Demystifying a Black Box: A Grounded Theory of How Travel Experiences Impact the Jewish Identity Development of Jewish Emerging Adults

Nov. 25, 2015

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 4, pages 348-376


The positive impact on the Jewish Identity Development of Jewish Emerging Adults of both the 10 day trips to Israel popularly known as Birthright trips and the service learning trips commonly known as Alternative Spring Breaks has been well-documented. However, the mechanics of how this positive impact occurs has not been well-understood. This grounded theory study interviewed participants from both trips and found that there is an observable and ongoing cognitive processing of their trip experience by the participants that organically influences identity development. This process can be modeled and utilized to develop more effective staff training and program content for Jewish experiential education travel programs.


The primary research questions were: (a) What event or events during the overall experience causes a noticeable change in self-perception of Jewish identity among Jewish Emerging Adult participants in intermediate Jewish Experiential Education programs; and (b) Can that actual change be modeled as a theory? The events in question were not the larger overall categories of events—namely, peer interactions, location, and staff encounters that have already been shown to have impact on Jewish identity on these trips thought outcome-based—but specifically what within any given experience of the myriad of experiences on the trip occurs that might or might not impact Jewish identity development. To date, there has been little understanding of what actually occurs in the “black box” of these experiences and no model presented to explain it.

The current study has been a bid to try and describe what goes on within that “black box” during any given experience on an intermediate Jewish Experiential Education trip. The study presented evidence that trip participants are constantly reflecting and assessing their assumptions on any given area of identity on these trips and that the process is not only on-going but fluid; the “black box” operates more as an algorithmic data processing mechanism that assesses constantly as new information is presented than a tunable device that can be simply adjusted to produce the desired result. The study demonstrated that the events themselves have a cumulative organic impact on Jewish identity development that is not understandable as a sequential process but as a constant one. It is important to note though that this study hypothesizes on the black box process in a specific setting for a specific population, a particular black box one might say, and other areas of Jewish experiential education such as teen camp programs, youth groups, primary school sports programs and many others may have different black box mechanisms based on human developmental stage, experiential education setting, and a host of other factors.

While it is clear that there is a need for additional research to validate this study given the limitations of its subject size, the initial findings demonstrate that educators can better understand the actual process of how Jews in the developmental stage of Emerging Adulthood cognitively process intensive educational experiences such as travel programs and how that processing can alter fundamental assumptions that form the basis of their identity as Jews. Indeed, since this study was conducted, the iCenter for Israel Education has piloted a training program for North Americans staffing Birthright Israel trips called Taglit Fellows that imparts theoretical models and skill development in experiential education, Jewish identity development, and emerging adulthood among others as needed preparation to help them better impact the participant experience of the trip. That program is in line with this study’s recommendations for future training programs for Jewish travel education staff with a better grounding in these areas. However, this study also demonstrates that the better trip educators know their participants, the better they can tailor the trip experiences to impact the participants in a more targeted way. Understanding not just the possible outcomes of travel education experiences, such as IJSL and Birthright, but how those experiences are processed can allow for more planned intentional experiences that can positively impact of these Jewish experiential education travel programs on the Jewish identity of Jewish Emerging Adults.

Updated: Dec. 02, 2015