This in from today’s eJewishPhilanthropy blog:

New research released this morning by researchers from The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University backs up what many of us have known for years – Birthright participants return home with positive perceptions of their experience, increased connection to Israel, greater sense of connectedness to the Jewish people and increased interest in creating Jewish families.

The study, which has had the science behind it heavily vetted, is both the first to identify the Birthright experience as playing a part in marriage choices and the first to look at long-term impacts of participation.

Selecting both alumni and applicants who did not participate, the study focused on individuals from Birthright’s earliest years, 2001-2004.

Key highlights include:

  • Among married respondents who were not raised Orthodox, participants were 57 percent more likely to be married to a Jew than non-participants. (Virtually all married respondents who were raised Orthodox were married to Jews.) Among unmarried respondents, participants were 46 percent more likely than non-participants to view marrying a Jewish person as “very important.”
  • Participants were 30 percent more likely to view raising children as Jews as “very important.”
  • Participants were 16 percent more likely than non-participants to report feeling “very much” connected to the worldwide Jewish community.
  • Participants were 23 percent more likely than non-participants to report feeling “very much” connected to Israel.

As impressive as the present findings are, the study raises a number of unanswered questions. One is whether systematic follow-up efforts are necessary to sustain or even enhance the impact of the Birthright program.

The present study does not directly assess follow-up programs, such as those currently provided by Birthright Israel NEXT. [NEXT did not exist when the alumni who were the focus of the present study returned from their trips].

In addition, most participants from these early cohorts are now beyond the ages targeted by such programs.

Finally, and in contrast to the present situation, early participants returned to campuses and communities that had fewer Birthright alumni. The present evidence suggests that a high quality peer experience in Israel, even in the absence of such programs, produces significant long-term effects. However, the needs of more recent program alumni who, on average, have lower levels of prior Jewish education, may be different.

Today was one of the great days in my work life. There was nothing particularly profound about it, but when I think about the reasons I felt called to do the work that I do, today pretty much hit all of them.

This morning I did a Q&A via webcam with a class at Duke University, taught by a recently-acquired friend, Prof. Alma Blount. The class is part of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke, and the 25 students are critically and self-reflectively examining the topic of “boundary crossing”. For this week they read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s To Heal a Fractured World, and Alma asked if I would talk with the class about the book and the ideas in it. I was totally in my element, talking about everything from Gaza to theology to religion and secularism in higher education in society. Great teaching moments involve a great text and speaking from the heart, and here I experienced both. And that was all before 10:30.

I then met with our Director of Engagement, Andrea Jacobs, for our weekly Torah study session. We have been closely reading Genesis 1 with Rashi’s commentary. As we sat in Linz & Vail coffee shop and talked about the tiny but powerful grammatical issues that Rashi spins into profound ideas about humanity and our place in the universe, I again felt an alignment between what the world–and Andrea–needed from me, and what I felt most powerful doing.

I next met with a professor, Elie Rekhess, to talk about how to improve Israel education on campus–from both a curricular and co-curricular perspective. Elie is a mature scholar and a doer, someone who understands that the education at a university does not end, or perhaps even primarily happen, inside the classroom. We agreed to start a little think tank to do some strategic planning.

Next I met with Samantha Rollins, a student who went on Birthright this winter and wrote about it in the student magazine North by Northwestern. This might have been my best first meeting with a student. It lasted 25 minutes. I got her details and then, possessed by something, I wasted no time getting to the Big Questions: “Samantha, what good do you do in the world?” and then “Where do you feel at home?” And finally, after those two, I ended by asking her “Samantha, what are you going to do right now to do good?” She decided to call her sister and say hello.

Finally, right after that meeting, I met with a student leader going through a crisis of confidence and direction. She had just bombed an Econ midterm, and she knew it. She also knew that she wasn’t making enough time for herself, to find quiet spaces, to nurture her soul. So I asked questions to help her identify the choices she had before her and what she might have to say no to in order to say yes to herself. And, most important, I recognized her. I said something like, “At the end of your life, no one is going to remember your Econ midterm. But they will remember the fact that you are a tremendous ba’alat chesed, a loving and kind person, who always has as hug and a smile and says hello. They will remember that you helped transform Hillel into a welcoming and caring place. And they will remember that when they think of the beautiful people in their life, they think of you.”

I entered the rabbinate because I wanted to be able to help people find meaning in their lives through commitment to Torah study and observance. I wanted to do good in the world. And I was called to work on a campus because I could help young adults find the language and concepts to do good in the world by living their lives in dialogue with the story of the Jewish people. Today was not unique–I have many days like this, days where I combine formal teaching with coaching and mentoring. But today was one where I profoundly sensed that I was doing God’s work. I feel blessed for the opportunity, and grateful for the people for whom I can make a difference.

Everyone should have a day like this.