North American Jews in a Year-Long Volunteer Program in Israel: Identities, Motivations, Attitudes, and Hebrew Language Proficiency


Source: International Journal of Language and Linguistics. Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 101-109


The study investigated a group of 68 young North American young adults who volunteered to teach English in Israeli public schools for a year in the framework of a joint project conducted by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli Ministry of Education entitled 'Israel Teaching Fellows' that was inaugurated in 2013. Employing a pre-post design, the research explored their motivations for joining the program as well as the changes in their self-ascribed identity, attitudes toward Israel and its culture, and gains in Hebrew language proficiency and knowledge about Israel.

Findings showed that after spending a year in Israel, the participants gained more knowledge of Israel and improved their proficiency in Hebrew, but no changes were detected in their attitudes and Jewish identity.

In 2013, in a joint initiative of Israel's Ministry of Education and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a new volunteer work-abroad program titled the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (ITF) was inaugurated. This program was a year-long fellowship for college graduates between the ages of 21 and 30 who wished to teach English as a foreign language to Israeli Jewish children while immersing themselves in Israeli society. Applicants were Jewish college graduates from North America. They were placed in Jewish Hebrew-speaking public schools where they worked 25-30 hours per week. As part of their work, they tutored English in small-groups thereby reducing class sizes so that full-time teachers could work more effectively. They also assisted the English teachers in accordance with the students' and the school's specific needs. The schools, which were either elementary or junior-high schools, were all located in low socio-economic neighborhoods in peripheral areas of the country.

Upon arrival, the fellows underwent a six-week period of orientation in educational methods in one of the Israeli colleges of education and were afforded ongoing pedagogical support by the college. Although knowledge of Hebrew was not essential to serve as teaching fellows, the fellows received Hebrew instruction twice a week for the duration of the program. It was assumed that knowledge of the Hebrew language, one of Israel's official languages spoken by Jewish Israeli people, would help the teaching fellows to better communicate with the schoolchildren who are all native speakers of Hebrew. The teaching fellows resided in small groups in apartments within the local community where they worked. Throughout the year, they attended seminars on topics such as Israel and the Middle East, art and culture in Israel, and Israeli politics and society. They also went on several tours of the country in order to learn about Israel’s history, society, culture, and geography.

The current study focused on a group of 68 American Jewish college undergraduates who participated in a one-year work-abroad volunteer program in Israel during the year 2013 (August 2012 until July 2013), serving as hands-on English tutors in Israeli public schools. The participants consisted of 24 males (35%) and 44 females (65%) ranging in age from 23 to 32 (M=26; S. D=2.00 – year of birth ranging from 1981 to 1990). They all held a Bachelor's degree in a variety of academic backgrounds. In terms of degree of Jewish religious observance, most of them (95%) are secular, non-observant Jews. All participants (100%) claimed English to be their first language with six participants (9%) specifying Hebrew as an additional language spoken at home since it was the mother tongue of one of their parents. Furthermore, 57 percent of the respondents indicated that they had some prior knowledge of Hebrew as a result of participating in extracurricular Hebrew lessons or Hebrew language summer camps. Most of the participants (91%) had visited Israel in the past and 60 percent reported having relatives in Israel. Regarding prior experience with teaching or working with children or youth either formally or informally, 49 percent claimed to have such experience.

Findings of the current research reveal that after spending a year in Israel, no change at all was detected in the participants' attitudes toward Israel and its culture. They did not manifest a stronger desire to immigrate to Israel, nor did they express more favorable attitudes either toward their Jewish identity or toward the importance of preserving this identity by ensuring that Jews only marry Jews.

Consistent with the lack of change in participants' attitudes, no change was found in their self-identification as Jewish. These findings run counter to those of previous research that found more favorable attitudes as a result of a visit to Israel—even after a much shorter one such as a Birthright visit or after a five-month study-abroad program. Since it was maintained that the longer the program participants spent in Israel, the greater their level of Jewish identification would be, the expectation in our case would be for at least some change. Indeed, one can argue that most of participants' attitudes were positive to begin with, which explains the lack of change in them. This is not entirely so, however. While the level of the attitudes toward Israel and its culture and people was high, the level of the rest of the attitudinal factors was lower; therefore, this does not seem to be a convincing argument for the lack of change. The level of attitudes toward the preservation of Jewishness among the Jewish people was, in fact, very low, indicating a lack of agreement with items such as 'Jews should not intermarry'. We would like to furnish three possible explanations for the above results.

