During the 1990s, Jewish communal leaders in Britain reached a consensus that Jewish education, in the broadest sense, was the principal means of strengthening Jewish identity and securing Jewish continuity. This belief motivated considerable investment in communal intervention programs such as Jewish schools, Israel experience trips, and youth movements. Twenty years on, it is pertinent to ask whether, and to what extent, this intervention has worked. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s (JPR) 2011 National Jewish Student Survey contains data on over 900 Jewish students in Britain and presents an opportunity to empirically assess the impact such intervention programs may have had on respondents’ Jewish identity by comparing those who have experienced them with those who have not.
Regression analysis is used to test the theory based on a set of six dimensions of Jewish identity generated using principal component analysis. The results show that after controlling for the substantial effects of Jewish upbringing, intervention has collectively had a positive impact on all aspects of Jewish identity examined. The effects are greatest on behavioral and mental aspects of socio-religious identity; they are far weaker at strengthening student community engagement, ethnocentricity, and Jewish values. Further, the most important intervention programs were found to be yeshiva and a gap year in Israel. Both youth movement involvement and Jewish schooling had positive but rather limited effects on Jewish identity, and short-stay Israel tours had no positive measurable effects at all.
In conclusion, leaders within Britain’s Jewish community can take some satisfaction from these results which show that even after controlling for the important effects of Jewish upbringing on several Jewish identity outcomes, Jewish communal intervention, taken as a whole, appears to have a broadly positive effect on most aspects of these students’ Jewish identity. In particular, the greatest impact of these interventions is on behavioral and mental aspects of Jewish religiosity and socialization. Nevertheless, the findings raise some challenging questions since intervention has a rather limited overall impact on four out of the six Jewish identity dimensions tested where Jewish upbringing is by far the most important predictor. This is despite over twenty years of intervention investment in the ‘continuity agenda’.
Thus, these data provide communal leaders and policy makers with a valuable insight into the efficacy of the use of interventionist programs to strengthen Jewish identity. The study also presents a statistically robust method by which future investments in Jewish educational intervention programming can be assessed in order to ensure they generate a higher return per pound spent. In terms of individual programs, with the notable exception of yeshiva/seminary, a gap year in Israel stands out as being the most important intervention of those examined after controlling for the effects of home background and all other intervention programs. On this evidence it should be considered by policy makers in Britain as a vital tool for strengthening Jewish identity and promoting the continuity agenda. Jewish schooling, however, exhibited a relatively weak impact on Jewish identity and, moreover, was no more important than Jewish youth movement involvement. And finally, (short-stay) Israel tour showed no positive impact on any dimension of Jewish identity tested. These results should give pause for thought to those who hold to the prevailing theory that direct communal intervention in the Jewish educational arena is the panacea for strengthening Jewish identity. Extant ideas about delivering long-term Jewish continuity should continue to be developed and, above all, tested.