Study on Jewish Young Adults Finds Service Not Related to Jewish Identity

Jewish young adults overwhelmingly demonstrate an abiding commitment to volunteerism, with a particular interest in efforts to eradicate poverty and illiteracy and preserve the environment. At the same time, their service tends to be infrequent and motivated by a desire to make a difference in their local communities. And although their commitment to volunteerism increases with their degree of religious involvement, most do not connect their volunteering to their Jewish identity nor do they consider Israel to be a major focus of their service endeavors.

These are the major findings of the first-ever comprehensive study of contemporary Jewish young adults and their attitudes and behaviors towards community service. The study – Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults – was commissioned by Repair the World and was conducted as a collaborative effort between the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein | Agne Strategic Communications.

The survey examined a diverse sample of young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 35, drawn from the Taglit-Birthright Israel applicant pool of more than 300,000 individuals and the Knowledge Networks online research panel. The Taglit pool is the largest extant list of American Jewish young adults and includes program participants and non-participants from virtually the entire spectrum of Jewish backgrounds and denominational identities. The Knowledge Networks panel is a representative sample of the U.S. population using probability-based sampling techniques.

Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World, explained that, until now, little was known about the full extent of the sample group’s service commitment. That was the goal of this study, “to develop a portrait of what motivates Jewish young adults to volunteer, the varieties of service in which they participate, and how they construe the connections of their involvement in volunteering to Jewish values and identity.”

Of significant interest to our readers:

Young Jewish adults do not know about volunteer opportunities in the Jewish community.
A substantial number of respondents, 23%, indicated that their lack of familiarity with volunteer opportunities available through the Jewish community was a major reason why they did not volunteer with Jewish organizations. There is also the perception among this cohort that Jewish organizations do not address the causes that most resonate with them, and that the focus of Jewish organizations is too parochial and narrow, serving only the needs of the Jewish community.

Other key findings of the study are:

  • The majority of contemporary Jewish young adults engage in volunteer work, with volunteer rates ranging from 63% to 86% depending on denomination/identity. Over three-quarters, 78%, also engage in some form of civic activity, such as participating in the political process, publicly expressing their opinions, or financially supporting causes. Motivation tends to be rooted in a desire to make a difference in the lives of others and working on issues that have personal meaning with the volunteer.
  • Most volunteering is an infrequent and episodic activity. Almost one-third of respondents have made volunteering an integral part of their lives and engage in a service activity at least once a month. But, only 21% have participated, at some point in their lives, in an intensive program of one to 12 weeks, such as an alternative college spring break (“Alternative Break”) or immersive summer experience. More than 50% of respondents said that in a typical week they don’t volunteer.
  • Much of the volunteer work is local, as cited by nearly 80% of respondents, and focuses on efforts to ameliorate disparities in economic resources and educational opportunity. Indeed, as it relates to the focus of respondents’ primary volunteer work, the three most cited are material assistance to the needy, health care/medical research, and education/literacy. Conversely, only 1% of respondents cited Israel/Middle East Peace as the primary focus of their volunteer work.
  • The most commonly cited volunteer activities included teaching and mentoring, as well as collecting, sorting and distributing goods such as food and clothing, event planning, and providing manual labor for building construction and revitalization or repairs.
  • Gender is a significant predictor of volunteerism, with 78% of females, compared to 63% of males, volunteering within the past 12 months.
  • Religious involvement also influences volunteer habits. Jewish young adults with the highest levels of Jewish religious involvement, including but not restricted to Orthodox young adults, are the most likely to engage in volunteering, to do so regularly, and to volunteer under Jewish auspices.
  • Volunteering is the result of social learning that originates in the home and is reinforced by peers. Social networks, such as family and friends, play a prominent role in volunteer recruitment, as cited by nearly 25% of respondents. Parental involvement also tends to be a motivating factor; Jewish young adults who recalled their parents engaged in community service were themselves more likely to be regular volunteers.
  • Only a small portion of Jewish young adults, 10%, indicated that their primary volunteer commitment was organized by Jewish organizations. Moreover, only 18% said that they prefer to volunteer with Jewish organizations or synagogues over other non-profit organizations. And the vast majority, 78%, said it doesn’t matter if the organization with which they are engaged in service is Jewish or non-Jewish.
  • Universal values rather than Jewish-based values and identity drive volunteerism. For many young Jewish adults, volunteering is an activity partitioned off from their Jewish identity in much the same way that their Jewish identity is separate from many aspects of their current lives. Overall, only 27% of respondents agreed that they consider their volunteer actions to be based on Jewish values and only 10% strongly endorsed this statement.

