Friday, July 1, 2011

Jewish kids are volunteering, just not for Judaism

And is anyone surprised?

From the article:
Of those polled, a whopping 80 percent [of Jewish youth] reported having volunteered during the previous twelve months. This puts Jewish youth far ahead of the general American population, among whom, in the past year, even the most educated showed only a 42-percent rate of volunteerism.

But in one critical area, Jews are not only failing to hold their own but are markedly underperforming. When it comes to volunteering for religious groups, a venue that commands the primary attention of about one-third of Americans in general, the comparable figure for young Jews is only 22 percent. The remaining 78 percent report indifference to the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish venues, with 18 percent of these actually expressing a preference for the latter.
Interestingly, the surveyed students were primarily Birthright participants. Which means that, in theory, they should be the most involved Jewish youth, or at least so fresh off this "life-changing experience" that they're looking for ways to help out. It makes the lack of religious volunteering even more notable.

Thinking back to my own experiences with Birthright, I'm not very surprised to hear they got these results from polling the participants. While I did have very intense personal and spiritual moments on the tour, one of the major take-home themes was that Israel is as modern a nation as the US. Tel Aviv might as well have been next to Miami instead of Jaffa, and the locals we met were "Jewish" in the same way most Americans are "Christian". I wonder if this message is backfiring by showing youth they don't need to do Jewish things to be Jewish.

Furthermore, generational research suggests the current crop of high school & college students are very resume minded. They are genuine in their desire to help others, but are very aware that it also looks good on college applications and the like. Given that, is there a concern that "limiting" themselves to Jewish organizations pigeonholes them too much? Are teens volunteering at Jewish agencies also applying to Jewish schools, and working in the Jewish community? Is it too defining, too limiting of the public perception of your personal identity?

A question arises: how is the study defining "religious groups"? Is it enough that a food pantry is funded primarily by Jewish charities, or are we looking specifically at teens helping out around the temple, joining youth group, etc? I assume they mean the former, which makes it a direct apples-to-apples comparison where the primary variable is Jewish affiliation. So we're teaching our kids to help others, and they're helping causes that relate to Jewish values, but they're not identifying as "Jewish" in the process.

And why should they? What are we offering them that enriches the experience? In a way I see this as the over-success of integrating "Jewish" and "American" identities; if the two are combined, why should I self-segregate by volunteering at specifically Jewish agencies? Modern Judaism is at a crossroads, and right now has stopped to consult the map, look both ways, and ask for directions. Meanwhile teens see a religion that's moving away from a stuffy, melancholy past, but not yet moving towards anything new and meaningful.

1 comment:

  1. Tikkun olam knows no religious boundaries. Our youth's willingness to volunteer is outstanding.

    Except, perhaps, in orthodox circles, does an adult's expression of Jewishness reflect what they did as teens? Perhaps. But I see many many examples of "secular" jews that start seeking more spirituality and ritual as they age.

    I am just back from a day at the Aleph Kallah that challenges your generalization that teens see religion that is "not yet moving towards anything new and meaningful." The youngest children created a play that seriously explored environmentalism and themes in the week's parsha. The teenagers spent 4 days in the mountains exploring spirituality in nature. Very powerful stuff.