Is Volunteering Jewish?


While the majority of young Jewish adults volunteer, few see community service as an extension of their Jewish values. Most Jews ages 18 to 35 said that they shy away from volunteering with Jewish organizations because they view them as parochial and only serving the needs of the Jewish community.

And, further evidence of the distancing of young Jews when it comes to Israel, only 1 percent of respondents said that Israel was the primary focus of their volunteer work.

These were the key findings of a groundbreaking study — the first of its kind to study the attitudes and behaviors of young Jewish adults when it comes to volunteering. “Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults” was commissioned by Repair the World, a national organization that aims to make service a defining element of Jewish life, and conducted jointly by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications.

“This is the first time that the Jewish community has baseline data about what the current attitudes and behaviors [of young Jews] look like,” Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World, told The Jewish Week. “You have to know where you’re starting from in order to measure change over time.”
If the findings are any indication, there’s a lot of work to be done.

While most Jewish young adults volunteer, the activity is sporadic, with only one-third of the nearly 1,000 respondents engaging in service at least once a month. Less than a quarter of those surveyed had participated in an intensive service program lasting between one week and three months, such as an alternative spring break or immersive summer experience. In a typical week, the majority of young Jews said that they do not volunteer.

“It’s not just a frequency issue,” says Rosenberg. “We need to increase the effectiveness of volunteer commitments and help connect service to Jewish identity frameworks.”

Only 18 percent of Jewish millennials surveyed said that they prefer to volunteer with Jewish organizations or synagogues rather than other nonprofits. The vast majority — nearly 80 percent — said that it didn’t matter to them whether the organization they volunteered with was Jewish or non-Jewish. And only a small minority of young Jews cited Israel as the primary focus of their volunteer work.

“At this point, we have young Jews who neither have 1948 nor 1967 as conscious memory,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, referring to the year of Israel’s founding and the year of the Six-Day War. “In 1948, Jews had nowhere to go and were murdered in the Holocaust; those alive in 1967 remember the fear that the Jews would be wiped out.”

For Ari Teman, the founder of JCorps, which mobilizes nearly 5,000 young Jews each year to volunteer in cities across the globe, it’s not a lack of interest in volunteering in Israel but rather ignorance on the part of young people regarding the significant needs that exist there. “People are unaware of the shocking poverty that is prolific in Israel,” he says.

When asked why they did not volunteer with Jewish organization, nearly a quarter of respondents said that they were not familiar with volunteer opportunities available through the Jewish community. Others thought that the Jewish organizations did not address the causes they are most passionate about, chief among them helping the needy, health care and medical research, and education and literacy.

“The advice we are trying to take to heart here is for organizations to take a hard look at their mission and look at the interests and aspirations of this population and find the synthesis points,” says Rosenberg. “Young Jews are interested in service that is local and where there are low barriers to entry, such as education, poverty and the environment. We would never advise an organization to contort its mission to meet the perceived needs of particular groups of constituents, but rather look for ways in the messaging, programming and work that they do to synthesize the interests and attitudes of this population with the important mission the organization is performing.”

Many respondents were turned off by Jewish organizations that they perceived as being too particularistic and only serving the needs of the Jewish community. “We are now really moving in a new course that is more universalistic and less religious, and this is true generally in American life,” says Sarna.
Steven Bayme, the director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee, says that “the concept of Jewish peoplehood has been under serious pressure.”

“Some people find the language [of Jewish peoplehood] to be off-putting — tribalism at best, racism at worse,” he says, leaving young Jews wondering why they should care more about Jews than about earthquake victims in Haiti.

And many young Jews exhibit an inherent distrust of established Jewish organizations. “Most young people don’t want to have anything to do with a legacy Jewish organization, which they view as irrelevant, ineffective, and wasteful,” Teman says.

Certain factors, such as having parents who volunteer regularly, were seen as encouraging more regular volunteer activity among Jewish millennials. Those with greater religious involvement were the most likely to engage in volunteering, do so regularly and participate under Jewish auspices. The level of religious involvement was calculated based upon whether the respondent regularly participated in a Shabbat meal or activity, attended a religious service and participated in a Jewish text study. “It’s not just [Shabbat] candle lighting,” said Fern Chertok, associate research scientist at the Cohen Center, who co-authored this study.

