Data that Illuminates: A Case Study

by Dyonna Ginsburg

The famed Scottish poet and novelist Andrew Lang warned against using “statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.” As Jewish organizations increasingly move towards being data-driven, we would do well to heed Lang’s cautionary note.

It is tempting to use data simply as a “support,” retroactively justifying existing theories, policies and decisions. It’s far more difficult to use it as “illumination,” shedding light on areas not yet explored. This is especially true when a research study yields some findings that are expected.

The following is a behind-the-scenes, first-hand account of one attempt to answer the question: When a study reinforces some of what we already sense, what can we do to nevertheless reveal new wisdom and analyze data with an eye towards illumination?

Two years ago, The Jewish Agency for Israel made a strategic decision to focus on strengthening the Jewish identity of young Jews in the Diaspora and Israel. Immersive Jewish service-learning (IJSL) programs, enabling young Jews to serve marginalized populations in Israel and the developing world, were identified as potential areas for growth and investment. Underlying this decision is the belief that: immersive experiences, lasting anywhere between a week and a year, are uniquely able to transform lives; Jewish tradition, history and culture enjoin us to heed the call of suffering both in and outside the Jewish community; IJSL has the potential to empower both young Jews and local communities by tackling real needs; through cross- cultural encounters, IJSL programs are ideal environments for young Jews to explore and reflect on their own values; and IJSL can provide an entryway into individual and collective Jewish identity for young Jews who are at the margins of Jewish life.

At the time, very little data, if at all, existed about Israel-based IJSL. In an attempt to better understand what is before envisioning what could be, The Jewish Agency partnered with Repair the World, a national nonprofit organization that mobilizes Jewish Americans to address the world’s most pressing issues through volunteering, to jointly commission “Serving a Complex Israel: A report on Israel-based Immersive Jewish Service-learning,” an exploratory study that looks at IJSL programs in Israel – who they attract, why, and their impact on young Jewish adults from North America.

The resulting study, conducted by Rosov Consulting and published earlier this month, confirmed some things we had already intuited. It confirmed that service, if properly implemented, strengthens commitment to social justice and that exposure to Israel’s challenges in the context of service work enhances, not detracts, a connection to the country and its people.

Without a doubt, it was helpful to have scientifically-sound findings back our intuitions. The study ensures we, as field-builders, are on the right track; it provides us with tools to engage new and current partners and stakeholders; and it helps generate public interest in Israel-based IJSL programs, which will hopefully attract more participants.

But, we wanted to go deeper. Beyond making a general case for Israel-based IJSL, we wanted to drill down and use this study’s findings to raise concrete programmatic and marketing questions. We, therefore, took the following steps to enable further data-mining:

  • In the process of creating the survey instrument, we encouraged each of the twelve programs featured in the study to submit up to three survey items tailored to their own alumni; thus, helping them get answers to the questions most significant to them.
  • Following a preliminary draft of the report, we convened a meaning-making conversation with senior staff at The Jewish Agency, Repair the World and Masa with the goal of surfacing a variety of programmatic and policy implications of the initial findings.
  • After the publication of the study, we convened a separate meaning-making conversation with the program providers themselves, soliciting their feedback on the utility of the data for future policy-making and field-building. We asked a series of questions emerging directly from the study, such as: Given our finding that most current participants have been to Israel before, do you believe IJSL is best suited as a second or third Israel experience as opposed to a first-time experience? If so, how could we improve our marketing to teen tour / birthright alumni? If not, how could we improve our outreach to first-timers?
  • Finally, we enabled programs to access all data about their alumni, and not just the results of their three tailored survey items. That way, even though the study looked at the field as a whole and did not compare and contrast between different programs, we empowered programs to better meet the needs of their own participants and achieve their own desired programmatic outcomes.

Like a lamp post, however, each piece of research casts a limited light. As an exploratory study, “Serving a Complex Israel” continues to teach us a lot about existing Israel-based IJSL programs and their impact on participants. But, it leaves us in the dark about other, related questions – e.g. Is there a demand for Israel-based IJSL as a first-time Israel experience? What is the unique impact of Israel-based IJSL versus IJSL programs in other parts of the world? What is the unique impact of IJSL as opposed to other, non-IJSL programs in Israel? Not surprisingly, for the answers to those questions, even more research is needed.

Dyonna Ginsburg is the Director of Jewish Service Learning at The Jewish Agency for Israel.