Jewish leaders and philanthropists are currently engaged in an intense and crucial debate. There is growing concern that Jews, particularly the next generation, are disconnecting from their Jewish heritage and from the state of Israel.
The now infamous Pew Study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” found that approximately two-thirds of American Jewish millennials report that they do not feel a strong connection to Israel. In a recent study published by Brandeis University, fewer than half of Jewish college students could correctly answer even the most basic questions about the Jewish state.
In the face of these trends, how can we invest our philanthropic dollars more effectively to strengthen the special US-Israel alliance, and ensure that future Jewish generations maintain their special affinity to Israel? In response to this question, there are two important principles that we must embrace.
First, we must better understand our target audience. Many millions of philanthropic dollars are now invested under the assumption that today’s Jewish community is the same as the one that existed 40 years ago, limiting the return on investment of many initiatives.
Changing this mindset begins with recognizing that there is not a single, homogeneous American Jewish community, but rather a cluster of communities, which has changed rapidly over the past 40 years because of three big trends: assimilation, intermarriage and immigration.
Over the past 40 years, we have seen significant waves of immigration from Israel, Iran and Russia. Their numbers are not properly represented in recent studies of the Jewish community. Taking their numbers into consideration, out of approximately 10 million people living in America born to Jewish parents and/or grandparents, only half see themselves as Jews by religion today. The remainder have either completely left the faith or view their Judaism as a cultural identity instead of a religious one.
Interestingly, the declining number of people who identify as Jewish by religion is correlated with declining affinity to Israel.
Among those who say that they are Jewish by culture, 55% say that they are not very attached to Israel, while only 12% say that they are very attached to Israel. For those who completely left the faith, these numbers are much lower. This is a stark contrast to those who say that they are Jewish by religion, among whom 86% say that they are somewhat or very attached to Israel.
In other words, as Jews disconnect from their Jewish heritage, their affinity to Israel often declines as well.
So, what should we do with this information? How can we use this insight about our changing Jewish community to make more strategic decisions about where we invest our limited resources? This brings me to my second principle: we need to look for low-hanging fruit, investing more resources in target populations for whom additional funding for programs and initiatives can have an outsized impact in strengthening the US-Israel relationship.
Here are some criteria that we should consider as we allocate resources.
- Age: Those below 40-50 years old are more likely to be developing their set of core values and beliefs. Moreover, by increasing the Jewish knowledge and connection to Israel among the young generation, we can not only impact these individuals, but also their children and grandchildren.
- Affiliation: The data shows that those who define themselves as Jewish by religion are more likely to have a strong connection to Israel. With so many focusing on the unaffiliated or “cultural Jews,” we can’t lose sight of this base. The Orthodox community already has many structures in place that are engaging a strong majority of their next generation. We need to focus on innovative programs to connect non-Orthodox Jews (including Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and secular Jews) to Israel.
- Support for Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People: We should seek to identify those who have proven their commitment to advancing the vision of Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people, but who may not have a clear and structured path for remaining religiously engaged. It is important to attract Jews who have a marginal connection to Israel, but it is even more important to provide a path for those with a deep passion for Israel to become and remain Jewishly involved.
- American Jewish immigrant communities: The criteria outlined in the three concepts above are particularly relevant to recent Jewish immigrants, Russians, Iranians and Israeli-Americans. These groups are already committed Zionists, but they are new to the American Diaspora and as a result don’t always have the tools to pass on their Jewish and pro-Israel values to their next generations. Each dollar invested in them can go a long way.
Take the work of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which has shown in recent years how investing in Israeli-Americans can unleash an extraordinary untapped resource to strengthen the US-Israel relationship and strengthen Jewish heritage.
Many young Jewish Americans are attracted to the IAC activities to absorb Israeliness and pride in their Jewish roots.
By systematically identifying and investing in target groups that are uniquely suited to advance our philanthropic priorities, we can advance progress on a wide range of issues, whether it’s in Israel advocacy, global diplomacy, or Jewish education.
Our Jewish community faces rapid changes, enormous challenges and exciting opportunities. To overcome the obstacles in our path and realize our full potential as a people, we need to invest smarter.
The return on our investment will be nothing less than a vibrant Jewish future.
The author is an Israeli-American philanthropist, national chairman of the Israeli-American Council, real estate entrepreneur and president of the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation.