Onward Israel: Bringing Young Adults Back to Israel Through An Entrepreneurial Start-Up


Participants from Greater MetroWest NJ Onward Israel - Negev Fellowship Program; courtesy.
Participants from Greater MetroWest NJ Onward Israel – Negev Fellowship Program; courtesy.

by Ilan Wagner

Two years ago, Pittsburgh based philanthropists Cindy and David Shapira envisioned a new start-up: a two month Birthright follow-up for Jewish students through a global resume building experience in Israel which would include internship placements and immersion in Israeli life. The Shapiras approached The Jewish Agency, sensing an opportunity for partnership given the Agency’s emerging focus on building Jewish identity through the engagement with Israel and its commitment to building a new type of mid-length program framework in Israel for alumni of Birthright and teen travel programs.

The result was Onward Israel, which began its second year of operation this month, bringing over 500 students on 22 programs from around the world to Israel, with the goal of eventually reaching thousands annually. The ultimate purpose of Onward Israel is to exponentially increase the number of Taglit and teen programs alumni who return to Israel for a transformative identity-building second visit, eventually reaching a stage where such experiences are available to all who want them and become a rite of passage for Jewish young adults throughout the Jewish world.

Onward Israel offers a competitive and attractive venue for young adults seeking to return to Israel, mostly for immersive internship experiences, for a 7-8 week period and at an affordable price. While meeting the individual needs of the participants and allowing them to advance their resumes, Onward Israel programs also feature educational modules, with special attention dedicated to activism opportunities within local communities and institutions after program completion and to the development of a deeper understanding of Israel and enhanced Jewish identity and commitment.

From the outset Onward Israel has been characterized by a unique business and operational model, bringing entrepreneurial and start-up thinking to the realm of Israel Experiences:

1. Driven by Market Data – the formation of Onward Israel was heavily influenced by extensive market research in North America among birthright alumni, implemented by Insight Strategy Inc. in the Spring of 2012. This research highlighted the following:

  • 58% of recent birthright alumni plan to return to Israel in the next few years
  • Internships in Israel are the most desired type of summer experience
  • Potential participants are looking for resume building and high-quality global experiences
  • Spending time with Israeli peers is highly valued
  • Six to eight week program length is most appropriate
  • The price for participants should be less than $2000, including flight

2. Metric based Outcome Evaluation – Onward Israel has been accompanied from the beginning by external evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting. LLC. The 2012 evaluation focused on program satisfaction and measured impact on participants six months after returning home. The 2013 evaluation has been expanded to include a regime of pre and post program surveys as well as to measure impact one year after program end, principally regarding skills, knowledge, behaviors and attitudes connected to Jewish identity and engagement with Israel. These measures are now increasingly being adopted throughout The Jewish Agency to measure the impact of a full range of programs. Data from 2012, while indicating high levels of initial impact on participants, particularly in the areas of engagement with Israel and Jewish Peoplehood, also pointed out aspects that needed to be revised and improved and led to important changes in Onward Israel for 2013:

  • Program requirements were reduced and more optional programming and participant generated content were included
  • Recruitment and marketing began much earlier in the year, allowing for more appropriate preparation of participants for internships
  • Eligibility requirements for Onward Israel were clearly defined and adopted by all local partners
  • A more rigorous local screening process was put into effect, increasing the match between participant expectations and program content
  • A pre-experience survey was instituted, allowing for a more rigorous look at program impact on participants in the future

Full evaluation data is available on the Onward Israel website and is presented bi-annually at Onward Israel Network meetings.

3. Philanthropic Lead and Involvement – from the outset, Onward Israel has been a lay driven enterprise, one in which the lead philanthropists are heavily invested in strategy, data evaluation and planning. By meeting directly with participants, both during and after their experiences in Israel, and by collecting direct and honest feedback from participants about their experience, the Shapiras have evolved their vision and helped Jewish Agency professionals refine the program and operational model.

4. Local partnership model and programmatic diversity – Onward Israel operates by first identifying local partners who share the overall vision and objectives of the initiative. The Jewish Agency then works with the local partners to develop their own Onward Israel program through the creation of local cohorts and a shared funding model, by which local communities and institutions join strategic donors and The Jewish Agency in sharing funding responsibilities. The various local partners are equal members of the Onward Israel Network – a professional and lay group which helps influence overall policy and shapes the future of the initiative. This network is further enhanced by collaborative work with Israel program organizers who help shape the contours of Onward Israel from the ground in Israel.

5. The participant’s voice – In line with promoting the participants ability to have direct, immersive and unmediated encounters with Israel, Onward Israel has also encouraged participants to directly articulate their opinions and views about their experience. Future and past participants are part of the Onward Israel Network gatherings; 2013 participants take part in a Social Media Fellow program and regularly blog and communicate about their experiences to others. Perhaps most importantly, participants are encouraged to share candid feedback, verbally and through evaluation surveys, regarding this developing start-up – which provide critical data to help the program more precisely meet the needs and aspirations of the target demographic. Through use of a new cutting edge technology, Onward Israel is even prioritizing the participants’ voice within the educational content, giving them an opportunity to build their own interactions with the surrounding Israeli environment and to capture and upload those interactions to the web in order to reach larger audiences and create the basis for tracking future growth.

6. Educational Approach – Onward Israel places a priority on immersion into contemporary Israeli life. Participants come to Onward Israel as alumni of a previous Israel experience, usually a well-structured and guided introduction
to Israel – the land and people. Building on that, Onward Israel emphasizes the participants’ direct interaction with Israeli society, honest consideration of the complexity and nuances of contemporary Israel, and deep reflection by the participants regarding their Jewishness. In particular, the initiative places a premium on informal and authentic interactions with Israeli peers.

As Onward Israel progresses into its third year of operation, continually honing its operational model and focusing on further improvement and refinement, it remains committed to the data-driven, entrepreneurial and innovative program culture it has fostered.

Ilan Wagner is the Director of Onward Israel and heads up content and programming at the Unit for Experiences in Israel at The Jewish Agency.