Culture, Global, Identity, Israel, Justice, Politics, Religion

Generation of Change: How Leaders in Their Twenties and Thirties Are Reshaping American Jewish Life

Jack Wertheimer and his team of sociologists and researchers have just released an incredibly informative report (PDF) examining the demographics, experiences, and work of young Jewish leaders, stemming from hundreds of interviews and thousands of survey responses.  Notably, it avoids characterizing all activities undertaken by such people as necessarily “anti-establishment,” while delving far more deeply into the actual views they hold than any such study or article I’ve seen before.  It covers just about every aspect of Jewish life, sorting Jewish organizational endeavors into three categories: protective, progressive, and expressive.  The report files most older established organizations (AIPAC, AJC, ADL, etc.) under the “protective” category: they exist to protect some component of Jewishness (or Israel).  Progressive organizations are those focused on causes such as environmentalism or social service, and expressive organizations are those specifically oriented toward new methods of Jewish expression.
It’s also notable that the report spends a fair amount of time analyzing how “establishment” organizations have been extremely important in actually creating these leaders: many have gone to day school and Jewish camps, and newer cutting-edge Jewish organizations are to a great extend funded and supported by older ones.
This dynamic receives less attention within the Jewish community than it should, in my view with important consequences.  New organizations are often responses to perceived deficiencies in the existing system, not necessarily attempts to reject it out of hand.  So even while older Jews and establishment organizations fund the newer ones, Jews at large often perceive the two as diametrically opposed.  This isn’t to say “there’s more unity in the Jewish community than you think” (I hate the “we actually all agree” argument – it’s stupid to try to sugarcoat internal divisions), just that young Jews get a bad rap as being uninterested in anything establishment.  The flip side, which the report also covers, is that young Jews need to be less reactionary in distancing themselves from the establishment.
Check out the full report for more in-depth analysis of current trends in Jewish organizations and communities.
P.S. I used the word “establishment” six times in this post.  Actually, now it’s seven.  Anyone have an idea for a better word?  I’m a bit tired of it.

14 thoughts on “Generation of Change: How Leaders in Their Twenties and Thirties Are Reshaping American Jewish Life

  1. I was a part of this study, but I’m trying to figure out if they ended up classifying me as “non-establishment” or “establishment”. I’m gonna go with establishment.

  2. I was digging through the tables yesterday. One of the factors that I don’t think got enough attention in the text or the other write-ups is that the responses for the establishment non-establishment divide were similar for the younger AND old leaders groups. The big difference was that for certain issues, like most Israel questions, there was a non-trivial drop in agreement across all young leaders. For example, in table 2, they asked whether the leaders worry about threats to Israel’s security. For young & old separately, there is an exactly 20 point drop from establishment to non-establishment. There is an additional, 16 point drop for old to young. This looks much more like a generational divide than something that has to do with non-establishment leaders.
    The other interesting things how upbringing was more important than education with the young leaders (table 7) For all the talk of day schools, “parents active in Jewish life” and “parents attended services 2 or more times per month” was a much more common in younger than older leaders. 1/4 or 1/5 of young leaders has parents who were communal professionals vs 1/10 for the older leaders. For the comments about how it’s amazing 40% of young leaders went to day school when less than 10% of children go to day school, how many Jewish children had parents who were communal professionals?
    As a “young leader” I definitely don’t see a clear divide between establishment & non-establishment. I dislike specific long-term organizations that seem to have strayed from fulfilling their mission, but I was still on the board of directors of a synagogue at age 25. I have dreams of putting together new youth education models, but there’s no question it would be done in collaboration with existing organizations.
    Regarding terminology, I think all terms are lousy. One benefit of “establishment” is that it revels in it’s fuzziness. I was trying to think of more precise terms, but more precise wording created a list of exceptions to the rule. A fuzzy term can’t have exceptions and highlights there’s no clean boundary.

    1. Dan writes:
      For all the talk of day schools, “parents active in Jewish life” and “parents attended services 2 or more times per month” was a much more common in younger than older leaders. 1/4 or 1/5 of young leaders has parents who were communal professionals vs 1/10 for the older leaders. For the comments about how it’s amazing 40% of young leaders went to day school when less than 10% of children go to day school, how many Jewish children had parents who were communal professionals?
      When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a day school.

