Israel Engagement in Practice: An Empirical Look at the Impact of The Year of Service Emissaries

March 2018

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 84:1, 56-78

The current field of Israel engagement has been significantly challenged by young North American Jews’ reported alienation from contemporary Israel. Literature in the last decade has addressed this challenge in depth, offering a wide variety of theoretical analyses and recommendations for program development. The present study is the first to thoroughly focus on one of these programs, the young emissaries (shinshinim) program, a joint initiative between the Jewish Agency for Israel and a growing number of Jewish communities around the world.

Data were collected in the Greater Toronto Area, out of which the local Jewish Federation operates the largest shinshinim program worldwide. Levels of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive engagement with Israel were assessed in 47 local institutions’ representatives, 84 host families, and 197 high school students in relation to their interaction with shinshinim. Changes in attitudes toward Israel, Jewish tradition, and peoplehood, following their Year of Service, were also assessed in 36 shinshinim. All data were collected using questionnaires developed especially for the purposes of this study. Results show that the shinshinim program has a significant and positive impact on host families’ level of Israel engagement and that the Year of Service has a significant and positive impact on the shinshinim inclination to adopt Jewish traditions and to affiliate themselves with a Jewish Peoplehood. Results also show that the program is positively associated with Israel engagement among students and Jewish institutions’ representatives. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

The shinshinim program

Shinshinim is a Hebrew term referring to Israeli high-school graduates who voluntarily defer their army service to do a Year of Service in Jewish community around the world. As a form of shlichut (emissaries), shinshinim serve as unique intermediaries between contemporary Israel and the Diaspora while expressing Israel’s wider responsibility to its Diaspora and their Jewish education (Sheffer & Roh-Toledano, 2006). As shlichim, the shinshinim who are selected to serve Jewish communities outside of Israel, are most frequently assigned to their placement by the Jewish Agency for Israel and by community request and sponsorship (Ahranov, 2016; Cohen, 2000). The Jewish Agency for Israel has been sending shinshinim to Jewish communities, mainly in North America, for almost 20 years. Moreover, in the last 5 years or so, the demand coming from Jewish communities has dramatically increased, along with a re-prioritization of Israel engagement, and renewed emphasis on the quality of this engagement. In 2016, more than 100 shinshinim were placed in Jewish communities on four different continents with the objective to (a) encourage a multidimensional and personalized interaction with Israeli society; (b) give Israel a contemporary and relevant face; and (c) cultivate sophisticated and relevant dialogue about Israel and its people.

Although the shinshinim program has been active in and outside of North American Jewish communities for close to 20 years, there has been no comprehensive and thorough attempt to measure this program’s impact.

Study objectives

This study had several objectives: First, it aimed to establish reliable and valid measures for Israel engagement that are compatible with the shinshinim mission and stakeholders. Second, and according to these measures, this study was designed to evaluate the extent to which the shinshinim program is positively associated with Israel engagement by day school students and the staff and volunteers that populate institutions where shinshinim spend their Year of Service. Third, the study aimed to measure the impact the shinshinim have had on their host families’ level of Israel engagement. Fourth, this study was aimed to evaluate the impact on the shinshinim’ attitude toward Israel and Judaism following their Year of Service.

The present study also has practical significance for the initiator of the shinshinim program (i.e., the Jewish Agency for Israel) and Jewish communities around the world that implement shinshinim programs. First and foremost, this study provides the first thorough empirical evidence attesting to a shinshinim program’s impact on participants’ Israel engagement, where that impact is significant. Given the enormous efforts and budgets invested in addressing the need for a new and more effective form of Israel engagement, this study’s results are essential, reinforcing this program’s worthiness of future investment and examination.

Practical contributions also include possible insight into assessing the diversity of shinshinim programs and their respective impacts on Israel engagement. For example, shinshinim programs around the world work according to different models. One of the tangible differences between the programs concerns the involvement of host families: the primacy of the host family’s role in the shinshinim’s living arrangements and the extent to which host families should be officially part of the shinshinim engagement mission, rather than a reliable accommodation solution, depends on the community. This study’s results show that the impact on host families is significantly positive and important, so that rather than potentially mistaking host families to be an extraneous feature of the shnishinim program, they should be regarded as an immanent part of the shinshinim mission.

Finally, a closer look at the Israel engagement work of participating shinshinim of according to the results of this study may provide important guidelines for the training of future shinshinim, where those guideline may be concerned with (a) shinshinim influence on emotional, behavioral, and cognitive engagement; (b) the development of correlative tools; and (c) an emphasis on a social engagement that relies, in part, on the shinshinim’s personal story of Israel told to participants in an organic and liberal setting.

Updated: Mar. 13, 2018