The Israel Fellows Program (IFP), a collaboration of Hillel International, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (Hillel) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), was piloted on six campuses in 2003. Since then, it has grown to 75 Fellows serving almost 100 campuses throughout North America. The goal of IFP is to promote engagement with Israel through the placement of young adult Fellows on college campuses. The Fellows foster Israel engagement in two ways: (1) by conveying an authentic narrative of Israeli culture and society to students through one-on-one encounters; and (2) by working with students to transmit the appreciation of Israel and its people through their peer networks. Hillel and JAFI contracted with the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) to evaluate the IFP. The first phase of the research focused on program implementation within the context of the IFP’s theory of change (Chertok & Koren, 2014). This final report presents findings in each of the following areas:
- The extent of the Fellows’ penetration on campus, particularly beyond the most affiliated and Jewishly engaged students,
- The relationship between students’ interactions with Fellows and students’ attitudes and behaviors toward Israel, and
- The differences distinguishing campuses with Fellows from those without a Fellow.
Fellows reach a substantial and diverse proportion of the Jewish population on campus. Almost one-third (29%) of all students on IFP campuses reported that they had interacted with a Fellow during the 2015-16 academic year. Students from across the denominational spectrum reported interacting with a Fellow, including more than one-fifth of students who described themselves as secular, culturally Jewish, or “just Jewish”—groups that might be expected to be the most difficult to reach. Fellows were in contact with very similar portions of students with no formal Jewish education, Sunday school, and Hebrew school backgrounds. Although students with two Jewish parents were significantly more likely to report interacting with a Fellow, almost one quarter (23%) of students raised by intermarried parents reported contact with a Fellow. Fellows also reached substantial numbers of students coming from Hebrew and Russian-speaking homes.
Interaction with a Fellow also appears to have an impact on a number of different measures.
As compared with students who did not have contact with a Fellow, a significantly greater percentage of students who interacted with a Fellow felt connected to Israel, were interested in studying in Israel, were more likely to be involved in multiple Israel-related activities on campus, and received more news about Israel through social media. Feelings of connection to Israel were not only more prevalent among those students who had contact with a Fellow, but were stronger as well.
The findings also suggest that the IFP strategy of using students to extend the influence of Fellows has had some successes. Jewish students on campuses with Fellows, compared to those without Fellows, attended more Israel-related events and demonstrated greater awareness of Israel groups on campus. Despite the presence of other Israel-related advocacy groups, there is a clear association between high rates of student participation in Israel-related activities and campuses that host a Fellow.
At the same time, we could find no significant association between campuses with a Fellow and student use of social media to track news of Israel or student feeling of connection to Israel. We hypothesize that the authenticity of Fellows’ personal stories of Israel is not easily transferable through the social networks of students. It is possible that more can be done to communicate the compelling nature of the Fellows’ personal narratives to students with whom they will not have direct contact, for example, through social media or through the use of Israeli or American-Israeli students as additional personal ambassadors.
Valued as an important resource by Hillel staff, the IFP has demonstrated notable successes in reaching Jewish students and increasing their engagement with Israel. At the same time, the program’s reach can be extended further, in particular beyond those with whom the Fellows directly interact.