Jewish Service, Jewish Values, and the Power of Evaluation

One of the goals of Jewish service is instilling Jewish values in rising generations of young Jews.

A Cornell Hillel student and local Jewish peer help repaint a Hesed social welfare building in Ukraine as part of a JDC Entwine Short Term Service trip; courtesy JDC.
A Cornell Hillel student and local Jewish peer help repaint a Hesed social welfare building in Ukraine as part of a JDC Entwine Short Term Service trip; courtesy JDC.

On September 15, Repair the World, and more than 30 partners in Jewish service, social justice, leadership development, and communal engagement, will convene Service Matters: A Summit on Jewish Service. The nearly 200 expected participants who help engage people, especially Jewish millennials, in authentic Jewish service will uncover existing breakthroughs and generate new ideas to make meaningful service a central part of American Jewish life.

In advance of the Summit – and to spark conversation – three Service Matters partners are sharing service initiatives that are integral to their Jewish engagement efforts, or that will be field tested. By highlighting lessons learned, successes, andchallenges, these pieces offer valuable insights for anyone looking to engage Jewish young adults in meaningful action toward social change.


By Sarah Eisenman

“Vision without implementation is hallucination” – I recently came across this quote, one of those passing online inspirational nuggets of wisdom, and actually took pause. Because it so perfectly summed up the last eight years of my professional life dedicated to Jewish service.

One of the goals of Jewish service is instilling Jewish values in rising generations of young Jews.

Rather than treating Jewish values as a set of stale principles, Jewish service promotes Jewish values through action-based, experiential learning by putting those values into the hands and minds of those performing volunteer service. Therefore, implementation is key.

But sometimes, growth can overtake the focus on the vision-implementation formula.

Just look at us: Since 2008, JDC Entwine has built an on-mission brand, created a continuum of programs connected with over 18,000 young adults, and grew a lay leadership structure that engages hundreds of young Jews. We are now the largest global Jewish service program provider, and, on top of that, we have grown our budget more than ten fold to approximately $5 million each year.

Great, right?

Well, sure, it does feel good to observe the enthusiasm, emotion, and life-changing moments our participants experienced: stories of young people changing career paths to serve the Jewish community; others meeting their partners and having families; and countless stories of young adults, never engaged with Jewish life, now realizing they had found a Jewish community to call home.

But, what did we really know about our participants? Who they are, why they had come to us, and what had changed for them since becoming involved? Could we intentionally re-design a program to achieve a stronger outcome? And if our model did have value, were there real learnings that we could contribute to the broader field?

In truth, we had been so focused on existing and growing, that we actually couldn’t answer these questions with absolute certainty. I realized that vision without implementation might be hallucination, but surely implementation without hard investigative facts is just as fleeting.

Through an extensive external evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting – generously supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation – we’ve come to learn about ourselves in reality, in data, and not only in our hearts and minds. We’ve also identified trends and opportunities that are key for any organization seeking to create lasting relationships and impact the hearts, hands, and minds of young people.[1]

1. The young people we often refer to asunaffiliatedandunengagedactually want intense Jewish experiences and relationships.

Entwine has had over 2,000 young people travel on our 7-10 day immersive service learning Insider Trips, which are demanding Jewish experiences for any level of Jewish engagement. To put it simply, the participants are “trapped” with a group of other Jews, doing Jewish things, having Jewish conversations, on a highly programmed travel and learning experience that most pay around $1,500 for (if they are awarded a subsidy). Certainly not a light touch Jewish opportunity. And yet, one third of trip goers were not previously involved in Jewish life, and over 40% of trip participants come from a low Jewish background (low involvement in Jewish schools, camps, and youth groups). A step further: the majority of our participants report being inspired to participate even further (a whopping 80% even want to take on leadership roles!).

Clearly, if we can design powerful, high quality, sophisticated experiences within a group that is diverse, selective, and interesting, we can attract those on the sidelines of Jewish life. Perhaps it is time to fully embrace the fact that these “unaffiliated” aren’t uninterested, they’re just underwhelmed. So let’s overwhelm them.

2. Jewish service can create and catalyze Jewish values.

We aren’t the first to find this out, and we won’t be the last, but it clearly bears repeating again. When many still wonder why organizations and funders would invest so intensely in this field, the facts speak for themselves; the only question is when will we truly listen?

From the evaluation of our programs, mainly Insider Trips and Multi Week Fellowships, participants reported greater connection to a whole host of super Jewish things than those who did not participate. And they are the very things we often complain that this generation lacks! Looking at participants’ self-reported agreement, with measures taken both before and after an Entwine travel experience, we found significant differences across several outcomes. Here are just a few: ‘feeling part of a global Jewish community’ (73% up from 49%), ‘awareness of global Jewish challenges’ (78% up from 44%), ‘ability to articulate how Jewish values inform care for others’ (70% up from 51%), and ‘ability to articulate what global Jewish responsibility means to me’ (66% up from 36%).

There isn’t a “silver bullet” program but there might be a “secret sauce” design approach. We have found that Jewish service, in many different program forms, catalyzes important Jewish values when done with intentional design, creative learning, peer to peer exchange, and volunteer work that is based within an ongoing service delivery framework.

3. Young people have deep roots; they need space to grow.

Experiences don’t stand alone, so it’s important to design an engagement strategy with a long-term lifespan that provide opportunities for deeper forms of engagement over time. For us, this meant building a program continuum and a recruitment and selection strategy that reinforced this.

On one hand we created more obvious ‘deepening’ options like being a Trip Chair, those young lay leaders responsible for recruitment, trip planning, leading reflection sessions on the program, and encouraging alumni follow up programming after the experience. We also developed integrated programming options: while we grew our Jewish service continuum, for example, we also built alongside it local, peer education spaces called Learning Networks. These Networks became a space both for alumni to deepen their involvement and an entry point for new people; we also prioritized recruitment and selection for our service programs from these same cities.

We tried to design our program offerings with the alumni of our most catalytic experiences in mind. What we have learned is that the outcomes seen in participants who participated in both travel experiences and Learning Networks were significantly higher than among those who experienced only one type of program. Among those who participate in our immersive Insider Trips, we see significantly higher outcomes among those who travel more than once, and even higher outcomes among those who chair a trip.

The lesson learned: Design to inspire people to take off. And don’t forget their next step, or better yet, the step after that. It’s clear that the development of a rising generation of Jewish lay leaders is not only important to us, but to our participants as well – they are seeking even deeper options.

Engaging in an extensive evaluation has been a marathon. On the upside, whatever I thought was intentional in our program design before is only half of what we can do now, equipping a team of creative minds with real information. Yet, it can be difficult to challenge our assumptions about the intentionality and real impact of our service programs, especially when funding is an ongoing pressure.

But the truth is that absorbing these learnings – and latching onto key trends and findings that we can seize to further engage young Jews and foster Jewish values within them – will be the key to building our Jewish future.

Even with some necessary visionary hallucinations along the way.

[1] Rosov Consulting categorized the measures in our evaluation along these lines (hearts, hands, and minds).

Sarah Eisenman is the Executive Director of JDC Entwine, the young adult engagement initiative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.