Digging deeper into the Jewish engagement of parents during the pandemic
Jewish life can meet them 'where they are'
The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique set of challenges for Jews, Jewish families, and Jewish communal organizations. With in-person gathering on pause, Jewish organizations had to get creative to provide opportunities for engagement in High Holiday services and other programming in 2020. At the same time, Jews were presented with a range of new ways to participate, both traditional and novel. This raised a number of important questions about Jewish life during social distancing that are still relevant today as we move beyond the pandemic.
- What role did the pandemic play in reshaping Jews’ understanding of their Jewishness?
- How did pandemic restrictions steer Jewish programming, especially for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
- Have Jews found new ways to connect with Jewish community?
- How did people’s pandemic Jewish experiences compare to their prior one, and prepare them for their future Jewish lives?
From December 9-27, 2020, Benenson Strategy Group surveyed 1,414 Jews, 18 and older, living in the United States. Respondents who opted in were granted access to the questionnaire. However, only individuals self-identifying as Jewish in at least some way were eligible to complete it. BSG provided an initial in-depth exploration of response trends and themes, including some subgroup comparisons.
The initial analysis revealed surprising trends regarding how and why American Jews chose to participate in Jewish life during the pandemic. Rather than serving as a barrier to engagement, it seems that American Jews were feeling more connected to their Jewishness and more active during the High Holidays than in years prior.
A key finding was that parents with children under the age of 18 consistently stood out as feeling more connected to their Jewishness, more active in their participation, and more hopeful for their future Jewish lives during the pandemic, compared to their counterparts without children. Compared to Jews with no children, they had the highest praise for the efforts of Jewish organizations to provide high-quality, relevant, and meaningful COVID-safe programming.
Below we share findings from a secondary analysis of survey data of parents with children under age 18, followed by possible implications for Jewish communal organizations, program designers and providers, and funders. Throughout this analysis, we use ‘parents’ to refer to ‘parents of children under 18’ in the survey.
Who are they?
Almost half of the survey respondents (49%) are parents of children under age 18. These parents reflect an increasingly diverse make up of this age cohort:
- 82% of parents with children under 18 years old report they are married or living with a partner, 18% are single parents.
- One-third of parents reported living in the Northeast and 28% live in the South.
- 30% of parents described their denomination as “Just Jewish” or Unaffiliated.
- When asked to rate the importance of being Jewish now versus before the pandemic, 52% of parents of children under 18 said being Jewish was more important to them during the pandemic than before. Of the total survey respondents, only 32% reported that being Jewish was more important than before.
- Regardless of the age, race, or gender of the parents of children under 18, at least 85% of them said that being Jewish and doing Jewish things felt important to them now.
- Similarly, being Jewish was important to parents of children under 18 regardless of Jewish denominational affiliation, affirmed by 91% of “Just Jewish” parents and 87% of parents indicating one or more specific affiliations.
- Finally, 71% of parents said that the pandemic made them think differently about what being Jewish means in their lives, compared to 51% of the total surveyed.
Connection to a Jewish Community
- At the time of the survey, 80% of Jewish parents reported they had done something new that is Jewish since the pandemic started, compared to half of all American Jews.
- Approximately 70% of parents say they have turned to Jewish communities or organizations more than usual during the pandemic, and even to new communities and organizations that they previously were not part of. Overall, just 40% of the total respondents said they had done either of these things.
- While 24% of the total respondents said they felt more connected to a Jewish community during the pandemic, 44% of parents responded that they do. There were significant differences in reported connectedness between parents with 1 (72%), 2 (85%) or 3 or more children (91%).
- Married parents of children under 18 were significantly more likely to report being connected to a Jewish community (82%) compared to parents who are not married (55%).
- Parents of children under 18 reported feeling connected to a Jewish community even if they did not report a denominational affiliation, with 79% of “Just Jewish” parents and 76% of those marking any other affiliation endorsing this question.
This research as well as other timely studies are elevating both the consumer desires and provider opportunities across the fields of Jewish early childhood and family education and engagement. Enabling and welcoming a home-based Jewish practice can be a key component of Jewish learning. For parents of children under 18, 2020 was a year of reconnecting with Jewish identity, being able to participate in activities once much less accessible to them and their families, and finding new ways to be in community with other Jews, especially during the High Holiday days.
Jewish communal organizations, program designers and providers, and funders have an opportunity to listen to this population that is clearly open and hungry for more. These important learnings help us understand what compels and enables parents to engage and seek community so that future investments of time and dollars are leveraged to meet these opportunities. We understand how vital it is to show these families that Jewish life can meet them “where they are” and offer them support, meaning, and connection.
Gage Gorsky has a PhD in Educational Measurement and Statistics from the University of Washington. Stacie Cherner is Director of Learning and Evaluation at the Jim Joseph Foundation.