Motivation and Social and Emotional Learning: Tips for Group-Building for Birthright Israel and Beyond

Screen capture: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

By Joey Eisman and Josh Sterling Friedman

[The following is part of an essay series on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in Jewish education presenting low-barrier methods for infusing SEL into the work of Jewish educators. These ideas are stepping stones on the path to creating a more comprehensive and coordinated SEL approach. If you are interested in learning more about how to enhance your work with SEL in your educational setting, congregation, organization, etc., we encourage you to contact the authors. The series is edited by Joey Eisman (Teachers College, Columbia) and Dr. Jeffrey Kress (William Davidson School – JTS).]

The community that is built on an immersive travel program, like Birthright Israel, can often determine the success of the experience. It is within these groups that we share experiences, create memories and meaningful friendships. It is also within this community where we deepen our connection to the Jewish people, Israel, and develop our identities. While many of us rush to these Jewish teachable moments and thoughtfully planned programs, there are antecedents to their real impact that we may often overlook.

Decades of work in psychology on a theory of basic human needs, referred to as Self-Determination Theory (SDT), has identified three key psychological needs that determine how intrinsically motivated an individual is in the context of learning: autonomy, competence, and relatedness[1]. Individuals in newly formed groups are more likely to buy-in to meaningful experiences if they feel autonomous and competent as an individual, and related to the rest of their community.

Autonomy, or self-direction, is the experience of choice. Competence, or mastery, is the need to experience oneself as being capable in the environment. And relatedness encompasses the need to feel connected to the group[2]. All three needs are powerful motivators that keep individuals engaged intrinsically, carrots and sticks unneeded. As exhibited below, the overall framework of SDT serves as a helpful framework for organizing SEL initiatives.

We imagine these are not surprising. Which is fantastic! But without acknowledging their importance, Birthright Israel madrichim and other educators may not be as successful as they hope. Without fulfilling these needs and building community[3], we may not be able to achieve our goals and only provide our participants with a fun trip, instead of a meaningful Jewish journey.

How? Below are turn-key, practical ways for those involved in building group learning experiences to enhance their work through attention to autonomy, competence and relatedness. Throughout, we use Birthright Israel as a focus while acknowledging that these suggestions have broad relevance.


Participants that feel they have ownership over their journey will be more motivated to participate in programming and feel autonomy[4]. When possible, give your participants options and let them decide. For example, let them vote if you have the choice of when to do a hike, where to have a meal, or how to prepare for an upcoming sight. Other examples include making t-shirts or asking the group if they want an extra few minutes at a location, or are ready to leave now. Use inclusive and inviting language when asking them to make decisions.


Participants that feel secure in their abilities and can play a role in the group, will be more likely to engage with the group. Thus, Birthright Israel madrichim should provide their participants with challenging, but achievable tasks. This may include planning Shabbat programming, ordering a meal in Hebrew, or (if applicable) successfully completing a group challenge.

Think about ways in which you can help individuals shine and feel their own competence! Are there musicians in the group? Chefs? Teachers? People who are good with maps? Ask for volunteers and experts for things as simple as holding the door open for others, and your participants will feel that they are competent, that they are valued.


This one should be the least surprising. Community development is what we do best!. However, if Birthright Israel madrichim do not get their group to develop interconnectedness between themselves and with their staff, then they will not be able to develop trust. Madrichim can simply run icebreakers or group building activities. They can also spend time learning about each other. In fact, speaking about themselves and finding connections with their participants, can help madrichim build fruitful relationships[5].

And don’t forget, we cannot connect without communicating, and communication can happen in so many ways! From bus talk topics to intentional identity conversations.

One important note, we encourage you to run these types of programs throughout your entire program and not just at the beginning when they seem necessary.

By fulfilling these needs, group leaders build trusting relationships with their participants, which according to the work of Neil Hawkes, is invaluable in the learning process [6]. Further, madrichim prepare the group for their journey, support the participants’ identity development, and make lasting meaning of the experience with them, something we crave in all aspects of our lives as Jews, and as Humans.

Joey Eisman is currently a consultant and graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, and formerly a Senior Program Manager at BBYO, managing their global expansion and operations. He is a graduate of M2 and can be reached at

Josh Sterling Friedman is currently a PhD student in Cognitive Science in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also an active educator and consultant in the fields of Jewish summer camp, Birthright Israel, and SEL through challenge-based group facilitation. He can be reached at

  1. Ryan, R.M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of Personality, 63(3), 397-427.
  2. Connell, J. P. (1990). Context, self, and action: A motivational analysis of self-system processes across the life span. In D. Cicchetti & M. Beeghly (Eds.), The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation series on mental health and development. The self in transition: Infancy to childhood (pp. 61-97). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  3. see Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.
  4. Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
  5. Lin, X., & Bransford, J., D. (2010). Personal Background Knowledge Influences Cross-Cultural Understanding. Teachers College Record, 112(7), 1729–1757.
  6. Hawkes, N. & Hawkes, J. (2018). The inner curriculum: How to nourish wellbeing, resilience and self-leadership, Melton, Woodbridge, United Kingdom: John Catt Publication