Connecting the Dots:
American Jews and Civic Engagement
By Ayalon Eliach and Rella Kaplowitz
Why do American Jews volunteer, make charitable contributions, sit on community boards, sign petitions, and vote? To what extent are their motivations for civic engagement tied to Jewish values and wisdom, or motivated by something else?
For our two foundations – Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – these questions are not merely of academic interest. We invest in strengthening Jewish life and promoting service, philanthropy, and civic engagement because we believe that the Jewish community has the opportunity and the responsibility to make a positive impact on society. We want people to be inspired by Jewish values and wisdom to act, make a difference, and repair the world on the local, national, and global levels.
In order to help our Jewish community live up to this potential, we need to understand if and how American Jews today make a connection between being Jewish and engaging civically – and if not, how we might help more people connect these two dots.
As the Talmud suggests, addressing complex issues like what drives civic participation requires more than theoretical deliberation. It demands a deep understanding of the people we are seeking to serve. In the words of the Talmud: Go out and observe what the people are doing (Berakhot 45a; Eiruvin 14b; Menahot 35a). So we did.
Beginning in the spring of 2019, we commissioned Benenson Strategy Group (BSG) to conduct a research project exploring the relationship between being Jewish and communal and civic engagement. BSG conducted a literature review, interviewed key thought leaders, convened focus groups, and fielded a national online survey of American Jews ages 18 and up.
The research has helped to answer some of our questions, and it has inspired many more. We are excited to share Connecting the Dots: American Jews and Civic Engagement and want to highlight three notable takeaways:
- American Jews are highly engaged in their communities and in civic life. When asked to reflect on their engagement in the past year – not a presidential election year – 72% of survey respondents reported voting in a national, state, or local election; 54% said they donated to or raised money for a nonprofit or political organization; and 46% signed a petition. When we asked respondents about their activities beyond the past year, the numbers rose significantly (90%, 69%, and 64%, respectively).
- When presented with the idea that Jewish tradition encourages us to engage in our communities, a large majority of Jews agree. American Jews are open to the connection between being Jewish and engaging civically when it is presented to them – 81% agreed that: “My values come from the way I was raised, and my Jewish upbringing and identity is a big part of why I have the values that I do.” And, when we explored various attitudes and values around involvement, a full 87% agreed that, “Jewish wisdom encourages us to engage in democracy and our communities.”
- However, most American Jews see their reasons for participating in communal and civic life as grounded in universal values first, with Jewish values playing a supporting role. While American Jews are highly civically engaged, many do not automatically attribute their actions to being Jewish. In fact, 89% of American Jews agreed that, “I engage, or would engage, in my community because it is the right thing to do, not because I am Jewish.” However, being Jewish does play at least some role in why American Jews engage – almost two-thirds of those who participate in civic life said that, “As someone who is Jewish, I have a responsibility to engage.”
American Jews see being involved in their communities and participating in democracy as a way to live a Jewish life. When presented with the idea that civic engagement is a core Jewish value, American Jews respond strongly. But unless the activities are specifically related to being Jewish – like supporting Jewish organizations – they are more likely to attribute their actions to universal rather than Jewish motivations.
This research provides a key opportunity for foundations and organizations that invest in Jewish life; specifically, it can help them better understand and make the connection between Jewish life and civic engagement. Our research uncovered a willingness to identify Jewish wisdom and values as reasons to engage in civic life. We can help build on that mindset and turn willingness into action – for Jews to engage in their communities because they are Jewish and because it is the right thing to do. We have the opportunity to help draw a straighter and bolder line between Jewish values and wisdom, and the call to be engaged citizens in today’s world.
At a time when many Jews are wondering in what way being Jewish is still relevant, this research demonstrates that our Jewish tradition can be a rich source of inspiration and motivation to get involved in our communities – be it through volunteering, philanthropy, community organizing, voting, and so much more. Our job now is to find new, effective ways for Jewish wisdom and values to deepen and amplify the work American Jews are already doing for the Jewish people and for the world. We hope that our research helps advance this work.
Read the full report here.
Ayalon Eliach is Director of Learning and Strategic Communications at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, where he helps the Foundation learn from its work and share what it learns with others.
Rella Kaplowitz is the Senior Program Officer for Evaluation and Learning at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, where she makes sure the Foundation has the right information to strengthen its work. Rella also partners with grantees to enhance their data and learning capacity, and is the author of the Data Playbook.