Religion & Jewish Life

Study: Young Jews volunteer, but don’t connect to Judaism

Participants in a 2011 Yeshiva University Alternative Break program in Nicaragua, run throught he American Jewish World Service, learn to connect volunteer service to their Jewish values. (American Jewish World)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Most young Jews do some kind of volunteer service, but few do it through Jewish agencies or connect it to Jewish values.

Poverty, the environment, education and illiteracy are the areas that draw most young Jewish volunteers, with Israel-related work at the bottom of the list.

These are among the findings of a new study on Jewish young adult volunteerism commissioned by Repair the World, a national organization that promotes service as a defining element of Jewish life and learning.

“This is an idealistic, civically engaged population, and there are a lot of things to be done to deepen their involvement and connect it to Jewish values and the Jewish community,” said Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World.

The study, which surveyed some 2,000 Jews aged 18 to 35, could provide guidance to Jewish organizations seeking ways to involve young Jews in Jewish volunteer service, and for those that run service projects outside the Jewish community but wish to strengthen awareness of the work’s Jewish elements.

Respondents to the study, titled “Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults,” were drawn from a list of more than 300,000 applicants to the Birthright Israel program and a national online research panel. Forty-five percent of those contacted responded.

The study, conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications, found a very high level of volunteerism among its demographic. About 70 percent said they have volunteered in some capacity during the past year; 31 percent said they volunteer every few months; and 29 percent volunteer at least once a month, with 10 percent engaging in volunteer work weekly or more often. More than one-fifth have taken part in an intensive service project of one to 12 weeks, such as an alternative college break project.

Those who defined themselves as Orthodox had the highest volunteer rate (86 percent), with 77 percent of Reform, 66 percent of Conservative and 63 percent of those identifying as “Just Jewish” reporting some level of volunteer activity.

About 22 percent said they had volunteered through a Jewish organization, with 56 percent of the Orthodox respondents saying they did so.

The study showed that young Jewish volunteers are motivated by universalist values; “making a difference in people’s lives” was cited as the most important motivating factor.

About 78 percent of respondents said it did not matter whether the organization for which they volunteer is Jewish or non-Jewish, while 27 percent said their volunteer work was related to Jewish values.

Rosenberg opined that many young Jews do not volunteer through Jewish organizations because they don’t always know about the opportunities, and also because of the misperception that Jewish groups serve narrowly parochial interests.

Fern Chertok of the Cohen Center, the lead researcher on the study, said getting more young Jews to see the connection between their volunteer work and Jewish values is important, particularly for those who are not religiously observant.

“It allows them to see the work as a Jewish act,” she said.

The study showed a high correlation between one’s level of Jewish education and future volunteer work, as well as how clearly one views his or her service as being in line with Jewish values.

“The more service learning is incorporated into Jewish education, the more that connection will be made,” Rosenberg said.

Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America, said that “There are too many people who come away from their Jewish education with the sense that ‘doing Jewish’ is about doing particular rituals in particular places, and if these are not attractive to them, they may not see a Jewish connection to their volunteer work.”

Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, which runs projects in the Third World in which participants also learn about the Jewish values underlying their work, said Jews are interested in Jewish service learning, but the community needs to provide more opportunities. Jewish organizations, she noted, don’t ask for volunteers often enough.

The study provided material that Jewish organizations could use to develop more volunteer opportunities that correspond to the actual interests of younger Jews.

While just 1 percent of survey respondents reported doing Israel-related volunteer work, 9 percent said they would like to perform such work. And while 13 percent already volunteer in the field of education and literacy, mainly tutoring or mentoring, 37 percent said they would be interested in such service.

“If you can interest more young Jews who want to volunteer with quality programs in the Jewish community,” Messinger told JTA, “they’ll get a deeper sense of their Jewish identity and will feel further invested in their Jewish community.”