The Pew Survey: A Student Perspective

The recent Pew survey, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans“, confirms that the American Jewish community is in rapid change and, demographically speaking, this will mean a totally different type of Jewish identity within the next decade.

The survey picks out the young generation as ‘Millennials’, those of us born after 1980, and when looking at this group alone the figures are worrying to all those hoping to see Jewish continuity in America. From the ‘Millenial’ group only 42% of those married after 2005 are married to a Jew and within this group a further 37% are not raising their children Jewish in the slightest – quite literally cutting off the Jewish chain of continuity with themselves as the last link.

The figures, and the attitudes behind them, whilst disappointing, are in fact the results of positive trends of modernity, acceptance of Jews within American academic and high-social society and the freedom of post-shtetl Jews to leave their neighborhoods and build their own lifestyles even away from established communities.

These figures, and the lifestyles that we abide by, provide the Jewish community a final opportunity to strengthen young Jewish identities that are deeply and emotionally held out of history, culture and family. No one is able to force, persuade or cajole the majority of American Jewish students into Torah observant lifestyles. I do not work for a kiruv organisation, nor would I want to. The challenge of organisations like WUJS, for which I do happily work for, is how to bring Jewish students back into the fold in productive and innovative ways that not only ensure Jewish continuity but a flourishing of Jewish culture that will harness the wider community into making this world a better place.

We know that the strongest places to form Jewish identity are Jewish schools, Jewish summer camps, Jewish families and Jewish houses of worship. Let’s not forget the crucial stage in life when a young Jewish person is without any of these… when they go off to College.

Americans in general and Jews specifically are becoming more atheist. Trying to connect Jews through Shabbat programming is of huge importance (at WUJS we partner on a host of European wide Shabbatons) but it is not enough to catch Jews for a few hours once a week. Trying to connect Jews through Tikkun Olam programming is both good for those providing volunteer hours and those accepting their help but whilst I applaud charity initiatives these are no way of maintaining a 2000 year old civilization.

The connecting force that we need to focus on is one that can unite all Jewish students, give them pride in their place in history and teach them the diversity and creativity that comes out of Jews working alongside Jews to spread Jewish values. That connection is Israel.

I personally and professionally believe in programs like Taglit-Birthright, WUJS Israel and Israel Experience. According to statistics provided at this years Israel President’s Conference participants of these programs are less likely to marry non-Jews and are more likely to be involved in Jewish community activities on their return to the US. But we need to go deeper. Attacks on Israel are becoming more sophisticated and thus more convincing. The response to these attacks had both been misguided, misinformed and damaging.

The witch hunts against critical yet pro-Israel organizations by segments of the established Jewish community (or often by evangelical Christian groups) have become hysterical. Anything but the most unwavering support of rightest positions will have you labeled ‘self-hating’, ‘anti-Israel’ or even ‘anti-Semitic’. These attacks are pushing young, idealistic Jews away. In shutting down dialogue we are not only losing ideas, we are losing people.

We have, after centuries of persecution and genocide, a Jewish homeland that is capable of defending itself, absorbing large numbers of diaspora Jews, acting not only as a refuge in times of need but a beacon in good times and in bad. A state built on the Jewish values of equality, justice and benevolence with the core value of Zionism at its heart.

Zionist education needs to take a central role in our communities. Israel, the gift we have, the nation we defend, and the homeland we seek for security is not some mere holiday destination, or some charity case worthy of another fundraiser. Israel is the lifeblood of our religion. To be Jewish is to be pro-Israel and yet with the acceptance of the wide diversity we see in the Pew survey about what it means to be ‘Jewish’ we need to accept the wide diversity in what it means to be ‘pro-Israel’.

The Pew survey has some worrying conclusions, should the problems within our communities not be tackled soon then we will be left with a weaker Jewish community. Should we not tackle these problems head on and soon then we could be left with something even worse; a weaker Israel.

About the Author
Yoni Danino-Forsyth is the Director at the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) and based in Jerusalem. He is a former IDF Press Officer and studied at both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University College London.
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