From the Mouths of Children: Widening the Scope and Shifting the Focus of Understanding the Relationships Between American Jews and Israel

From Section:
Israel Education
Jan. 06, 2019

Source: Contemporary Jewry 


Scholars have spent considerable effort to uncover and explain the unique ways that contemporary American Jews think and feel about Israel, yet the voices of American Jewish children have been conspicuously absent from most research. American Jewish children—like the adults in their lives—have beliefs, opinions, and thoughts about Israel and its role in American Jewish life. This article makes two distinct yet interrelated arguments about the role of children in research on contemporary American Jews. The first is that children ought to be included in research about American Judaism. Second, the inclusion of children in research both widens the scope and shifts the focus of understanding American Jewish relationships to Israel.

Children’s participation in research demonstrates how American Jews develop relationships with Israel over the course of a lifetime. In addition, the methodological approaches that allow for the inclusion of children in research shift the focus of understanding away from a “deficit model” that measures participants’ knowledge and connection against an existing ledger, and towards an “inventory model” that takes stock of participants’ cognitive and emotional warehouses. This shift is essential for understanding what Israel means in the lives of American Jews of all ages.


American Jewish children, like American Jews of other age demographics, have ideas, beliefs, and opinions about Israel and its role in American Jewish life. This article has argued that including children’s voices allows for two important shifts in the discourse about contemporary American Jews’ relationships to Israel.

First, focusing on children makes it possible to see how people develop over the course of a lifetime. As Saxe and Boxer (2012) explain, “American Jews are not born with feelings of closeness and attachment [to Israel]” (95–96); nor are they born with an existing knowledge base. Yet many American Jews begin the process of learning about and connecting to Israel when they are children, and thus childhood offers an important window into understanding how American Jews develop a relationship to Israel over time.

Second, the research methods that allow for the inclusion of children necessarily operate on an inventory approach that attempts to uncover what children do understand and believe about Israel. This a departure from a more normative deficit approach that catalogues the insufficiencies in what Jews know and feel about Israel. Such a shift is important for honoring the lived experiences of contemporary American Jews—children and adults alike—and for capturing the ways that they understand and make sense of Israel.

Jewish children—like Jewish teens, young adults, and adults—are members of the Jewish community, engaged in an ongoing process of making sense of their own Jewish lives. For this reason alone they are worthy of inclusion in discussions about and research on contemporary American Judaism and American Jews’ relationships to Israel.

Yet there may be another important reason to focus research and policy efforts on Jewish children. While it has long been understood that a person’s sense of Jewishness often shifts well into adulthood, new research suggests that young Jews’ attitudes towards Israel may in fact shift very little between the teenage years and young adulthood (Pomson 2018). As Pomson (2018) explains, “their views, even though significantly more nuanced, are largely the same”. If this is widely true, then understanding the beliefs and attitudes of Jewish children becomes even more important, as childhood may be the time of greatest growth and transformation in a young Jew’s life. Only with future research that employs developmentally sensitive research methods and a commitment to the inclusion of Jewish children will it be possible to understand the full impact of Jewish childhood on American Jewish life and American Jews’ relationships to Israel


Pomson, Alex. 2018. Devoted, disengaged, disillusioned: The forces that shape a relationship with Israel. Berkeley, CA: Rosov Consulting

Saxe, Leonard, and Matthew Boxer. 2012. Loyalty and love of Israel by diasporan Jews. Israel Studies
17(2): 92–101

Updated: Jun. 26, 2019
Research | Children | Research methods | Israel