Volunteering + Values: What’s Motivating the Jewish Young Folk?

Repair the World, has just released “Volunteering+Values,” a report commissioned  “to understand the full extent of Jewish young adults’ volunteer habits and preferences.”  I’d say its findings/recommendations contain implications that North American Jewish communal institutions would do well to heed.

Conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis
University and Gerstein|Agne Strategic Communications, V+V surveyed a sample of Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and investigated their volunteer commitments and attitudes.

Among the findings I found notable:

Only a small portion of Jewish young adults prefer to or actually do volunteer with Jewish organizations … The minority of Jewish young adults who volunteer through Jewish organizations do so to support their own people and community. By contrast, the vast majority of Jewish young adults say it does not matter if they volunteer with a Jewish or non-Jewish organization.

Hand in hand with this finding, the report noted a growing universalist identity among Jewish young people:

Jewish young adults are primarily drawn to service through universal rather than Jewish-based values or identity … Only a very small portion of Jewish young adults volunteer as a means to represent the Jewish community to the larger society.

Not surprisingly to me, many Jewish young people seem to be turned off by what they perceive as the overly tribal concerns of the organized Jewish community:

Today’s Jewish young adults have grown up amidst and are at home with ethnic and religious diversity … As a result, most are concerned for all victims of poverty or injustice, not just those who are Jewish. It appears that they do not believe that Jewish organizations share this concern for universal causes.

I was particularly struck that Israel ranked consistently at the bottom of the list of priorities of young Jews. According to one graph, only 1% of those surveyed cited Israel/Middle East Peace as an “issue focus of primary volunteer work” (at the top of the list: “Material Assistance to the Needy.”) Another graph charted the geographic focus of primary volunteer work thus: 79%: Local Community, 13%: Domestic Non-Local, 4%: Developing World, 3%: Israel. (This trend is particularly noteworthy since the primary sample used by V+V was the Birthright applicant pool – a data base of 300,000 young Jews who either participated or applied for a Birthright Israel trip between 2001 and 2010.)

Among the many strategic implications identified by the study, this one resonated for me in particular:

Efforts are needed to educate Jewish young adults of the deep connection between Jewish thought and volunteering without implying that it is an exclusively Jewish perspective or only pertains to support of the Jewish community. Jewish young adults, regardless of denomination or level of religious involvement, should be encouraged to “own” a Jewish perspective on service. Widespread efforts are needed that draw attention to and link the universal and Jewish values that Jewish young adults already hold with the causes about which they care most deeply.

As always, I’d love to hear reactions.

5 thoughts on “Volunteering + Values: What’s Motivating the Jewish Young Folk?

  1. jack bender

    there are many reasons….the kids in this study were probably raised in liberal secular homes where being liberal was more important then being jewish…..went to reform sunday schools where jewish history was not even a consideration….,grew up in a era when israel was indeed powerfull….not fighting for its very life…suffered no direct anti-semitisim themselves…and at the end of it all….they are doing good work…and if crunch time comes to israel or the jewish people…they will come to the fore…i hope

  2. Seth Morrison

    Fascinating and scary. For me this is more proof that the organized Jewish communities efforts to delegitimize diverse voices on Israel is backfiring in a very dangerous way.

    We need to embrace Jewish youth and encourage them to form their own opinions on Israel while educating them on the core beliefs of Judaism as both a religion and as a civilization.

  3. Gigi

    I swear they didn’t interview me for this study, but they may as well have.

    Actually, I don’t understand what is so terrible about Jewish youth choosing to volunteer with non-Jewish organizations, or work on projects that don’t serve Jewish populations? It’s “tikun olam” not “tikun Jewish olam.” We should help those most in need, and really, does Israel need our help? I doubt it. They have a functional democracy and free health care. Kibbutzim do not really need me to help them milk the cows. All I could do at a geriatric facility is wash the dishes, because I can’t speak the language.

    My main problem with volunteering in/for Israel is that the projects seem to have more to do with getting Jewish youth to form an emotional connection with Israel than actually helping anyone. Personally, being involved in a program whose goal is for you to become an advocate for Israel feels kind of creepy. It feels like you are the subject of a propaganda campaign, and whether that is intentional or not, it obviously causes a very negative reaction among youth raised in a democratic society.

    On the Birthright program, for example, I always felt like I had to stifle my views to avoid offending our guide. We toured underground weapons factories from before 1948, and were lectured about a jailbreak of Jewish “freedom fighters” (i.e., people who planted bombs and shot at British soldiers) from the Jaffa prison. No one bothered to try to differentiate between Jewish resistance prior to 1948 and the Palestinian conflict, it was just assumed. Of course, I didn’t dare try to discuss this for fear of offending people, but I was left wondering if the trip’s leaders really thought we were so uneducated that the parallel would not occur to us.

    Random Jewish youth do not have the skills to do anything about the conflict in the Middle East anyway. We can do much more by becoming a big sister or brother to a kid right here, or donating money to malaria research. If anything, Palestinians are the ones who need assistance, but as the report and others have pointed out (and Brant, you’ve born the brunt of this at JRC) this is not a perspective many Jewish organizations or “older” Jews share. I sincerely believe it is anti-Jewish (or just plain anti-human) not to help your neighbor when they are suffering terribly. I think this discredits a lot of these organizations for many young Jews.

  4. Dave

    1/ Young Jewish adults with young children volunteer less than young Jewish adults without children (figure it out. Hint: time)

    Unmarrieds tend to be less ethnically/religiously connected than marrieds.

    2/ For young males volunteering is a way to p/u chicks (Nawwwww). Fools them into thinking you’re caring, sharing, the whole bit.

    3/ Google ‘community service’

  5. Shirley Gould

    It’s very interesting to me that the research appears to be centered on what a volunteer might do for others. If the subjects were all young Jews, I’d like to know how they view themselves and their place in the world as JEWS. I think that is preliminary to how they function as volunteers.


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