June 23rd, 2011
10:03 AM ET
By Joe Sterling, CNN
(CNN) – The fervent instinct for social action that energized Jewish-Americans when they fought for workers' rights and civil rights, rallied for the creation of a Jewish state, and battled all sorts of bigotry throughout the 20th century still percolates.
But the fire is burning more sporadically, is not necessarily connected to Judaism, and it doesn't "significantly embrace" Israel, according to a poll released Thursday by Repair the World, a group that promotes volunteering among Jews.
The survey is a snapshot of preferences and habits of young Jewish adult volunteers. And many will be surprised by its findings, which shows that those volunteers tend to be motivated by universal rather than Jewish values.
Only 27% say their volunteering is be based on Jewish values, the survey found. And 78% say it doesn't matter whether they volunteer with a Jewish or a non-Jewish organization.
Most "do not participate in a volunteer activity under Jewish auspices," with just 18% reporting a preference for giving time to Jewish organizations or synagogues over other non-profits.
A new generation of American Jews are compelled by issues in their own backyard - like poverty and illiteracy - rather than the faraway flashpoint of Israel, the survey found.
Nine percent are animated by Israel and Middle East peace, while 36% are stimulated by material assistance to the needy, 30% to education and literacy and 29% to the environment.
Young Jewish adults "are primarily drawn to service through universal values rather than Jewish-based values or identity," the polling analysis found. Only "a very small portion of Jewish young adults volunteer as a means to represent the Jewish community to the larger society," the analysis said.
Young Jewish volunteers are frustrated by a perceived lack of satisfying volunteer opportunities in the Jewish world, the survey found.
"Much of the volunteer work of Jewish young adults is comprised of local efforts to ameliorate disparities in economic resources and educational opportunity and often entails activities such as collecting, sorting, and distributing goods," the polling analysis said.
The survey was produced to help shape strategies to generate interest among young Jews in volunteering, an activity that should become a "normative Jewish rite of passage," says Jon Rosenberg, chief executive officer of the New York-based Repair the World.
This snapshot of the volunteer behavior and thinking of young Jewish adults - "Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young" - is based on the responses of 951 Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 35.
It was conducted as a collaborative effort with the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications.
Most of the sample is drawn from the applicant pool of Taglit-Birthright Israel, the group that sponsors free trips to Israel for young Jews.
The study says it's likely that Orthodox respondents, non-college graduates, and children of intermarried parents are under-represented. At the same time, Repair the World’s poll analysis says that the sample is diverse and "in many ways resembles known characteristics of the U.S. Jewish population."
The picture drawn by the survey is of a busy community trying to juggle its schooling and work life with volunteering.
Many of these respondents can only be politically and civically involved in a tangential way because of time and economic constraints, the survey found. As people focus on getting their degrees and developing their careers, they can only devote so much time to volunteer work.
The majority of Jewish young adults "participate in some form of volunteer work but many do so only sporadically," the poll findings say.
"Only 45% report civic behaviors that require an active effort, such as participating in demonstrations or attending a government meeting."
Volunteerism tends to run in the family. Young Jewish adults who volunteer are most likely to have participated in high school volunteering and lived in a household where their parents volunteered, the poll showed.
"Women and those who come from homes with one non-Jewish parent are also more likely to volunteer, although not more likely to become regular volunteers," the study said.
Israel and the Middle East and issues involving conflict resolution generate some but not as much inspiration for Jewish-Americans seeking volunteer opportunities.
The issue with that has the largest focus of primary volunteer work is "material assistance to the needy" at 16%. Service to the Jewish community comes in fifth at 8% and Israel/Middle East peace stands at 1% in this category.
"I was very surprised where Israel ranked," Rosenberg said. "That's an area where a lot of work can be done."
But, it said, they do not know what opportunities exist and "of greater concern, they do not perceive Jewish volunteer options as addressing their most deeply held concerns."
Rosenberg said he was also surprised by the survey’s finding that young Jews do not think there are Jewish volunteer options that speak to their deepest concerns.
Rosenberg said, the poll "charts a path" to help deal with what is an "idealistic" and engaged" population.
"Although there is certainly an important role for Jewish organizations to play, and it is critical for them to do a better job of contacting Jewish young adults and connecting them to service, it is also imperative to understand that participation through Jewish organizations is unlikely to form the conduit toward volunteering for most," the poll said.
The survey called for a number of strategies to "more effectively engage Jewish young adults in service."
They include starting early to build the "habit of volunteering," expanding "volunteer options that relate to core concerns," such as helping the poor, and working with non-Jewish organizations.
One significant strategy is framing the act of volunteering as a Jewish act, according to Repair the World, whose name is based on the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, or repairing the world, a concept in Judaism referring to social action and community service.
Ironically, many of the people who enthusiastically volunteer but see their inspiration as universal might not realize that their interest in public service passed down from their parents and passed along by their friends could stem from the Jewish values that their parents and grandparents imbibed.
"With limited Jewish background and few current connections to religious life, most contemporary Jewish young adults are simply unaware of the deep roots of social justice and helping in Jewish tradition and text," the poll analysis says.
"Even when they know that these values exist, Jewish young adults who identify as non-Orthodox or are not religiously involved may be uncomfortable taking on the mantle of a Jewish perspective,” the analysis says.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.