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October 28, 2009

Birthright Leads To Jewish Marriages, Donor-Funded Study Claims

Birthright Logo With 2 Participants Flawed study, paid for by Birthright's mega-donors, used in attempt to counter persistent reports of Birthright's failures.

I don't think the study proves what Birthright claims it does. My remarks are posted after the Forward article:

Birthright Leads to Jewish Marriages, Study Says
By Gal Beckerman • Forward

Birthright Logo With 2 Participants The donors who have sent more than 200,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel over the past decade have been rewarded with a bit of reassuring news: Those returning from the trips are more likely than their peers to go on to marry other Jews.

According to a new study about the long-term effects of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, 72% of married alumni are wedded to other Jews, compared to a rate of 46% among a control group of young Jews who never went on one of the fully subsidized, 10-day trips to Israel. In this finding, the researchers from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies even factored out individuals raised in Orthodox homes.

Birthright Study Ethnic Identity

According to the study’s authors, the uniqueness of the survey was that it was able to track behavioral change over a longer time period than previous research. It included more than 1,000 individuals who had applied to go on Birthright trips between 2001 and 2004, both participants and those who did not end up going on the trip.

Studies had been conducted in the past that showed attitudinal changes, said Leonard Saxe, the lead researcher, but those were done while the participants “still had hummus in their bellies.”

The study’s results were met with satisfaction when they were presented October 26 in New York to a roomful of Birthright supporters, including the program’s founders, mega-philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt.

The president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Barry Shrage, characterized the report’s findings as a “tipping point.” He called Birthright’s success “some species of miracle,” but also warned, as many of those present did, that more had to be done both to ensure Birthright’s future by bringing in more donors and to follow up with returning participants.

Birthright Study Connection To jewish Life

“If we act now, future generations will remember that at exactly this moment, the Jewish community rose to the challenge, and we will be blessed,” Shrage said. “If not, it will be one more example of us failing to make the most of an opportunity.”

Other report findings included that over two-thirds of participants said the trip made them feel closer to Israel and that Birthright alumni were 50% more likely than non-participants to feel “very confident” about explaining the current situation in Israel. The study also revealed that participants were slightly more likely than non-participants to engage in religious activities, such as lighting Shabbat candles and participating in a Passover Seder.

Steven M. Cohen, a Hebrew Union College sociologist was not part of the research team but attended the presentation at Brandeis House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said that the study’s findings “eminently check out.”

Lead researcher Saxe told the Forward that the dramatically higher figures for in-marriage among Birthright alumni could not be attributed to any factor other than the trip’s “effect” on participants. “There’s really no other explanation other than that they participated in Birthright and this changed their view of their identity,” Saxe said.

The only voice to pierce the self-congratulatory tone of the gathering was that of Birthright co-founder Steinhardt. During the question-and-answer session, he stood up and railed against the notion of time and energy being spent on reports and what he called “dialogue.”

“This study is an important study, and I think it says some very significant things,” Steinhardt continued. “But do you recall any Jewish study meaningfully changing the Jewish world over the last 20 or 30 years? I don’t.”

This is an extremely flawed report.

First of all, Jews eligible for a Birthright trip who do not apply to go on one, or who are not persistent in trying to get a slot, are arguably far less connected to the Jewish community than those who opt to go or who are persistent in trying to get a slot. Even those who come from Jewish homes with zero Jewish observance but who opt to go or who persistently try to get a slot would be arguably more connected to the Jewish community and their Jewishness than the others who aren't persistent or do not apply.

The study's control group is made up of those who applied but did not actually go on a trip. They did not go for several reasons: no opening at a time convenient for them, no opening on the trip they wanted, could not bring non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend, found other things to do, changed their minds, etc.

The more connected a potential participant is to the Jewish community (i.e., to a campus Jewish organization or group or to other Jewish community organizations) the greater chance that person has of getting on a trip of their choice. This means that, of the overall group of potential participants, more connected people will skew toward going on a trip while less connected people will skew away from going.

That clearly impacts the study's findings.

Birthright Study Non-Orthodox Participants More Likely To Marry Jewish For example, the study found that non-Orthodox participants were 57% more likely to marry a Jew than non-participants.

But remember, participants are the people who chose to take a free trip to Israel. Those who did not make that choice arguably care much less about being Jewish. And the data set of participants who married is so small, it should be considered statistically insignificant. So you can't really credit Birthright with fostering Jewish marriages.

Indeed, the study found that non-Orthodox participants were far less likely to be married several years after their trip than were non-participants.

I believe this shows that non-participants were far more likely to be in a serious relationship at the time they were eligible for their trip than were participants. This also accounts, I think, for at large part of their higher rate of marriage, especially because that relationship partner could not qualify for a Birthright trip if that partner was not Jewish during the time of eligibility.

