Mixed Identity

083013_mixed_identityA bold headline proclaims that young Jews are more likely than their parents’ generation to go to Jewish day schools and camps and yet are less connected to Israel and Judaism. But is that really the case?

In a poll of 1,874 Jews conducted by Laszlo Strategies on behalf of Jerusalem U, 45 percent of young Jews ages 18 to 29 attended a day school or yeshiva compared with 24 percent of those 50 and older. Similar distributions occurred in Jewish summer (sleep-away or day) camp attendance (56 percent vs. 36 percent) and even bar or bat mitzvah (81 percent vs. 58 percent). Approximately the same numbers in each generation were involved in Jewish youth groups before college (46 percent vs. 43 percent).

But here’s where the pollsters point to a disconnect. When interviewees were asked how much they agree with the statement, “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being Jewish,” 87 percent of those 50 and older “strongly agree,” while only 66 percent of those 18 to 29 agree.

“The young generation is far more steeped in Jewish institutions than the older,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrachi, founder and president of Laszlo Strategies.

Mizrachi, who co-founded The Israel Project, referenced the financial commitment today’s parents are making to give their children the Jewish education they didn’t have.

“If a child goes to day school for 12 years, that’s $200,000 in tuition,” she said. “Very high numbers go to Jewish camp, [and assuming] that’s sleep-away camp for five years, that’s $50,000. The parents’ generation is saying that Jewish education is so important they will spend $200,000 to $300,000 so kids can go to the schools and camps that [they] didn’t. And at the end of that investment, kids are less invested than they are,” she said. “It’s an enormous sacrifice. [The kids] are committed but significantly less [than the parents].”

But are they? If one adds the percentage of the younger Jews who “somewhat agree” that caring about Israel is a very important part of their being Jewish to those who “strongly agree” and do the same for the 50-plus group, the gap closes — 91 percent vs. 97 percent. And if one considers that connection with Judaism, and possibly Israel, may wane and wax with age, the parents’ investment may yet pay off.

“This is not an indictment of the day school movement, but it is to say it’s not an end-all, be-all,” said Laszlo Strategies Vice President Meagan Buren. “There is an increase in dedication and involvement as people move on in life. It drops off after bar mitzvah and during college but moves up when they need a shul for a bris.”

According to Buren, this is also a generation that see things as gray. How likely are they to “feel strongly” about anything, let alone Israel or Judaism?

“My gut says, in some ways yes, in some ways no,” she said. “They are a less black-and-white generation. There is more gray area for them. But there are questions they feel very strongly about.”

Results of the polls could not add-ress if Israel is one of those gray areas or simply a subject about which they don’t feel strongly.

Jerusalem U, founded in 2009 by filmmaker Rabbi Raphael Shore, seeks to use film and interactive learning, both online and live, and partnerships with traditional organizations to help young Jews see Judaism and Israel as relevant in their lives. The group commissioned the study to see if they were on the right track. And according to Jerusalem U President Amy Holtz, they are.

She points to the question, “What do you think is the biggest barrier to encouraging more young Jews to be proud of being Jewish and more connected to Israel?”

An overwhelming 65 percent of all respondent answered, “Young Jews don’t see it as relevant to their lives.” According to Holtz, this confirmed Jerusalem U’s new focus on “Why be Jewish?” (In Baltimore, 54 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds responded to a question posed by the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study that “being Jewish is very important” to their lives. However, only 14 percent said being part of a Jewish community is very important to them.)

Respondents to the online poll were those with email addresses associated with Jerusalem U and other Jewish databases. It is not a random poll, and it does include a small number of Jews from other countries. However, when the survey became large enough to include a range of ages and denominations, it became statistically valid. The poll is still in the field and will close before Rosh Hashanah.

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