New language, new ideas and new ways to define connections are needed if we are to adapt as a community to the many new opportunities for engagement emerging from every corner of our culture.
By David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb
In the time since we founded B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, we have endeavored to change the conversation about aging and its implications for strengthening Jewish life in the United States. Our initial survey (in 2009) indicated that Baby Boomers are a vulnerable population, open to Jewish institutions, programs, and resources, but not wedded to them. In the ensuing years, we expanded our efforts with an exploration of the attitudes, behaviors and fidelity of the four adult cohorts in the Jewish community. This new survey, which examines more affiliated and engaged Jews in America, is a component of that effort. The study report, Generations & Re-Generation: Engagement and Fidelity in 21st Century American Jewish Life, was released late last month.
As we dove into the results, we encountered issues and insights that shed light on the current challenges facing the Jewish community in terms of its near and longer term sustainability. In a landscape characterized by a dizzying rate of change and the emergence of countless new ways to connect and to gain access to information, activities, organizations, and like-minded people, terms like affiliation, membership, fidelity, and community have taken on new meaning. For those few closer to the core – the most active, involved group of Jews on organizational letterheads and donor lists – much might remain the same. But for those a bit further from that core, much has changed and the likelihood of capturing their attention – no less their involvement or support, has become even more difficult.
In the spring of 2013, B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform surveyed “connected” American Jews, exploring the demographics, beliefs, activities, and behaviors of adults 18 and over with some degree of connection with Jewish institutions (members, donors, and/or email subscribers).
Given B3’s interest in engaging – or re-engaging – the Boomer generation of American Jews (born 1946-1964) in Jewish life, we placed special emphasis on generational issues. Yet, while generational distinction is often apparent, we found many similarities among the four active adult generations of American Jews. This fact alone should ignite new thinking regarding how the American Jewish community can foster a vibrant community for Jews of all ages.
It is important to note that we are not neutral, an important caveat that all researchers must share with their readers. As participants in the Jewish community, we are aware of its discontents. As Americans, we note the vast research detailing the diminution of civic engagement across the landscape. As Baby Boomers, we remain engaged in significant professional and volunteer roles in the Jewish community and observe the paralyzing tensions of generational transitions in foundations and synagogues, federations and national organizations, universities and social service agencies as we face an array of daunting challenges, many of them unprecedented. Committed as we are to the community that sustains us and our families, we are surely more than observers. We seek and offer possible solutions to the problems we identify in our study. We believe that there are Jews out there drifting away from older forms of Jewish life and institutions who could be connected or reconnected via new, more compelling and inviting models of engagement arising from new understandings of a rapidly shifting landscape. What’s more, entry points can come at any point in the lifecycle. To focus only on those under 35 is to miss a major and emerging opportunity, and is against the best interest of communal institutions as they chart a path forward.
More than 12,500 questionnaires were completed by an online panel created using the email lists of more than 50 Jewish organizations across the United States, including federations, denominational bodies, activism and advocacy organizations, and fellowships. Last week we released the results of that survey, placing them within the context of other analysis regarding the continuity and vitality of American Jewry, and of other minority ethnic and religious communities. The core question behind the study, and behind our focus on Baby Boomers and intergenerational connections, is: how can we sustain a thriving American Jewish community? This parallels an increased concern about the place and vitality of minority communities in the inviting embrace of the twenty-first century United States. Key factors surrounding this question involve the ways in which Jewish identity and engagement intersect with many rapid changes affecting the overall American landscape: generational change, technological advances, and changes in American family life, civic culture, communications, and religion.
It is critical to remember that this sample was designed to skew toward those more engaged in Jewish communal life. This must affect our reading of figures which would have been entirely different if the population had included everyone who calls herself/himself Jewish, as was the case in A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews and other such population studies. Thus, this study’s population belongs to, gives to, and participates in Jewish life at a higher rate than would be found in other studies.
At the same time, we expected a commensurately higher degree of satisfaction and a stronger sense of Jewish obligation. So there was some surprise when, for example, we surveyed whether Jews see living out their Jewish lives as a motivation for civic engagement in the form of volunteering. A glance at the table of results for this question might prompt some readers to focus on the fact that strong majorities of all age groups (66%-78%) cited living out a Jewish life as either “somewhat important” or “very important” as a motivation for volunteering. Among the whole Jewish population, of course, this number might seem reassuringly large; in this context it is lukewarm (especially compared to the response rates for more universalistic motivations.) It is only when we consider the nature of this sample that we may realize that the one in five engaged Jews who find this reason “not important” at all represent a real issue that Jewish communities must address, sooner rather than later. That conclusion is a matter of emphasis, and (as is always true of quantitative research) different observers will learn different lessons from the same numbers. But make no mistake about the denominator behind the percentages: this is a study of Jews who are connected to the Jewish community. The sampling method has its thumb on the scale, in favor of existing institutions, so if we see discomfiting news for them it is all the more significant.
An Overview of Key Findings and Recommendations:
- Personal change and communal engagement potential are not limited to the young. Although many funders and organizations focus large shares of their efforts on one cohort (“next gen,” Millennials, etc.), this study finds that significant numbers of connected Jews of all ages experience their Jewish lives and affiliations as evolving over time. Organizations may reap significant benefits from expanding their engagement efforts to include older age cohorts, and, correspondingly, if communal institutions maintain a focus almost exclusively on the young, they should not expect that all older Jews now connected to the community will necessarily remain so. In terms of policies and practices, this means that organizations should eliminate age as a criterion in programs, including the kinds of learning and leadership training programs usually offered to “young leaders.”