And this si the part of this self-funded study Birthright is touting.

Taking young, impressionable people anywhere – especially anywhere exotic – on a ten day indoctrination trip will lead to similar results.

As I told two journalists yesterday, including one who called from Israel, if these same people had been taken to Brazil on a ten day trip similar to Birthright, you'd see very similar results in most study categories. Arguably, we should should see much higher results bringing Jewish people to Israel. But we don't – at least when those people go to Israel on a Birthright trip.

Birthright study quote This study openly shows Birthright has zero impact on affiliation, which confirms an earlier critical study of Birthright. and it also shows the more Jewishly involved a person is before going on Birthright, the less impact the trip has, to the extent that people coming from kosher homes – which includes a number of non-Orthodox homes and marginally Orthodox homes as well as Orthodox and haredi ones – show no statistically significant changes in attitudes or practice in almost every category.

Birthright is a top heavy, top down, ham-handed organization that took a great idea and made it pedestrian.

The answer isn't to take participants to Israel and lecture them on marrying Jewish, and the answer isn't segmenting participants by preexisting denominational or affinity preferences. And, for that matter, the answer isn't thirty-something (or forty or fifty-something) New York and Jerusalem-based executives planning trips for twenty-year-olds.

The answer is to allow the 20-year-olds, within set but not overly rigid guidelines, to plan their own trips and manage the experience and its after-trip followup.

One way this could be done is to have various pods available – a day trip to Masada, a half day in Mea Shearim, a half day at Yad Vashem, two days in the north, shopping in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem's Old City and the Kotel, Arab Israel, the 67 border, etc. Each pod could have several different providers to choose from and trip organizers could select which pods and which providers they want, or could opt to take a pre-planned trip from a provider.

Followup should also be a bottom up, not top down, experience largely run by the participants themselves.

If Birthright would make these changes, I believe it would show much higher rates of post-trip affiliation. And, properly done, it should save money, as well.

Doing this would mean some Birthright employees and contractors will have to be phased out. Many of those would be employees of Birthright-Next's designated New York City post-trip followup provider, the Jewish Enrichment Center. (And here and here.) The JEC itself is highly problematic as is Birthright's NYC followup head, a Steinhardt family crony. (Read the previous links to see why.)

And that in all probability means making the necessary change is unlikely.

Take a look at five graphs from the study that support my points. The whole study is posted after them as a PDF file, and there is a link to an index of previous Birthright posts, as well.

Please click to enlarge:

Birthright Particiapnts Less Likely To be Married


Birthright Study Connection To jewish Life
Birthright Study Ethnic Identity


Birthright Study Explaining Situation In Israel
Birthright Study Connection To Israel



The Study As A PDF File:

Comments

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Interesting analysis. This once again shows how difficult it is to do meaningful statistical analysis in sociology, where real control groups don't exist (at least not like in the exact sciences).

Intuitively, I'd think that it should take more than a 10 day trip to make a lasting impact. The 10 day trip is much better as a feeder into follow up programs, not enough of which already exist.

On a different note: I found your coverage of the Kastner documentary a bit one sided. I find the following article from the Jewish week more subtle, may be you want to blog about it.

URL: http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c36_a17098/News/New_York.html

Key quote:
At the YIVO screening, survivors of the train, one after another, rose to praise Kastner. “Even after he got his family to Switzerland, and he got out, Kastner came back to Hungary, went to Germany, went from camp to camp. He saved lives.”

The 560,000 Jews who left on 147 other trains could not be reached for comment.

The 560,000 Jews who left on 147 other trains could not be reached for comment.

If that quote is in the article, and the article is not an opinion piece, the writer and editor who did this should be fired.

A free 10-day trip - as exciting and inspirational as it might be - can not be a substiutue to strong Jewish homes, Jewish day schools and Jewish living. There are no such shortcuts in life.

If that quote is in the article, and the article is not an opinion piece, the writer and editor who did this should be fired.

It took some time to get the page to load.

The reporter is Jewish Week Associate Editor Jonathan Mark, and the piece is supposed to be a straight news piece.

As I've written several times before, Mark should be fired.

All that I know is that a 10 day, all expense paid trip to Israel for young Jewish people can't hurt and could help as the article says. You may argue as to how helpful it is, but as they say "it can't hurt" so what is the problem here?

Shmarya wrote:
The reporter is Jewish Week Associate Editor Jonathan Mark, and the piece is supposed to be a straight news piece.

As I've written several times before, Mark should be fired.

Thanks for your opinion on the matter (which is what I wanted to read).

