We may find it convenient to believe that because young adults in our community are not exhibiting the same historically Jewish behaviors as their parents, they do not feel a strong connection to Jewish life. Nevertheless, consistently, when polled, millennial Jews report having strong, positive feelings about being Jewish. They have simply chosen to embody their Jewishness in different ways than Jews of previous generations. An often cited illustration of this is that millennials, as a cohort, have not joined synagogues in the same numbers that their parents and grandparents did at a similar life stage.
In the philanthropic space, this plays out in the context of which causes Jewish millennials choose to support. Whereas older generations might have chosen primarily to support Jewish agencies — even those serving primarily non-Jewish populations — emerging generations often choose to support secular organizations, believing that those in need should be helped regardless of religion.
Tzedakah, righteous giving, is deeply embedded in the fabric of Jewish life. It is central to how we understand who we are as Jews. Why, then, is this value now being expressed on more universalist terms? A few theories merit consideration:
The lived experiences of the Jewish baby boomer and millennial communities have differed greatly. Older Jews intuitively knew that only our community would support distinctly Jewish causes, and therefore they experienced the necessity for their charitable donations to be specifically directed in order to provide critical services to Jews in need. Young Jews, by contrast, have grown up in a time in which Jewish Americans are not only well integrated into the broader society, but have arguably become one of the most affluent and educated groups in North America. In essence, as our people have been embraced by and benefitted from American life, the need for our historically Jewish institutions has come into question.
As our understanding of the dynamics of our increasingly global, “flat” world (to use the parlance of Thomas Friedman) have evolved, those who care passionately about addressing inequity, inequality, and insufficiency in all the places they exist are increasingly challenged with whether it makes sense to prioritize giving locally, parochially, or religiously.
Many of our Jewish institutions may lag behind the considerable advances in strategic marketing and fundraising practices. In many cases, they lack the critical capacity to secure the necessary philanthropic support, particularly from next generation donors. Other philanthropic causes simply market themselves more
The explanation of this shift is likely a combination of the above and many other complex, interwoven factors. This change represents a significant challenge to the Jewish institutions historically funded by Jewish donors. Instead of experiencing the transformation underway as a scourge on the future of Jewish life, a trend that we desperately strive to reverse, I encourage our leaders to consider an alternative approach.
The willingness of the millennial generation to experience their Jewish values by supporting causes in the general community is, in many ways, the achievement of our greatest ambitions. They are, after all, each acting as “a light unto the nations.” Charitable giving is a noble and valuable endeavor that sustains our community and enables positive change to occur. As our millennials emerge as the leaders and shapers of the future of American life, they do so amidst a deep commitment to advance core Jewish values.
Jewish donors are representatives of the strength of our tradition of tzedakah and the goodness of Jewish life. They serve as examples of the kindness in our hearts and our ability to empathize with all of those in need around us. These millennial donors, as generations before them, have the right to choose where their funds are allocated, to causes distinctively Jewish and otherwise.
Our challenge in today’s landscape is how to best equip our generations-old Jewish agencies and institutions to shift, change, and adapt to this ever-developing philanthropic landscape.
One of the principal responsibilities of emerging leaders in our Southern Arizona Jewish community will be to advance and sustain compelling Jewish offerings that inspire all those who identify with Jewish life to make an enduring commitment to support what matters most. After all, in every generation we have transformed ourselves relative to the changing world around us. This moment requires nothing less than our flexibility, innovation, and resilience, all of which we have in abundance.
Graham Hoffman is the president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.