The Vast and the Varied: American Jews and Jewish Life Today

May 18, 2017

Source: Jewish Federations of North America


These are dynamic and exciting times to be an American Jew and, more importantly, to “do Jewish.” Old rules and restrictions about what constituted “appropriate” Jewish engagement have seemingly gone by the wayside. People are encouraged — even empowered by organizations — to discover experiences and learning that may tap into their Jewish identities and expression. If someone finds personal meaning in an experience, an activity, or a text with even remote connection to Judaism — great. That pursuit of meaning and relevance is what many people today, especially young people, understand to be essential to being Jewish, and to being alive.

Fast-forward to the present, and the landscape of American Jewish life continues to evolve at a rapid pace. A few of the new organizations with which we are fortunate to work are indicative of a dynamic blend of old and new; of the platform Israel can provide for various forms of engagement; and the continued personal desire many have for empowerment and for community.

Following are three examples—programs with a national reach and several years of data:

  • OneTable is engaging young adults in one of our oldest and most sacred traditions—Shabbat dinner—and supporting them to reimagine it in ways that are comfortable for them and their often diverse group of peers. OneTable’s philosophy that “there are numerous ways to make a Friday evening meal ‘Jewish’” cultivates this feeling of comfort. As a result, almost half of all OneTable guests credit the project with their interest in making Shabbat dinner a regular part of their lives.
  • Onward Israel offers young adults an opportunity to spend an extended time in Israel in an internship or other professional development experience that speaks to their career aspirations—not with text study or traditional sightseeing as the primary reason. The data show that when Onward participants return home, they are more likely to take on leadership roles in their Jewish community, including organizing and leading Jewish social, cultural and religious events.
  • Honeymoon Israel, a short-term Israel experience that attracts a significant number of interfaith couples, LGBTQ couples and couples where one Jewish partner may have significantly less prior engagement in Jewish life, is actively building a more welcoming community than in previous generations. Honeymoon Israel trip participants are told that “they are all part of the Jewish family.” Nine months later this has a ripple effect as couples maintain connections and build community with each other.

There is no longer — if there ever was — a one-size-fits-all profile of what the North American Jew looks like. These three examples show us how varied our audience is even within a single demographic, in this case young adults. These individuals have different beliefs — about religion, spirituality and G-d — and perspectives and goals about what they want to get out of Jewish life.

What do the programs that serve these young adults have in common? They create opportunities — sometimes in partnership with, but no longer confined to, major institutions — and they help people create and tailor experiences aligned with their passions and interests. We might even say that these programs, spurred by a groundswell of demand, are encouraging young adults in particular to expect this from Jewish life, just as they do in other areas of life.

Read the entire post at the Jewish Federations of North America.

Updated: Jul. 05, 2017