How to Encourage Jewish Choices

by Sam Abrams, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer

With national attention riveted in recent weeks on factors swaying voting decisions – the impact of debates, the effectiveness of television advertisements, the marketing of candidates and the spinning of news and pseudo-news – one key influence tends to be overlooked: political scientists have demonstrated just how important peers are in determining our decisions to go to the polls and which lever we actually will pull. In fact, the choices of our friends and associates can be as important in shaping our voting behavior as all the efforts at persuasion mounted by political campaigns. Much the same can be said about many other areas of human endeavor: for example, extensive research on behavior affecting our health has demonstrated the decisive influence of people in our social circles in determining whether we will gain weight and indulge in smoking.

Mindful of this evidence, the three of us have wondered how important social networks are in the decisions of families to participate in Jewish life. Usually discussions about Jewish engagement focus on other variables. In communal discussions about Jewish education, for example, it is widely assumed that affordability is the key factor in family decisions. Costs, of course, are not a negligible item, but they are also not the only factor driving behavior, as is evident from the fact that many wealthy families would not dream of sending their children to Jewish day schools or summer camps and many middle class Jews stretch family budgets to the breaking point in order to provide the best Jewish education for their children. In both instances, ideological and religious commitments outweigh affordability.

But in addition to costs and commitments what role do peer influences play? To investigate this question, we conducted a pilot study under the auspices of the AVI CHAI Foundation to learn about the factors that go into the decision of parents to enroll their children in a residential summer camp with a Jewish mission. Our goal was to assess the impact of norms within the social networks of Jewish parents, and, in particular, to examine the extent to which the recommendations of social peers play a significant role in the decision to send one’s children to a Jewish summer camp.

Based on a survey of nearly 1000 families with children between the ages of six and 17 reflective of the larger Jewish population, we learned three important things about camping decisions made by parents:

  • First, relative to the American population as a whole, Jews maintain much denser immediate and intimate social networks. Whereas the average American has 2.1 “intimates” with which he or she can discuss “important matters,” the typical Jew has 3.9 – an 86 percent difference.
  • Second, as demonstrated many times before, strong connections with other Jews – as evidenced by attending Shabbat dinners frequently, having strong feelings of belonging to a Jewish community, and befriending mainly Jews – are positively correlated with parents sending their children to summer camps.
  • Third, and most critically, after running statistical analyses to control for various socio-economic and institutional factors, we found that the recommendations of intimates strongly drive the decision to send one’s child to a Jewish summer camp. Moreover, we also found that memberships in Jewish institutions such as synagogues, personal socio-economic status, and a sense of belonging to the larger community are not as powerful in driving the decision to enroll children in a Jewish summer camp.

What this means is that Jews have far richer social networks than the average American and therefore can be influenced by a greater number of their associates. Engagement also plays an important role: simply being a member of a synagogue raises the percentage of respondents sending their children to camp by 250 percent. But the most important factor, we learned, is whether someone we know recommends a Jewish summer camp. Peers talking up a camp, and especially social intimates describing the great experience their own children have had in a particular camp, are the most powerful predictors of whether a family will send its child/children to that camp – more powerful than household income and the family’s Jewish engagement.

Our study admittedly was preliminary and many questions still remain, but one finding stands out: cues delivered by those in our social circles are highly influential as Jewish families make their camping decisions. The lesson for camps is clear: Camp directors and others promoting Jewish summer camping must mobilize parents to serve as advocates of their camp within their social circles. Informal conversations, rather than highly structured marketing by the camps themselves, are most effective.

Our findings also have far-reaching implications for the rest of the Jewish community. The most effective recruiters for Jewish engagement are satisfied Jewish “consumers.” Each of us has the power to draw in more Jews into engagement by exposing our social circle to Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, our synagogues and minyanim; each of us can talk up those Jewish causes and educational opportunities we find most meaningful. Each of us can describe to our social intimates why we offer philanthropic support to institutions and agencies. Each of us can invite our associates to join in celebrations of Israel and volunteer activities for Jewish causes; we all can take the time to explain to our social intimates why they should introduce single Jews to one another in order to spur endogamy.

The good news is that none of these activities costs money; what is required is a self-conscious effort to reach out to others in our circles to make the case for specific forms of Jewish engagement. In some sectors of the Jewish population such outreach is already second nature. If more of us assume responsibility to serve as ambassadors of Jewish engagement, our impact can be enormous: each of us can be a powerful actor, influencing our associates to make Jewish choices.

Sam Abrams, a political scientist with a special interest in voting behavior, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and is a fellow at Stanford University. Steven M. Cohen is a sociologist at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Jack Wertheimer is an historian at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This article first appeared in The New York Jewish Week.