Younger non-Orthodox Jews are less attached to Israel but are more optimistic about achieving a two-state solution than older non-Orthodox Jews, according to data just released from the new Pew Research Center survey of the American Jewish community.
Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a lead researcher for the Pew survey, said the “decline in Israel attachment” was coupled with a “rise in criticism of Israeli government policies among younger non-Orthodox Jews.”
Cohen, who asked the Pew Research Center to extrapolate these figures for him so that he could discuss them on a conference call Monday with the Israel Policy Forum, said the numbers revealed also that only 30 percent of non-Orthodox Jews 18-29 agreed with the statement that “caring about Israel is an essential part of being Jewish,” compared to 52 percent of those 65 and older.
He said he asked Pew to separate the results of non-Orthodox Jews from the Orthodox because the Orthodox tend to be “passionately supportive of Israel” and are “so supportive of [Israeli] government policies.”
In large part because of the free Birthright trips to Israel, 39 percent of those 18-29 said they had been to Israel, compared with 47 percent of those 65 and older. As a result of those trips, Cohen said, “younger Jews are more attached than they would be otherwise.”
Nevertheless, “they are going to Israel more and yet their attachment levels are a lot less than those who are older,” Cohen said.
And younger Jews believe also that the U.S. slightly favors Israel over the Palestinians.
Cohen said he found “significant” the drop in attachment to Israel among those 18-29.
“That cries out for future elaboration and further research,” he told the IPF. “I would invest more in young people’s trips to Israel when they are in high school so that when they go on to college there will be a larger number of articulate young adults” knowledgeable about Israel.
“If I were the government of Israel, trips for 16- and 17-year-olds would be on the top of my agenda,” he added.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, spiritual leader of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, said his congregation has organized a Birthright trip for 40 Jews from the city between the ages of 22 and 26.
“This is the first time we are doing this,” he said. “Not only do we want to have face time with this age group, we want to do more than escort them on a 10-day trip. We want to get to know them so that when they come back and spend the rest of their lives in the U.S., they will be more open to being connected with the American Jewish community.”
He noted this his synagogue’s assistant rabbi, Diana Fersko, would be accompanying them on the trip, which begins Jan. 5.
“We put the trip together in partnership with Birthright and the Union for Reform Judaism,” Rabbi Hirsch said. “Synagogues can be helpful in recruiting and in connecting [young people] after they come back because they need to have lifelong affiliation.”
He said the Pew survey was just the latest to find that among younger Jews there is “less intensity in the commitment to Judaism, of which Israel is a component.
“I always felt that for Jews, the identification with Israel is a reflection of their Jewish commitment, irrespective of whether they support the policies of a government or a particular policy of Israel,” Rabbi Hirsch said.
“The more attached you are to Judaism, the more you tend to be attached to Israel. Israel is a function of Jewish commitment.”
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said he was not surprised that the older generation of Jews “who lived though Israel’s wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 have a primal connection to Israel.”
“Some of them lived through the Holocaust and have a deep and highly charged relationship to Israel’s very existence,” he said. “For younger Jews for whom Israel is just a study experience — these results are not surprising to me.”
Rabbi Skolnik said it is equally understandable that “there are more younger Jews who believe in the possibility of a two-state solution.” Older Jews, he said in effect, don’t take Israel for granted, remember the conflicts with the Palestinians and have the “primacy of Israel’s survival” uppermost in their minds.
He pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “verbally acknowledged a two-state solution. The fact that a majority of younger Jews accepts it is not a radical statement and may reflect a less rigid ideology than parents have.”
Rabbi Hirsch said he believes synagogues “must be more open” to those 18-29.
“We need to study carefully what Pew is telling us and reorient our entire philosophy for the 21st century. How do we engage younger people before they settle down and begin to raise families because if we don’t they may never do that.”
Rabbi Hirsch, who had been executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, noted that in the last five years he has had a number of synagogue trips to Israel and that 500 of his 2,000 congregants have participated.
“We will be taking another trip between December and March and 120 from this congregation will go,” he said.
Rabbi Skolnik said he believes “Israel has lost among certain sectors of the American Jewish population the incredible rose- colored blush it enjoyed, especially after 1967, when everything was a miracle and Israelis had made the desert bloom. As Israel is maturing into a real country with all of the differences it faces, it is not as easy to fall in love with the idea of Israel as it used to be. The challenge is to get more and more people to visit Israel and to understand and love the reality in all its complexity.”
For information about Stephen Wise’s Birthright trip, please visit http://www.gokesher.org.