and grow during their time in the country; especially as regards their connection to Israel and its relationships to their personal and professional growth. What we learn might have profound implications for Masa and for others seeking to deeply engage this population. If the access bar was lower, might that make programs more appealing? Or is the high bar of entry part of the appeal? Is the special attraction to live like a local in Israel, or is it to live abroad somewhere familiar enough from a previous experience that just happens to be the one Jewish state in the world?
For the moment, speculatively, we point to a paradox: the participants’ previous experience in Israel has set in motion a desire to come back and gain a deeper appreciation of what living in the country involves. At the same time, a perceived deficiency in that previous experience – being too tightly controlled and too heavily mediated – nourishes, they have told us, a desire to discover Israel for themselves. They have been both inspired enough and frustrated enough to want to return.
Millennials may be the most studied population cohort in human history but there is still much more to learn about their drives and desires, particularly when it comes to their relationship with Israel and their engagement with the country and the Jewish people.
Alex Pomson is Managing Director at Rosov Consulting
Rabbi Yehudit Werchow is Director of Education, Masa.