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What Survey Data Don’t Tell You

Recently, I participated in a survey of Young Judaea alumni. It has been 35 years since I went to my first Young Judaea meeting, and I can say with certainty that the experiences that followed transformed my life. My mother liked to say that she sought out a Young Judaea club because she had a feeling it would be good for me, but she didn’t realize just what an impact it would have. Young Judaea gave me a community, taught me leadership skills, and showed me how pluralistic Judaism and liberal Zionism could be brought to life. It influenced my career choices and the priorities that guide my life. The friends I made there are still the people I rely on to make me laugh and to support me when life gets hard.

When I heard about the alumni survey, I was delighted to know that these impacts were finally going to be studied and documented. But as I made my way through the survey’s questions, I was struck by how limited this methodological tool can be. As an anthropologist who studies the complexities of 21st century Jewishness, I know that surveys can provide us with much important and useful information, but they can’t tell us the stories behind the numbers they gather. As an anthropologist, my work is to discover those stories. I also know, because I am still so connected to so many Young Judaea alumni, that the stories are different for each of us. We all came to the movement for different reasons, and took away from it different things. Our lives afterwards moved in hundreds of different, but often overlapping, directions. Most of us were, in some way, changed by our Young Judaea experiences, and I don’t know if we can separate out the trajectories of our lives from might have been without the movement.

I spent a lot of time this summer with old Young Judaea friends. As I filled out the alumni survey, I thought about all the stories I had heard, and how little of the richness and beauty and challenge of our post-YJ lives would be captured by the survey’s multiple-choice questions. I thought of one friend who used the skills she developed leading YJ peulot to create corporate training workshops, and how I used some of those same tools to engage my students in a university classroom. I pictured a group of us sitting at brunch last month debating the best tactics for fighting the racism and corruption taking over our country, and taking for granted that all of us in some way are involved in that fight. I laughed as I recalled the stories told at another brunch, with Year Course friends who have been reuniting around the country at Grateful Dead concerts, because as we make our way through middle age, we still need to be with the people who see us as we were at 18. I thought of how many of my friends married Young Judaeans — and of how so many of us who didn’t ended up divorced (although I’m not sure that’s a correlation that’s statistically significant). I thought of the Young Judaea friend who showed up at the hospital in the middle of the night to sit with one of our chevreh when his spouse was dying. And I almost cried as I went back to the day last year when I looked around at my mother’s funeral, and realized that it was my Young Judaea friends who were there to help fill in the grave and to, quite literally, hold me up.

The alumni survey asked how important “love of Israel” is to us, which left me baffled. I thought about the complex relationships with Israel that so many of us whose lives were touched by Young Judaea have. The survey will tell us how many Young Judaeans made aliyah and currently live there. But I wonder if it will show just how many Judaeans are leading Jewish organizations here in the US, and how many are working so hard to change Israeli society for the better. A friend here in Tucson commented once that I seemed to know everyone in Israel. No, I thought, only the really cool people who end up in the paper because they’re making a difference. I couldn’t explain how all Judaeans are always connected, and always committed to making a difference, so I merely said, “They went to my camp.”

I don’t think the survey will tell you how many people, like me, made aliyah and came back, for complicated personal and professional reasons. It won’t tell you that Israel is still “home,” even though I’ve been gone for almost 20 years and get back to visit far more rarely than I would like. It won’t tell you that despite my ongoing heartbreak, despair, and often disgust, at the policies of the Israeli government, I took professional risks and publicly defended my Israeli colleagues against BDS. As I was writing this, I remembered too that it was my Young Judaea friends who edited my speech when I prepared to lead the fight against BDS at my professional association, pushing me to greater clarity, and pointing out all the weak spots in my arguments. At moments, our heated discussions about Israeli politics reminded me of those long ago, all-night sessions debating the YJ vision. Does any of this count as the “love of Israel” that the survey asked about? Like Tevye and Golde, I don’t know if I know what love is in this context, or if it matters.

Filling out the survey made me think of my friends whose children are now attending Young Judaea camps, finding themselves and their communities in ways that both mirror and differ from what we did. I thought about the program from the 1952 Young Judaea leadership training seminar, that I recently found among my mother’s papers, and how the importance of this movement really does seem to pass through the generations. And I wondered about my own son, who so far has refused to even consider sleep-away camp, and how else I might give him these experiences.

It sounds cliché, but for so many of us, Young Judaea gave us a place where we belonged, where we strived to be better, and to make the world around us better. That idealism was both a blessing and a curse – it set us up for disappointment and guilt, and it also set high standards for friendship and human interaction, in general. I doubt that a survey will capture these kinds of stories. But as a Young Judaean, and a scholar of American Jewishness, I think they are most certainly stories worth listening to.

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