Survey Finds Strong Israel-Related Attitudes among Both JTS-Ordained Rabbis and JTS Rabbinical Students

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) has released a new survey of JTS-ordained rabbis and current rabbinical students showing continued strong attachment to Israel among both the students and their older colleagues. Conducted by Professor Steven M. Cohen, the survey – “JTS Rabbis and Israel, Then and Now: The 2011 Survey of JTS Ordained Rabbis and Current Students” – demonstrates that current JTS rabbinical students are no less passionate about Israel and their connection to the Jewish state than their older counterparts, JTS-ordained rabbis. (Read the complete study.)

“In light of widespread concern in our community (which I share) about decreasing attachment on the part of younger North American Jews to Israel, and concomitant concern about weakening bonds to Israel and the Jewish people of future Conservative leaders, it is reassuring to learn from Steven Cohen’s research that current JTS students retain the high levels of passionate relation to Israel of their predecessors in the Conservative rabbinate,” said Chancellor Eisen. “Political opinions have shifted over the decades, but love for Israel remains strong.”

Added Professor Cohen, “In comparing young with old, we’re seeing no change in the traditionally high levels of attachment to Israel, marked by high levels of Israel connection and Israel-based experiences. At the same time, we are seeing a clear shift leftward in younger rabbis’ and rabbinical students’ Israel-related political attitudes and identities. Most strikingly, younger rabbis and students see Israel as less vulnerable, social justice issues as more compelling, Palestinians as less threatening, and Israeli government leaders as less compromising. The center of gravity on the political spectrum is moving from a position slightly to the left of center among the more senior rabbis to one more firmly situated on the moderate left of the Zionist and pro-Israel camp among younger rabbis and current students.”

Among the findings, the students score just as high as rabbis ordained between 1995 and 2011 in such areas as following the news about Israel, having studied in Israel, and defining themselves as “Zionist,” “pro-Israel,” and “Israel-engaged.” Notably, in every cohort, roughly 90 percent or more define themselves as Zionist, as pro-Israel, and as Israel-engaged, with 98 percent describing themselves in at least one of these Israel-attached ways. In addition, gaps between older rabbis and the students are small to nonexistent with respect to such issues as making/thinking about aliyah, feeling attached to Israel, and commitment to Jewish peoplehood.

At the same time, the survey finds differences between older and younger JTS-trained rabbis and students. Those areas include assessments of the Israeli government’s intentions and those of the Palestinians; sensitivity to external threats to Israel, and concern over societal issues (the older rabbis are more worried about security, and their younger counterparts more concerned with social justice); stances toward territorial compromise and settlements; and identification with political organizations, symbolized by the diminished favorability of the students toward the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the improving view of J Street.

Professor Cohen concluded, “In short, younger rabbis and students do indeed differ from their elders and predecessors in their attitudes about Israel. But the differences are not at all about declining connections or attachment to Israel. Rather, they signal the advance of a more ‘liberal Zionism,’ one that bears many parallels with that advanced by classic Labor Zionists of the past, or many of Israel’s opposition parties today. This move may cause some anxiety among some right-wing Zionists or supporters of the current Israeli government, but it does not constitute any diminution in attachment to Israel – at least not by rabbis recently trained, or now studying, at JTS.”