“Current religious involvement was a better predictor than denomination” of one’s likelihood to volunteer and do so regularly, noted Chertok. More than 70 percent of Orthodox respondents, 33 percent of Conservative, 23 percent of Reform and 7 percent of “Just Jewish” respondents scored highly on religious involvement. However, even those who scored highly on Jewish religious involvement tend to volunteer for non-Jewish causes, according to the findings.

“Most Jewish young adults do not volunteer for Jewish causes or under Jewish auspices; they’re volunteering at soup kitchens or for disaster relief; they’re mentoring, tutoring inner-city kids and building playgrounds,” she says.

The study also found that young Jewish women are more likely to volunteer than Jewish men, a trend that exists outside of the Jewish world, as well. Jewish men who do volunteer, however, do so as frequently as their female counterparts.

“This is not just a programming challenge, but also a messaging challenge,” says Rosenberg. “Who are the male role models who can be held up as American Jews making huge difference in service that they do?” Rosenberg recommends that the Jewish community begin to celebrate men and women who are not just leaders in the Jewish communal service sphere, but within the secular world, as well.

Men like City Year co-founder Michael Brown; Seth Goldman, the founder of Honest Tea, and Jeff Swartz, the CEO of Timberland. “These are American Jews who have started major service organizations or companies with significant commitment to the triple bottom line … and are in the position to speak about how they see service as a Jewish act,” he says.

That last point — viewing service as stemming from one’s Jewish identity or commitment to tikkun olam — is not something that comes natural to most young Jews.

“Jewish young adults subscribe to values of compassion and social justice,” says Chertok. “They don’t see them as Jewish values; they see them as universal values.”

According to the report, only 27 percent of respondents considered their volunteer activities to be based on Jewish values, and only 10 percent strongly agreed with that statement.

“We came at this question a whole bunch of different ways: social justice, tikkun olam, chesed or acts of loving kindness, mitzvot or religious obligation, Jewish communal ambassador — and none resonated as positively as a motivator for social justice as ‘ambassador for social justice,’” a more universalistic motivation, Rosenberg says.

For those who view service as a gateway for young Jews to greater involvement in Jewish communal life, these findings pose a serious problem.

“Young Jews are not claiming their heritage,” Chertok says. “These are Jewish acts. They’re not just Jewish acts. But they are yours as a Jew; they are part of your Jewish heritage. Young Jews are not sure that it is, and they don’t necessarily want to be particularistic about.”

That was the bad news. The good news, Rosenberg says, is that the one Jewish framework that had significant positive response was that “as a people who have suffered persecution and discrimination in our long history, Jews have an obligation to help those in need.” “That is a kind of Jewish-universalistic framework,” he says. “It comes from Jewish underpinnings and an understanding of Jewish history.”

One of the more surprising findings was that children of intermarriage are more likely than are the children of two Jewish parents to volunteer. “We spent some time thinking about why that might be,” says Chertok. “It could be that having a non-Jewish parent and non-Jewish family members leads you to see that your needs and those of people from very different groups are not so different,” she says. “As a result, your sense of obligation is more expansive.”

Another possibility is that intermarried parents who want to encourage religious and moral development may see volunteering as something that is easy to agree on and to encourage their kids to do, she says. “It’s a nonreligious avenue to encourage passion about moral responsibility. Helping others — that’s in every religion.”

For the same reasons, children of intermarriage are less likely to have strong Jewish perspective on volunteering.

Political ideology also has a role to play.

Those who describe themselves as “conservative” or “moderate” are more apt to see volunteering as a Jewish act than those who use labels like “progressive” or “liberal.”

More liberal folks may not see [volunteering] exclusively as a Jewish act, Chertok says. “They don’t like the particularistic piece of it.”

Next Week: A look at a parent-teen volunteer mission to Cuba.