“This survey provides important guidance for effectively engaging Jewish young adults in more sustained and effective modes of volunteering,” Rosenberg explained. “It also provides a baseline for change within the Jewish service community. Our challenge – as an organization and as the community at-large – is to bridge the gap between service and Jewish identity, and help young Jewish adults see their engagement through the prism of Jewish tradition, values, and identity.”

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  1. says

    We have now reaped what we have sown. Having split “universal values” (whatever those are…compassion? justice? equality? fairness? ) from “Jewish identity” (whatever that means…doing some specific rituals that only Jews do? affiliating with a specific set of institutions?, supporting a certain position on Israel?) we wind up with young people who are engaged in activities that help them and the world flourish that “the Jewish community” (by which we really mean a small group of major philanthropists and a tiny group of Jewish demographers who have decided what being Jewish means) measures as not connected to their Jewishness.
    The “data” that our young people “don’t see their volunteer activity as based on Jewish values” says nothing about our young people’s Jewishness but quite a lot about how they perceive “the Jewish community”. A large segment of “the Jewish community” simply rails against Tikun Olam/social justice activism for “non-Jewish” causes as a legitimate form of Jewishness and actually sees it as a threat to Jewish continuity. Of course by non-Jewish causes they mean any causes that are not for and by and with Jews which excludes only some of the most important causes on the planet. The rest of “the Jewish community” (our outreach specialists) knows that there is something wrong with a perspective that splits human concerns from Jewish concerns and instead says, yes yes, these activities would be Jewish if they just did them inside a Jewish organization. And of course then build organizations for young Jews to work with other Jews on Tikun Olam in the non-Jewish world because as long as Jews are working with Jews then it is a measurable Jewish identity activity. Whether doing so actually improves the quality of the social justice activity in any way (e.g. is it done more efficiently or ethically because it is done in a “Jewish” organization) or in any way adds value to the person doing the service (e.g. do they do it more passionately or more often) is irrelevant. All that is important is that our young people do it with other Jews. You see our concern is not Jewish values. Our concern is Jewish cohesion which really is a code word for intermarriage. (I want to be clear I am not against there being organization by Jews and for Jews to do social justice work. It is far more important than some of the other organizations we create to get young Jews to be more Jewish or more connected. Though there is something strangely unsettling about turning social justice yet alone a 3000 year old wisdom and practice into a tactic to get Jews to be with other Jews.)

    No wonder our young people have internalized a split between their Jewish values and working to increase justice in the world. These studies don’t care about Jewish values. they care about Jews associating with Jews and then confuse that with jewish values. My experience over the last almost thirty years of watching myriad of Jews is that just dig a little bit beneath the surface and of course their activism in the world is connected to their Jewishness and often in deep and profound ways. But not in the tribal, insular, narrow, group obsessed way “the Jewish community” anxious about Jewish continuity is.

    Simply ask this: would our philanthropists and demographers be happy if when interviewed in these sorts of studies the young people “the Jewish community” are so worried are assimilating answered, when asked about their volunteer work helping non-Jews outside of Jewish organizational auspices, “of course our volunteering reflects our Jewish values” and then said but we wouldn’t want to do this work inside a Jewish organization (unless the work was actually more effective in getting the job done.”)?
    I don’t think so. These studies tell us nothing about what is going on inside people’s hearts and minds. They merely measure some odd combination of the anxiety of the measurers and their supporters, the openness of America, and a specific set of Jewish institutions that are declining. It would be like measuring Jews in the middle of the second century and concluding that Jews are all assimilating because they are no longer affiliating with the Temple in Jerusalem and no longer engaged in Temple practices all the time missing the many new ways of being Jewish (behaviorally and psychologically) that were under the radar screen just beginning to develop and just beginning to be able to be described. Turned out they would have missed one of the greatest discontinuous -to its past – expression of Jewishness- Rabbinic Judaism – that wound up being the key to Jewish continuity.