Poll Finds Young Jews Love To Volunteer — But Not Through Jewish Groups

Disconnect Seen Between Service Work and Jewish Identity

Helping Hand: Jewish students help construct a food storage facility in Honduras during a 2007 mission sponsored by American Jewish World Service.
Courtesy of Repair the World
Helping Hand: Jewish students help construct a food storage facility in Honduras during a 2007 mission sponsored by American Jewish World Service.

By Andrew Tobin

Published June 29, 2011, issue of July 08, 2011.
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For Jewish social service and advocacy groups, it is a good news/bad news sort of survey: Most young Jews volunteer for social projects, according to a recent, widely discussed poll, but few of them connect this with their Jewish identity, nor do many of them choose Jewish organizations as places at which to volunteer.

The survey, recently published by the not for profit organization Repair the World, reflects an undeniable drift away from Jewish life and Jewish institutions, according to analysts. Yet at the same time, the findings indicate that the values Jews impart to their children continue to imbue these Jews with a spirit of volunteerism that has long been part of the communal ethos.

“I think it reflects the condition of American Jews being part of America and being at home here,” said Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist at New York University who specializes in the study of Jewish identity in America. Horowitz, who supported the poll’s credibility, said young Jews’ failure to think of service as a Jewish value reflected their decreased attachment to traditional Jewish institutions. “I don’t think it’s bad if Jewishness overlaps with Americanness,” she said.

But David Elcott, a New York University professor of public policy, warned, “If we can’t connect public service to Judaism, we run into the danger that for the majority of young Jews, their religion will not be reflective of their core values.”

For Repair the World, the debate generated by its study is not just academic. Looking at the survey findings as a case of the glass half-full, Jonathan Rosenberg, the group’s CEO, said, “This is an idealistic, civically engaged population for whom there are opportunities for us to deepen the depth of their service commitments and to connect that idealism to the Jewish community and to their Jewish heritage.”

Repair the World says on its tax forms that its charitable mission is to “make service a defining element of American Jewish life.”

The study, released June 23, found that about 72% of young Jews were involved in volunteer work in the past 12 months. But this volunteering was mostly infrequent. Forty percent of the respondents reported volunteering less than once a month, and 52% said they do not volunteer at all in a typical week. Only 27% of the respondents agreed that they consider their volunteer actions to be based on Jewish values. And just 22% said that they had volunteered for Jewish organizations. Seventy-eight percent said they have no preference between Jewish and non-Jewish volunteer organizations, suggesting that Jewish groups cannot rely on their Jewish branding to attract Jewish recruits and instead must compete on programming.

Brandeis University’s Maurice & Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies conducted the survey along with Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications. The pollsters surveyed about 2,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 35, drawn from a list of more than 300,000 applicants to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program and from Knowledge Networks, a national online research panel.

Few of those surveyed indicated any interest in social service projects related to Israel or the American Jewish community. Seven percent mentioned Jewish causes and 9% cited Israel as their areas of volunteer interest. But 41% said that they could be swayed toward volunteering through a Jewish group if its programming more closely aligned with their (mostly non-Jewish) concerns.

While many Jewish groups do focus on Jewish concerns, there are many others that do, in fact, offer programs oriented outward, toward the general society young Jews say they prefer to work with. Rosenberg argued that making public service a primary part of Jewish identity will draw young people into Jewish life. Jewish communities, in turn, will fuel public service, he said.

But first Jewish youth need to know about the existence of such groups. And 23% of the survey respondents said that they were not familiar with volunteer opportunities through the Jewish community.

To follow up on the survey, Repair the World is planning a marketing campaign, Rosenberg said. It will brand public service as a Jewish act, stressing the message of Jewish responsibility to help others. This tested almost as well as a non-Jewish, universalistic responsibility to help others, Rosenberg noted.

Jewish not-for-profit organizations like American Jewish World Service, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Funds for Justice, have been working for years to connect Jewish values and public service to the broader American and world community.

The social service group Avodah, for example, begun in 1998, now runs yearlong programs in several American cities. Young Jews volunteer for anti-poverty organizations while living together in organized houses where they study social justice themes in Jewish traditional and contemporary texts.

“The corps members start really connecting how the service that they’re involved in, the work they’re doing day to day, really is their Judaism,” said Marilyn Sneiderman, executive director of Avodah. “It’s totally tied to their roots, their values.”

But elsewhere, the Jewish community may be failing to connect Judaism to service in other venues, observers suggest. Elcott believes that the disconnect may begin at home. In a 2010 study, he found that only 14% of Jewish baby boomers saw volunteer work as an expression of their Jewish identity. They likely passed on this attitude to their children, he said after seeing Repair the World’s study.

Others point to Jewish education.  “I think that for a long time, the service element, the obligation element in Judaism, has not been presented,” said Ruth Messinger, president and CEO of American Jewish World Service.

Repair the World is a relative newcomer to the field of service learning, having emerged in 2009 from the Jewish Coalition for Service.  According to its website, it supports Jewish service through technical assistance, marketing, grants, research and evaluation.

Rosenberg said that Repair the World planned to focus on education, literacy and poverty, which were among the issues that respondents identified as most important to them.  He also said that the organization would encourage more local and flexible volunteering programs to address logistical issues, as these were cited in the study as major obstacles to volunteering.

Contact Andrew Tobin at tobin@forward.com


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