‘The Surge,’ ‘The Core’ and more: What you need to know about the explosion of interest in Jewish life

Jewish life in America is changing at a rapid pace. The horrific Oct. 7 attacks against Israel were just the start, with the subsequent war in Gaza, the increase in antisemitism in America and continued widespread campus protests stoking fear and anxiety in our community.  

But these same events have also fueled an explosion in Jewish belonging and communal participation that is nothing short of historic. Jews are feeling more invested in their identity and community and looking for ways to connect, creating an opportunity for a sector-wide focus on driving engagement and membership.  

For Jewish organizations looking to effectively engage with this newfound interest in Jewish life, there are critical issues we must first understand. A new Jewish Federations of North America survey of Jewish Americans and the general public, funded by and developed in partnership with The Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation, helps us quantify and appreciate the changes happening around Jewish identity, engagement and community at this pivotal time.  

One of the key findings of the survey is what we call “The Surge”: Of the 83% of Jews who were “only somewhat,” “not very” or “not at all engaged” prior to Oct. 7, a whopping 40% are now showing up in larger numbers in Jewish life. This group — equal to 30% of all Jewish adults and nearly double the proportion of Jews who identify as “deeply-engaged” — represents the greatest opportunity for broadening and deepening Jewish life.  

The Surge includes individuals in every age demographic. One-quarter of these individuals are in mid-life — people older than 55, with no children at home — and this oft-overlooked group is excited to reengage with the community in the empty nest phase of their lives. Representing 21% of The Surge, singles in the 18-34 age range report experiencing the most antisemitism. While 29% of that demographic say they have seen or experienced antisemitism in person, 82% have seen or experienced it online, compared to 20% and 73% of those 35 or older.  

While these members of The Surge report craving substantive engagement, such as discussions about antisemitism and more education about Israel, they crave community even more during this moment. Haley Dacks from Fort Lauderdale, for instance, says being “immersed in Jewish culture” is even more important since 10/7, which led her to seek a path “to stay connected to my Judaism and feel a sense of community, comfort and strength” with OneTable. 

Most individuals in this age group report not having many Jewish friends, so it unsurprising that when they do show up to Jewish events they tend to report feeling lonelier than others. They feel most welcome and comfortable at Jewish events when they know other people there (77%), when someone personally invites them (51%) and when they see themselves reflected in the people who attend (42%). 

Significantly, these are the same top three elements that appear in most pre-10/7 engagement studies. The takeaway: We need to remember to use the same relationship-based engagement skills that have always been at the core of community building to sustain The Surge. 

The Surge is not the only group driving increased engagement, of course. The 17% of people in the Jewish community who were already engaged at a high level — what we call “The Core” — are also saying they want more from Jewish communal organizations now. 

The Core is avidly seeking deeper educational and leadership development opportunities. They want to talk substantively about what’s happening in Israel and about antisemitism, and to gain advocacy tools to support Israel as well. 

What all these groups are saying, from The Surge or from The Core, is that they want their Jewish communities to provide more opportunities.  

And that’s not all. After 10/7, the Darwish family in New York City reported, they moved their children from an elite secular private school to the Rodeph Sholom School in Manhattan because they were seeking more Jewish community and a respite from the anti-Israel rhetoric that had taken hold in many schools. In fact, 39% of Jewish parents indicated they may reevaluate or reconsider educational or summer programs for their children; and 38% of parents with kids in a secular private school are considering making the move to Jewish day schools.  

Among Jews who are not members of synagogues — which, according to Pew estimates, is 64% of U.S. Jews — 37% say they’d be open to joining one now. The most synagogue interest comes from those who identify as Reform or as having no denomination, with 41% of the 48% of Reform Jews who are unaffiliated being open to joining and 33% of the 79% of Jews without a denomination being open to joining. 

Finally, 43% percent of Jews expressed interest in increasing their engagement with Jewish life, and 23% have already taken the first step by attending a class, joining a Shabbat service or participating in an advocacy effort.

How long this explosive increase in interest and engagement will last is impossible to know. What we do know is that this is an opportunity and responsibility of historic proportions. Here are three directions professionals and lay leaders can consider in this moment:  

Increase belonging

We need to design programming and our engagement approach to match the number of new people showing up. An individualized approach to meet, listen to and welcome everyone is critical. Whether at a Shabbat dinner or an education or advocacy program, we need to notice and welcome and invite in those who might be attending for the first time, or the first time in a while. We can also provide more training on relational engagement to both our professionals and volunteers.  

Double-down on cornerstone Jewish experiences

Some of our deepest and seemingly more ‘traditional’ Jewish experiences have a major window of opportunity with Jewish families right now. We can consider subsidies to incentivize and make more accessible Jewish camps, Jewish early childhood education, Jewish Day Schools, and synagogue memberships, as well as increase our marketing and outreach efforts.  

Cultivate community and friendships

Jews of all ages are seeking supportive community and more Jewish friends in this moment, and our long-time volunteers are feeling emotionally drained. We can expand cohort-based experiences that we know provide this deep personal connection and reduce burnout, such as immersive retreats, purpose-based Jewish travel, community-based volunteerism and teen, campus, and young adult engagement organizations.    

This moment is the most difficult we have faced in decades. Yet, we have a huge opportunity to expand the reach of our community, provide meaning to thousands, and not just return to normal. How we as the organized community respond has the potential to shift the Jewish future for generations to come. Let’s rise to the moment.  

For questions about the data or methods from the study referenced in this article, which used an SMS text-based survey conducted between February 23 and March 11, 2024, fielded by Benenson Strategy Group among a random sample size of 1,901 Jewish Americans and 4,143 U.S. adults, contact Research@JewishFederations.org.  

Mimi Kravetz is the chief impact and growth officer for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Sarah Eisenman is the chief community and Jewish life officer for the Jewish Federations of North America.

David Manchester is the senior director of community data and research development for the Jewish Federations of North America.