  3. The attitudes about Israel are different along generational lines because there’s a HUGE difference between people who grew up with the Rabin assassination and the intifadas, and people who grew up during the Six Day War. It’s easier for the older generation to defend the Occupation and the whole Zionist project. Even for those who still want to do so in our generation, it’s really hard to do. It’s pretty easy to meet young Jews that identify with an Israeli left that doesn’t really exist any more. The notion of Israeli culture, Modern Hebrew language being appealing IN PLACE of Zionism, as the survey suggests, is interesting. Perhaps Reb Kaplan has been vindicated from the grave, and Judaism as a Civilization IS the future of the Diaspora. Although, things might be different if there was a Palestinian state, which may happen in the near future. That would be an emergence that would change the whole equation.

  4. David, Yes there are more Jewish professionals, but 20% of Jewish leaders being their children is still hugely disproportionate. I’d also venture that it biases the other numbers since said professionals were more likely to send their children to day schools (cheaper tuition in some cases?) My take home message from this survey is that people brought up in a strong Jewish environment are more likely to have active connections to it than those who merely got formal Jewish education in any form.
    While I agree that the survey summaries put to much meaning behind the single day school question, I want to applaud Wertheimer and the Avi Chai foundation for presenting sufficient tabular information to allow readers to form their own interpretations.

  5. I also took the survey.  Some thoughts and responses…
    1) I was interested to see that in the executive summary they characterized those young Jews who continue to participate in the “protective” organizations of the OJC as “socioeconomically more secure.”  We also learn that these folks are pretty vapid.  “Some young participants are attracted to “the upper-class nature of the receptions.” Some people… “want to be in the room with … elegant and important people and drink champagne” (p. 33).
    This will have interesting implications for the funding structure of the Jewish community as these rich and parochial folks continue to invest their class privilege into the dinosaur organizations.  Bottom line, as fervently as we may wish the ADL would go away (or return to it’s core mission of fighting bigotry in America), it seems like the rich kids of the next generation are happy to keep it afloat.
    2) Though they are clearly trying to be impartial, the right wing bias of the report is front and center (no surprise with Wertheimer at the helm).  For example, those involved in “progressive” organizations are said to be working for “what they regard as justice for Palestinians.”  Those who participate in “protective” organizations are never described as working for organizations that they regard as protecting Jews.  I would argue that their general stance on Israel tends in imperil Jews.  Likewise “so called ‘progressive politics”” are described as a feature of Boston and San Francisco, though the ADL is never referred to as a so called Jewish defense organization.  The rhetoric of defense organizations is taken at face value, while the rhetoric of those working for universal causes is undermined.
    3) They find that non-Zionist Jews can be connected to Israel.  On the one hand I am heartened to see this kind of complexity showing up in the research.  In this respect the right is correct.  Many of those who work for and support progressive Israel organizations are not Zionists.  They are invested in brining human rights and true democracy to a state that acts in their name.  Many recognize that the best way toward that (impossible as it may seem) are two ethno-national states.  I think many of these folks would be happy for democracy to come without Zionism.  I am heartened to see that this is a significant enough dynamic to show up in the study.  It means that there are many more non-Zionist Jews than it appears, because many of them are working for Zionist organizations.
    On the other hand, it clearly show how ridiculous questions of “connection” are.  In this study they asked two nonsensical questions regarding “caring for Israel” and “attachment to Israel.”  These questions are non-sensical because they presume commensurability of positive and negative responses.  Those who think of their relationship in terms of care have no problem answering this question.  Those who think of their relationship in other terms (critique, fatigue, indifference, embarrassment) cannot answer the question.
    I never know how to answer the survey question, “how connected are you to Israel?”  I’ve lived there, I follow the news, I contribute to organizations building democracy in Israel and Palestine and I think that political Zionism is essentially flawed.  Am I “connected” to Israel?  Yea, like someone chained to a monster.
    4) The study highlights the dependency of anti-establishment organizations on funding from establishment foundations.  Most folks I know working in that sector clearly acknowledge this. I think we all do a particular dance whereby we pitch programs to the funders in terms of Jewish identity, Jewish numbers, and Jewish babies, and we pitch them to our peers in terms of meaning and social good.  This uneasy marriage is working at the moment, but I don’t know how long it will last.
    The importance of foundation funding of anti-establishment programs (see p. 29) is ironically, part of the de-democratization of American Jewish organizational life.  Federations, as lumbering as they are, still had decision making processes that one could participate in.  It took some money, but not millions.  Now the major funds for Jewish life, the family foundations, have zero democratic structures.  This makes the funding that much more tenuous and capricious.
    Coupled with #1 above, that means that if the continuity crisis mentality that feeds these money streams fades (which many in the antiestablishment sector hope it will), the funding will dry up as well.  This is a huge problem for progressive and innovative voices in Jewish culture.  The Revolution will not be Funded.  We are going to need to think hard about how to create either a self-supporting network (like the NIF has done) or self supportive local communities if we do not want to continue to be sleeping with our right-wing funding sources.
    5) They conclude the executive summary by saying “The coming challenge will be to find overarching causes and commonalities to bridge the fragmenting population of American Jews.”  This assertion is totally unsupported and unwarranted.  It assumes that their needs to be or should be commonality that unifies American Jews.  It is unclear to me why we should ever step back into the myth of “we are one.”  It was a myth then, and it continues to be both normatively and descriptively false.  The quicker we can get away from this demand for unity, the quicker we can start thinking seriously about what our diverse Jewish futures can look like.
    On another note, AviChai gave our own Sarah Chandler smicha. Congratulations Sarah.  Jewschool itself gets a shout-out on p. 30.