Regarding your earlier reaction, however: If that quote is in the article, and the article is not an opinion piece, the writer and editor who did this should be fired., I must disagree, and for the following reason. The opinion of those whom he did save were featured prominently in articles, including one you blogged about. However, it is quite obvious that those who were saved by him would have a favorable opinion of him, just like birthright participants may be more likely to marry Jewish because they are the kind of people who are more interested in Jewish life. I.e., there is selection bias.

Furthermore, there is no dispute that Kastner did save a large number of people. The question is only whether in the process he endangered many more who could have opposed the Nazis, and whether he also actively turned people in, as with IIRC one of the paratroopers who came with Hannah Senesh. No amount of favorable testimony by those he saved is going to answer this question. Only sleuthing, particularly through archives and through the documents that led to the findings of both the lower and the supreme courts, and comparison with material historians have on other, related situations, can shed more light on the matter.

While I didn't see the documentary yet, based on the reviews I read, I fear that there is too much of the former and too little of the latter for the documentary to be enlightening (but I hope to be able to make up my own mind in the near future, when I get to see it).

You can disagree all you want to. It's journalism 101. What Mark did is unethical. He should be fired.

Furthermore, there is no dispute that Kastner did save a large number of people. The question is only whether in the process he endangered many more who could have opposed the Nazis, and whether he also actively turned people in, as with IIRC one of the paratroopers who came with Hannah Senesh.

This is only a question if you disregard the facts – something Mark also did.

Only sleuthing, particularly through archives and through the documents that led to the findings of both the lower and the supreme courts, and comparison with material historians have on other, related situations, can shed more light on the matter.

This has been done by historians. Kasztner is innocent.

I didn't see the documentary yet

When you see it, you'll see how awful Mark is.

Shmarya writes: "if these same people had been taken to Brazil on a ten day trip similar to Birthright, you'd see very similar results in most study categories. " What is the point here? Is the point that young people are impressionate? If so, then why is it bad to use this youthfull feature for good purpose - impress them with Israel and Jewsish people? The young people will be impressed with one thing or another, it is feature of youthfull brain. I don't see anything bad in birthright's attempt to impress them with Jewish history and continuity.

I understand that Smaryah has a grudge with "birthright next" people. This should not be a reason to bash entire enterprise for no good reason.

By the way, the philantropists are using their own money and they have full right to use them anyway they want too (that includes both wise and stupid spending).

Shmarya writes: "if these same people had been taken to Brazil on a ten day trip similar to Birthright, you'd see very similar results in most study categories. " What is the point here? Is the point that young people are impressionate? If so, then why is it bad to use this youthfull feature for good purpose - impress them with Israel and Jewsish people?

My argument is Birthright does far less good than it should do, and the gap between its potential and what it actually does is caused by top down management and nepotism.

The survey done by Brandeis University did contain specification errors. Nevertheless, while the sample sizes of ultimately married participants are small, they are more than large enough to show statistically significant differences between participants and wannabes. Furthermore, the specification error actually helps prove that Birthright participants did in-marry at a much higher rate than those who weren't selected.

Here's how:

Those who didn't get picked (the control group) were more likely to form relationships, either with other Jews or Gentiles, than those who were participants. This is simply a matter of time passage; those who didn't win the Birthright lotto generally tried again six months or a year later. The proportion of those picked was relatively low, under 50%, in Birthright's first few years, and the study encompassed 2001 through 2004. Later (until 2009), funding increased, largely due to the Abelson gift, and the odds of getting picked were much greater.

Birthright's logistics don't lend themselves well to married couples nor to those who are in a serious relationship. Participants are generally bunked three to a room, and when Josh and Jessica are an item, who needs Joe in Bed #3? Yes, two-up rooms are theoretically available, at a cost of $300 a participant, and there aren't many of those. That's the specification error; those that became participants were much less likely to be in a serious relationship, and generally, were looking to have fun.

As one needs to be Jewish to be a participant (one Jewish parent is fine), it's unlikely that a mixed couple would apply in the first place.

Even among those participants who weren't married when surveyed (the majority), an overwhelming majority believed that in-marriage was important.

Now, why was the proportion of in-marriage among those participants who subsequently married so high, while other measures of religious observance was statistically indistinguishable from the control group? My theory is that Birthright participation significantly increased one's favorability towards Israel, and it would be more likely for a Jew to find a mate with similar feelings if that mate were Jewish. Religion, and "we must preserve the Jewish (master) race" feelings played a lesser role. This would be particularly important among college and grad students, as there is a much higher proportion of Israel-hating lefties on college campuses than elsewhere.