As the following table indicates, significant shares of all four age cohorts would be interested in volunteering on a regular basis – even if they have never done so before.
Volunteered on a regular or ongoing basis in a program or project
(i.e., weekly or monthly)
Q. 6-2 WWII % Boomers % X-ers % Millennials % Have done and interested in the future 2011 52% 3205 58% 1152 53% 497 50 Have done but not interested in the future 560 14% 512 9% 183 8% 59 6% Have not done but would be interested 433 11% 1059 19% 577 27% 332 33% Have not done and not interested 513 13% 525 9% 192 9% 51 5% No Response 346 9% 252 5% 53 2% 65 6% Total 3863 100% 5553 100% 2157 100% 1004 100%
- A significant minority of connected Jews are leaning away from long-term commitments and toward episodic participation. About four in ten affirm that they prefer to “just get involved when or if I am interested.” Importantly, this minority is just as large among Baby Boomers as it is among the younger age cohorts. But even among those who prefer episodic participation, more than half have served on a board or committee of some kind, and many report interest in doing so in the future.
- Although highly connected to Jewish communal institutions, this population is only tepidly satisfied with them. Among the three post-war generations, well under 20% are “very satisfied” with JCCs and federations. Only a third or less of each cohort expresses great satisfaction with synagogue life.
- Belonging to the Jewish people is very important to strong majorities of all four age cohorts, but its importance does decline among younger respondents. Frequency of attending Jewish cultural events (museums, films, plays, concerts) also decreases for the younger generations. It is unclear whether these are generational differences that will endure over time, or life-stage differences through which cohorts will progress.
- American Jews are without a compelling narrative to bind them. The Holocaust, while remaining the lead story for an overwhelming number of Jews, does not describe the experience of Jews in the U.S. This population expresses a clear pessimism about the future of Israel, America, and the world, a situation not helped by the organized Jewish community’s continual focus on antisemitism, Jewish suffering, and death. The powerful Zionist story with which many Jews grew up is waning as an effective unifying narrative.
- Engaged Jews are strongly identified both with universal values (making the world better for everyone) and with being Jewish (and addressing Jewish needs), but their levels of motivation and enthusiasm for universal values are significantly stronger and more consistent than their Jewish ones. This gap is especially apparent in responses to questions about motivations for volunteering. These results confirm for engaged Jews (regardless of age) what Repair the World’s study Volunteering + Values revealed of young Jews (regardless of engagement level): universal values are more strongly and consistently affirmed than Jewish values as personal motivations to volunteer. Jewish organizations must do more than just assert that Jewish and universal concerns go naturally together (tikkun olam); they must create new approaches, programs, activities and initiatives that will actually bridge that gap on the level of compelling emotion in the lives of the Jewish public.
- Online media are important for reaching all age groups. Although use of social media is less prevalent among the very oldest of connected Jews, online Jewish content and social media are a part of the lives of strong majorities of all age groups. Reading Jewish print media declines somewhat among younger generations. The competitive flood of media saturation is daunting and will challenge Jewish organizations. Organizations will need to use ever more sophisticated methods in both print and online media to deliver messages to their audiences.
- New language and new approaches are needed to attract (and describe) people’s attention, interest and participation. The ways many Jews describe themselves and how they feel about their Jewish lives and activities are changing. Traditional terms and statements are no longer relevant for many. For some, traditional denominational labels no longer apply, so appeals using that language might not attract their interest. For others, connections and participation in an activity might be possible, but should not be interpreted as interest in formal membership. Mission statements and program goals will gain or lose relevance based on how they are described: do they address community-wide or universal issues, or are they focused only on the Jewish community or Jewish needs?
- Jewish institutions need to replace hierarchical and authoritarian structures with more fluid, flat, and open democratic systems of engaging people in non-authoritarian and even non-authoritative processes. Successful synagogues and other organizations will become platforms for engagement in which Jews can collaboratively choose activities and behaviors that they consider Jewish, highlighting volition and creative collaboration as opposed to top-down programmatic offerings by the professionals and their volunteer boards. This shift in the way we organize applies powerfully to the ways synagogues and other institutions organize their membership fees – the more rigid and fixed their structure, the less likely they are to fit people’s needs or expectations. In a landscape in which personalization and customization are routine, a system that does not offer flexibility will be less attractive.
We invite readers to explore the survey and to share their reactions and ideas at www.b3platform.org.
Finally, about those generational groups: we remain convinced that the Jewish community will benefit from a more open minded, flexible and relevant response to the impact of aging. Change and exploration are not limited to those in their twenties. In fact, as you will see in the report, change is all around us and exploring and learning continue even after one turns 30…or 50…or 70, for decades into the future.
We began B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform with the goal of engaging – or re-engaging – Baby Boomers in Jewish life. We believe that finding new ways to connect Boomers with Jewish life will not only benefit them and the organizations and communities that serve them, but will also have positive implications for our ability to connect with and engage succeeding generations. New language, new ideas and new ways to define connections are needed if we are to adapt as a community to the many new opportunities for engagement emerging from every corner of our culture.
That might be idealistic but it is a goal we believe is worth pursuing. We trust that Jewish organizations and funders, inspired, intrigued or challenged by this new survey, will also embrace this goal.