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Where Have All the Volunteers Gone?

Where Have All the Volunteers Gone?

Many young Jews are volunteering. The bad news is that very few of them want anything to do with Judaism.


In the 1990's, the Harvard social scientist Robert D. Putnam triggered national hand-wringing over his book Bowling Alone, which showed plummeting rates of voluntary and charitable activities among Americans, a people known since de Tocqueville's day as the world's most public-minded citizenry. Though some of Putnam's findings and conclusions were challenged, he brought to consciousness the degree to which the venerable American readiness to assume personal responsibility for community problems could not be simply taken for granted. That young people registered as much less likely to be "joiners" than their elders only underscored the point.

Many Jewish leaders shared these concerns. For them, the issue crystallized in the waning support for Jewish communal organizations like synagogues, schools, hospitals, and social-service agencies. Their worries sparked a vigorous campaign to stir the allegiances of young Jews and led to a proliferation of service groups with names like Avodah, Panim el Panim, and JCorps. One such organization, Repair the World (after the Hebrew phrase "tikkun olam"), has now produced the first national study of the results of this campaign, based on a poll of young Jewish adults aged eighteen to thirty-five.

The good news is that large numbers are indeed volunteering. The bad news is that very few of them want anything to do with Judaism.

The survey, conducted by Brandeis University's Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Washington polling company Gerstein/Agne, focused chiefly on former participants in Taglit-Birthright Israel, the American Jewish community's flagship investment in building Jewish identity among young people. Of those polled, a whopping 80 percent reported having volunteered during the previous twelve months. This puts Jewish youth far ahead of the general American population, among whom, in the past year, even the most educated showed only a 42-percent rate of volunteerism.

78 percent report indifference to the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish venues, with 18 percent of these actually expressing a preference for the latter.

But in one critical area, Jews are not only failing to hold their own but are markedly underperforming. When it comes to volunteering for religious groups, a venue that commands the primary attention of about one-third of Americans in general, the comparable figure for young Jews is only 22 percent. The remaining 78 percent report indifference to the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish venues, with 18 percent of these actually expressing a preference for the latter.

The charitable impulses of Jewish young people, the study finds, are more likely to be motivated by values like making "a difference in people's lives" or doing "something meaningful with friends or family" than by appeals to specifically Jewish purposes. Even invoking the supposedly all-encompassing Jewish obligation of tikkun olam is apt to carry less weight with them than an English-language, secularly-worded injunction, incumbent on all people, to help the needy.

What has gone wrong? Some of the responsibility may rest with the organizations themselves, which are mainly intent on increasing social activism tout court. To this end, they are focusing chiefly on educating their participants about hunger, homelessness, and other social problems, or on encouraging them to campaign for more generous public policies. (The website of one such group, Mazon, currently features a critique of proposals to reduce the federal budget for food stamps.) How Jewish ideas or beliefs might inform one's response to these issues typically receives little attention.

In addition, tikkun olam as a Jewish value has clearly lost whatever power it once had to motivate, let alone inspire. In its modern, secular incarnation, the term was already divorced from its original, specifically religious meanings; according to one of these, Jews are commanded to help create a world in which people will live according to God's laws. Instead, tikkun olam was reinterpreted as the impulse to act benevolently in the public sphere, and descended from there into a hackneyed cliché for supporting liberal or "progressive" social programs. Little wonder that, indistinguishable from other religious or secular rationales for charitable behavior, the phrase seems to have lost any specifically Jewish resonance.

Or, strangely enough, is the problem that it has too much Jewish resonance? So it would seem from the Repair the World study, which reports that, as a message, tikkun olam has become too particularistic for the majority of Jewish young adults, and that "it lacks the strength of a more universal message of helping individuals in need." Ironically, the study concludes that if the goal is to increase Jewish social activism, the organized community would do well to drop any conspicuously Jewish slogan or message. Whether doing so would increase participation in Jewish life itself, however, seems unlikely in the extreme.

This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.

July 9, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 13

(8) Diana, July 12, 2011 8:39 PM

To Leah and Anonymous

I appreciate your replies and your kind sentiments. In answer to your questions what I mean about my own internal religion is that I have taken what I like about Judaism and discarded what made me feel bad about it. I pray to G-d, I eat kosher meat, light Shabbos candles and give Tzedaka. I try not to do Lashon Hara and I try to be a decent, honest and good person treating others well. That is the extent of what I can do. Everything else in relation to it does not make me feel good. An orthodox relative told me that I am already doing a lot more than many people. I am sorry Leah, but at this point in my life I cannot take the risk of getting hurt again by trusting new people to teach me who I do not know if they are teaching it correctly or not. One of them might say something threatening and I simply cannot take that chance. I have heard too much already from respected spiritual leaders and rabbis in my community and they have let me down by making me feel bad to even be alive. It is as if they want to make you feel guilty for every little thing that you do in life It has taken me years to reach the peace that I now feel in relation to the religion and I do not want to lose it. The only thing that I can tell you is that the suffering that I went through was worthwhile because out of the few positive aspects of the lectures my belief in Hashem was born. It helped me to feel that there is a G-d and to appreciate everything He has given to me and my family. The psychologist who said that there are no worthwhile spiritual leaders in our community these days is a very spiritual person herself. She is Jewish and has also studied Torah. I think what she meant is that these people who taught me are not the correct spiritual leaders since they achieved the opposite with me by making me dislike the religion. Obviously we do not know all of the Jewish spiritual leaders that exist in the world, but the ones that we have encountered have not been so great so far.