I wholeheartedly agree that Birthright should lighten up on the propaganda (the "Gala" has been compared to a Nuremberg Parteitag by quite a few observers), and allow participants to pick and choose among a pod of excursions. These people are adults, and don't need to be treated like babies. If some go to Mea Sheirim or B'nai Brak and discover the warts in Israel, so be it.

Birthright has been a huge success in its primary mission, to increase awareness and knowledge of Israel among secular Jews. This would be true even if the percentage of intermarriage among participants and the control group had been statistically indistinguishable.

Kudos to Steinhardt.

And Chuck Bronfman.

Birthright is great for a free trip to Israel. The people who take advantage are religious or are affiliated with a jewish organisation. I do not think a 10 day biased trip will make people suddenly change their whole life if they are the sort to marry out.

It reminds me of the holocaust trips to Poland. The people on those excursions come back feeling that Poland is a horrible, dark, drab place with no colour and all the people in it are horrible and anti semitic. The reality is far from it.
If they happened to visit Poland as a tourist they would find a different side to it entirely. As for the people. You get anti semites everywhere, not just poland.

Birthright participants don't have to be religious, and in fact, most aren't. It's easier for them to get on a trip if they join their local campus Hillel, but that hardly would make them religious.

I don't believe there's anything wrong with intermarriage; I've done it, and am about to do it again. Love works in mysterious ways; I got married to a non-Jewish woman three years after my first trip to Israel, and that trip lasted far more than 10 days, with its highlight being meeting Gen. Moshe Dayan. That trip was entirely unorganized, and I returned with a great love of the country. (My second trip, years later, was another story because of an unpleasant encounter I had with the ultra-Orthodox.)

Nevertheless, the Brandeis study clearly showed that Birthright participants are less likely to intermarry than other non-Orthodox Jews. I'd like to see it repeated on more recent crops of Birthright alumni, as it was easier to get on a Birthright trip in the middle and latter part of this decade, thus reducing the selection bias in the just-released Brandeis study.

As a co-author of the report, I would like to correct some of what is written here.

(1) It is NOT true that applicants with greater existing connections to the Jewish community have a higher chance of being accepted to Birthright Israel trips. There were no significant differences between participants and nonparticipant applicants on a scale of high school ritual practice, years of supplementary Jewish school, years of Jewish day school, parental intermarriage or denomination raised. See Appendix 1 of our report for the data (technical appendices available at http://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/researchareas/taglit.longterm.html). Nonparticipant applicants are, in fact, an ideal natural control group for a scientific study of this nature. The differences that we report ARE attributable to the Birthright trip.

(2) Like all good social science researchers, we only report findings that are statistically significant. The difference in intermarriage rates between participants and nonparticipants WAS statistically significant at the p≤0.001 level. See Tables 73 and 74 in Appendix 4 of our report. (Note that we did not report any differences in the way participants and nonparticipants are raising their children, precisely because we did not have enough cases. That was NOT the case with the intermarriage analyses.)

Michelle Shain
Research Associate
Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies
Brandeis University

1. You forget unreported selection within those groups – which happens. You also don't talk about CURRENT (at time of application) affiliations and level of connection.

2. All you reported is what former participants said they would do.

Give those same people a free trip to Brazil and ask them a few years later about doing something Brazilians greatly dislike, most will say they would never do that thing.

But, in actual practice, many more will do it – especially if that thing involves sex.

Send in via email by a reader who can't post due to a system bug:
No one is necessarily arguing that Birthright picks candidates from
stronger Jewish backrounds to skew the results. However, it is the people
from stronger Jewish backrounds who are more likely to apply for Birthright
trips simply because they come from stronger Jewish backrounds. It is no
different than saying that children who go to Jewish day schools or Jewish
camps come from stronger Jewish backrounds beforehand. It's just that
parents with stronger Jewish backrounds themselves are more likely to send
their children to Jewish day schools and Jewish camps. A social scientist
can find correlation easily enough. The trick is to find which correlating
factor is the causative factor. Birthright, like every other vested
interest in the Jewish community, has inverted the causation. In this way,
it is no different than the day school lobby or the camp lobby.

Levi Reisman

The comparison isn't between those who applied and those who didn't. It's between those who applied and were picked and those who applied and weren't selected. I'd be quite surprised if there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups at the time of initial application, and everything I've seen in the study indicates there isn't.

This has nothing to do with Brazil. For that to be a valid comparison, you'd need an organization which sends young Americans of Brazilian descent (and there are plenty, some of whom are even Jewish) on a free trip to Brazil and ask them years later if their ex-ante attitudes towards Brazil have changed.

Although I've already been there twice, you can sign me up for a free trip to Rio anytime, btw. Just as long as we stay away from the favelas.

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