  6. CoA, do me a favor and please give yourself a high-five from me.
    “Am I “connected” to Israel? Yea, like someone chained to a monster.” Genius.

  7. Perhaps Reb Kaplan has been vindicated from the grave, and Judaism as a Civilization IS the future of the Diaspora
    For my part, I think that Reb Kaplan was vindicated in his approach long before this.

  8. Looking at these data a bit more, I’m noticing a very significant sin of omission. Tables through the entire report talk about establishment, non-establishment, and mixed leaders. The mixed leaders are never discussed in the commentary since most of the “interesting” stuff is with these new non-establishment people. Tables 14-16 on pages 42-43 give the poll demographics. Over a third of respondents are in the mixed category! This is true for all ages. The differences between the other two categories are happening in the margins and, frankly, the fact that older people are slightly more represented in the establishment isn’t shocking and I expect it will always be true. (If a generation can’t become “the establishment” by the time they’ve gotten hold, it’s a screwed up generation). How can one read to much into a study that ignores interpreting a third of it’s sample?
    There are other, unavoidable, problems on how they define leaders, but there’s not clear discussion of these issues. I couldn’t define a clean definition anywhere in the article. For example were they only looking at synagogue rabbis or also presidents & board members. Limiting who can be defined a leader in a synagogue while using a more liberal “leader” criteria for AIPAC leaders would skew establishment results. It’s also not clear if they let people only be a leader for one organization or someone could lead multiple things and end up in the mixed category.

  9. As far as I understand leaders were those folks who self identified as such on the survey, 4000 out of 6000 respondents.
    Oh, and thanks Shmuel. High five right back atcha.

  10. I don’t know why I bothered to do this, but I also noticed they didn’t list their sample sizes by age and I was curious. Table 14 lists the sample sizes by leader type and table 15 lists the age breakdown in leader type by percentages. There were only two solutions for this system of equations where each of the 5 age groups was between 14 and 26% of the total population. These had 921 or 992 people aged 60+, 1142 or 1313 aged 50-59, 1033 or 917 aged 40-49, 659 or 727 aged 30-39, and 667 or 655 aged 20-29.
    That’s roughly 2/3 of the sample being older leaders and 1/3 of the sample being younger leaders. That means all data on the opinions of young establishment leaders were done using a sample of around 86 people aged 20-29 and around 180 people aged 30-39.

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