The real question about the new survey conducted by Laszlo Strategies for JerusalemU – an online portal for Jewish and Israel education (read about JerusalemU here) - is really one about the meaning of "Jews who are somehow engaged in the community". The survey is an interesting poll of 1874 Jews, but the responses to it are pretty far from the responses to other polls we have seen. The key is the sample. This poll "was done online and was sent to email addresses associated with JerusalemU as well as several other Jewish databases". So it's a poll of - well, that's the question – a poll of what demographic exactly? The authors tell us that it's a poll of "Jews who are somehow engaged", but I suspect it's more like a poll of the highly committed. The difference between "somehow" and "highly" is meaningful because it has real impact on the way we read the numbers and the meaning we attribute to them.
Let's look at the numbers: 45% percent of the group of Jews aged 18-29 who were polled "attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva, 56 percent went to Jewish summer camp, 81 percent had a bar/bat mitzvah, 46 percent were involved in a Jewish youth group before college, while 10 percent had not done any of these". These numbers are very high, as we can easily see by comparing them to other polls. For example, in the 2012 Workman's Circle survey, 9% of Jews polled attended a day school. In the JerusalemU poll 30% of the total attended a day school. So we established the fact that the new poll doesn't represent the "North American Jewish community".
Still, I find the numbers interesting (I find all numbers interesting), among other things because of the differences between younger and older respondents in the same poll. For instance, compared to the highly engaged younger group, only 24% of the older group (50+) attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva" and only "58 percent had a bar/bat mitzvah". Obviously, among this sample we see a surge in Jewish practice among the younger generation. Why?
I asked the authors of the poll for the cross-tabs of Jewish streams by age groups, since one of the reasons for this difference could be found in the makeup of those different groups – the percentage of young Orthodox vs. older Orthodox is probably a key – and Meagan Buren was kind enough to make the effort and gather some data for me. Alas, this was a waste of precious time. Or maybe not: looking at the date I can now say that the small differences of Jewish streams by age groups don't explain the difference in Jewish practice. Among the young age group, 26.1% are Orthodox, while in the old group 24% are Orthodox. These differences are minor for the Orthodox and for the other streams as well.
So we need to look for other possible reasons for this surge in practice among the young, and there are several such possible reasons: the better Jewish services available today, the higher awareness of the need to participate in such activities among those who want to keep the Jewish tribe alive, different characteristics of younger and older Jews associated with JerusalemU, and more. At a press briefing earlier today Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi hinted at an intriguing option: since the older generation feels strongly about Judaism, it was willing to spend more money on giving the younger generation more robust Jewish schooling, hence creating the surge in education and practice among the young cohort.
We see a similar difference in the way the respondents to this survey talk about Israel. Younger Jews have a weaker connection to Israel – a phenomenon with which we are familiar – than older Jews. "87 percent of Jews polled over the age of 50 strongly agree that 'caring about Israel is a very important part of my being Jewish'. Ten percent somewhat agree, 2 percent disagree and 1 percent were not sure. However, Jews ages 18-29 strongly agree at 66 percent, 25 percent somewhat agree, 6 percent disagree and 3 percent were not sure". Again, we first have to note that the numbers for both young and older are very high. In the 2012 AJC survey of Jewish opinion less than 39% of Jews "strongly" agreed that "Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew", 32% "approved" of the statement, and the disagree section (somewhat + strongly) had about 27%. That is very different from what we get in the JerusalemU survey.
And yet, if we look at the numbers of the new poll as representative not of the "community", but rather of a very specific group of highly committed Jews, the differences between age groups are still interesting. For the young, more practice and a little less "peoplehood", for the older, less practice and little more peoplehood. Of course, the question remains as to what happens to the young when they become older. According to recent studies, the issue of Israel is likely to be a "life cycle" issue – namely, the older Jews get the more attached they become. But whether this formula also works for a group that is already highly committed isn't clear. On the one hand, we might expect such Jews to follow this pattern of strengthening ties even more strongly than other Jews, on the other hand, maybe for such committed Jews there is no life cycle pattern similar to the one we see with a regular sample of Jews.
Bottom line? There's a group of highly committed and highly engaged Jews out there. We don't exactly know how large it is, but we do know it's there. Maybe it's not redundant to mention that in this era of emphasis on outreach and inclusiveness in Jewish life, paying some attention and remembering not to neglect this core group is still important.