Community, Open Yourself! A New Study Says

By Zohar Rotem

Last month, Stuart Himmelfarb and Dr. David Elcott of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform told us about their new study: Generations and Regeneration: Engagement and Fidelity in 21st Century American Life. I think this is an important study that we should pay close attention to. Here’s why.

First, there is the sheer magnitude of this study, which is based on a survey of a staggering 12,500 individuals drawn from the lists of over 50 Jewish institutions (Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute being among them). For comparison, last year’s study by the Pew Research Center was based on 3,475 responses, so this fact alone should make us take this new study seriously. No doubt, there are differences in the sampling methods between the two studies, and these should be taken into consideration when this new study is read. Pew’s was a random sample. As such, it remains the best representation since the 2001 NJPS of all American Jews. But the power of this new B3 study is in providing a reliable snapshot of institutionally connected Jews. And it tells a story about the core participants of the organized Jewish community, which should give our leaders and funders pause.

Second, this study serves to re-focus the Jewish community’s programmatic attention on older generations. Just like the younger millennials and Gen-Xers, Boomers have life experiences characterized by change and flux, and this translates to their Jewish engagement. Among all age cohorts, about four in ten engaged Jews choose to participate on an “episodic” basis. Boomers also tend to have more time and disposable income, so the fact that they are not more engaged in organized Jewish life should be a reason for concern.

But there is more. Boomers may have fallen “off the radar” of the organized Jewish community because they do not have young children. But do not forget that many of them do have young grandchildren, most of whom are being raised with one, rather than two Jewish parents. As we have recognized for some time, grandparents of children raised in intermarried homes can serve as one important avenue to assure the deeper engagement of these intermarried families. This is a need that has been addressed with programs such as The Grandparents Circle.

Third, the B3 study calls upon us to open up our definition of what “doing Jewish” can mean. Echoing Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky’s Playlist Judaism, the authors conclude that “successful synagogues and other organizations will become platforms for engagement [insofar as] Jews can collaboratively choose activities and behaviors that they consider Jewish.” Flexible forms of affiliation (as reflected, for instance, in flexible membership structures) and engagement (determined by participants rather than in a top-down fashion) will allow institutions to thrive into an uncertain future.

Finally, I found refreshing that the B3 authors call for a new Jewish narrative. The power of the Holocaust and of Zionism to galvanize a sense of Jewish belonging is waning, the authors tell us. Study participants “express a clear pessimism about the future of Israel, America, and the world, a situation that is not helped by the organized Jewish community’s continual focus on anti-Semitism, Jewish suffering, and death.” On the other hand, universal values are more compelling as a reason to engage (for example, in volunteering) than are specifically Jewish reasons. But the truth is that new narratives of Jewish identity are already being written every day by the many who are dissatisfied with traditional forms of affiliation or who are unable to find a comfortable place in the currently-existing institutional structures. Indeed, Himmelfarb and Elcott “advocate a less protectionist stance regarding the borders of Jewish identity.”

It is my hope that readers will now delve into this study and find other important lessons. Let us make this coming year the Big Tent year in which the Jewish community finds new and creative ways to generate entryways to Jewish life for all who wish to enter.

Zohar Rotem is Manager of Research and Evaluation at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.