(7) Diana, July 11, 2011 4:29 PM

This is to all the rabbis and spiritual leaders

If you want people to accept the religion you must not teach it by instilling fear. I got away from the religion because many lectures were about how if you do not do certain things your soul will suffer in this life or in the next life. It got to a point where I was terrified of G-d and fearful of living at all. An orthodox relative told me that I must get away from the religion because it could make me emotionally ill. When I got away from it I finally felt safe with G-d and have a much better feeling about Hashem that does not involve being terrified of Him. I have presented my case to orthodox people and nobody has been able to give me an answer on why they are teaching fear and threatning people into becoming religious otherweise they will suffer. That seems to violate the Torah by makng people get away from it instead of atracting them to it. I finally have peace of mind when it comes to religion and have developed my own internal religion which gives me much more happiness than the orthodox methods. One rabbi once said that we are not here to be happy. I thought the Torah requires us to be happy. So which is it? A psychologist said that the Jewish people do not have any spiritual leaders who are worthwhile following nowadays. So we have to develop our own religion inside of ourselves. I agree with this.

Leah, July 12, 2011 9:56 AM

G-d is loving

Dear Diana, I felt so bad to read about the fears that people put into you about religion. You are %100 right that this is not the correct approach and also it is not even the truth. I became religious when I was a teenager many years ago and what brought me close to H-shem was love, feeling such love for Him for all that He does for us and wanting to fulfill His Torah out of this love. I married a yeshiva boy who eventually became a rosh yeshiva and today we are already grandparents. Our children and grandchildren are all very religious and as happy as can be. It says in Tehilllim "Ibdu es H-shem b'simcha" Serve H. with happiness "bo lifanov b'nirna" come in front of Him with joy, "ki H. hu Elokim" because H. is G-d. (our G-d). Of course a Jew is supposed to be happy. And the Torah requires us to be happy. Happy because we are Jewish and because G-d chose us and gave us His Torah and because we are alive and have the opportunity to serve G-d. And happy with all the many blessings He bestows upon us. But I'm wondering what you mean by your "own internal religion", if you would want to explain this. The psychologist who said that we don't have spiritual leaders who are worth following is absolutley wrong. Either he has no connection with religious Judaism at aall and is ignorant of what is going on, or he is anti, in either case I would advise you to keep away from him. We live in Jerusalem but we do have connections in the States and if you want to tell me which city you are from perhaps we could find you a nice friendly nonthreatening group of friends and rabbis. (What age bracket do you fit into?) The best thing might be for you to come to Israel for a year and study in one of the seminaries here, either " Iyat "or "Nevei" for balei tshuva. They have all levels and you will find the warmest, most loving and caring staff you could ever imagine. With love and best wishes, Leah

Anonymous, July 12, 2011 2:45 PM

To Diana here to be happy or not other?

Seems like your teachers may not have been a good fit for you.Ethics of the fathers tells us to educate a child according to his way. The Hebrew word for fear is I was taught is much better translated as awe, although more complicated than able to explain here.The Rabbi was right in saying that we are not put on this earth to be happy, however he needed to add that if one is not happy one won't be able to accomplish what one was put on this earth for,hence we are commanded to be happy. "Serve the Almighty with simcha"One needs to learn how.[google aish 48 ways happy, for good place to start.] The psychologist's statement that we do not have any worthwhile spiritual leaders to follow today seems to me to be false,but it's also irrelevant for what you are seeking. For a teacher you only need to find someone more spiritually developed than yourself. The fact that you are reading and commenting on Aish seems to indicate that you want to grow. That you were able to develop your own internal religion which gives you happiness seems to me to show that you have been blessed with skills which you'll need to grow further. "The purpose of religion is to make man happy,the purpose of Judaism is to make man great" Strive to be great. I hope this blurb helps .Good luck and may you be blessed in your efforts.

(6) Andy, July 11, 2011 3:14 PM

Orthodox and secular seem may need a change in direction

A part of Hillel's quote "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?seems to apply on a communal level. I may be mistaken but it seems to me it may be a positive step if more Orthodox volunteer in areas that are not exclusively Jewish/religious, and more non Orthodox volunteer in areas that are more insular effecting Jews directly. The Orthodox who have benefited from a traditional Jewish education have the responsibility to take the lead in this area. It seems unrealsitic to expect a person from an assimilated background who is Jewishly ignorant to volunteer for Jewish causes. I recently read Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's" Kol Dodi Dofek."In it he seems to be rebuking the US Orthodox community to task [written in 1956!] for not settling the land of Israel, and for not reaching out with love to less observant Jews who grew up without the benefit of a Jewish education. I believe Rav Noach Weinberg and the Lubavitcher Rebbe at times expressed some similar sentiments. With God's help more Jews will be reached through Aish and other outreach organizations and at the same time more who already know will do more.That should go a long way towards increasing volunteerism among Jews for Jewish causes while continuing to allow Jews to volunteer for apprpropiate causes that directly benefit a wider population.

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