The first explanation is associated with the nature of the sojourn in Israel. While the short-term visits are only touristic in nature and clearly reflect the agenda of its organizers, namely, of transmitting the simplified version of the so-called Jewish-Zionistic narrative to its participants, a long-term stay in Israel is no longer able to frame Israel's story in a linear, naïve, and one-dimensional manner. Being immersed in Israeli society for a whole year, living in local communities (and not in dormitories, as is usually the case with study-abroad programs), and working in low socioeconomic neighborhoods cannot impose strict, sterile, and unrealistic control on the sights, experiences, and stories to which the participants are exposed. Crafting the visit in a manner that would create a powerful spiritual and emotional experience by employing high-level control of time and space, as is achieved in short visits is no longer a possibility in a year-abroad experience such as this. While the participants in a short visit are exposed to visiting key religious and national sites and hearing heroic stories of past and present times as well as testimonials from inspiring people, the teaching fellows experienced some of the less pleasant everyday life situations in Israel and were exposed to hardships within the Israeli society at large and the school system in particular. In a short trip, it is perhaps possible to teach Israel through a single narrative; conversely, during a longer sojourn, one cannot avoid seeing that the Israel of today is composed of a multiplicity of visions and voices, and that Israelis themselves do not share the same narrative. In an experience that is less formulaic in character, it is therefore impossible to guarantee its effect on the participants and its success in the creation of more positive attitudes and a higher level of identification with Judaism and the Jewish people. Perhaps the 'good news' resides in the fact that the participants' initial favorable dispositions did not deteriorate with time, as was found in some research.

A second explanation of the lack of change in the participants' attitudes and Jewish identity may be linked to the 'distancing' of American Jewry from Israel. This narrative of American Jewish disengagement from Israel, particularly among young adults, has grown stronger in the past years since the 1988 Palestinian Intifada and the political debate concerning the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Although this discussion of the relationship between American Jews and Israel has become a prominent topic of discourse in the Jewish world, it has been argued that neither the scholarly literature nor survey evidence consistently supports the view that attachment to Israel is declining among American Jews. The findings of the current research do seem to indicate that this is a possibility. They also show that at the end of the year, there was a less powerful correlation between the level of Jewish identity and knowledge of Israel, which is perhaps indicative of the fact that greater knowledge of the country leads to a decrease in the level of Jewish identification.

A third proposed explanation of the lack of improvement in the participants' attitudes and an increase in their Jewish identity relates to their motivations to come to Israel. They were more interested in instrumental benefits such as improving their language skills, having 'an experience', acquiring teaching skills, and becoming acquainted with Israel. Strengthening their Jewish identity was rated the lowest on their list of motivations to come to Israel and was also the last gain to be mentioned after the year was over.

In conclusion, concerned with the issues of assimilation and intermarriage, the Jewish community has developed a number of initiatives designed to reinforce engagement with Jewish life among young Jewish adults and to foster their ties with Israel—travel to Israel being one such initiative. The underlying assumption of travel to Israel has posited that 'the more the better', or in other words, "the more frequently people travel to Israel for longer stays, the better off they are as educated and engaged Jews". Yet, as noted by the same author, "the Israel education field has not produced a comprehensive theory of travel that takes into account philosophical, cultural, developmental, and methodological factors. The design and the implementation of programs are not based on universal and well-grounded theoretical foundations". This is perhaps why the findings of the current research do not reveal the 'transformative change' that the program initiators anticipated.

Clearly, further research on the ITF program is required since the current research investigated only its very first cohort, which was a small one. Additional research on these groups and on the long-term stays in Israel is also necessary. Moreover, since the added benefit for Israel is assistance in teaching English in schools, it is also in the country's interest to further investigate these aspects.


Updated: Sep. 03, 2018