(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last year’s Pew study on American Jewry has been “misused and abused” by Jewish organizations across the political and religious spectrum, an American Jewish leader told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
The study, which was published last October, indicated a steep decline in religious identity among American Jews and a concurrent rise in intermarriage. This trend dovetailed with declining support for Israel among the younger generation, although overall support for the Jewish state remained high among those surveyed.
Furor raised by the Pew study has largely taken over the agenda of many Jewish institutions. Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein told the Post that “there are people who are using [the study] to make ideological arguments or to justify their points of view, and misinterpret some of the findings.”
While the findings are “serious,” he continued, they contain “a lot of facts that have to be carefully studied, and it has to be a lot more carefully dealt with than it is.
There are people who have exploited it and who have jumped on certain numbers and said it means you have to do this or that before they really had a chance to understand it and check the research to see if it is all verified or not.”
Hoenlein granted an interview to the Post
in advance of a conference of presidents mission expected in Israel next week. He said that a separate study his organization had commissioned, of American attitudes toward Israel and the Jews, indicated that across a wide spectrum of Americans, including Jews, knowing the right arguments to make had significant results in building sympathy for Israel.
His report, which he does not yet intend to publish for public consumption, indicates that “people are not so much alienated from Israel as they are becoming indifferent,” he said.
During a conference last week, Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research for Pew, stated that “most tellingly, younger Jews in [the] US, while no less religiously observant, are less attached to the State of Israel.”
Many in the organized Jewish world have bemoaned the lessening of Jewish identification among Millennials and the correlated drop in support for Israel, positing a causal relationship.
Hoenlein agreed with this but offered hope, reiterating his longtime stance that “if you give them the right arguments, they shift right back” to being supporters of Israel.
However, he said, “there is definitely a correlation, and clearly those who are more interested and more involved visited Israel more and are going to be much more sympathetic and concerned.”
Calling for a smorgasbord approach to Judaism, in which young Jews are presented with various means of expressing their Jewish identity, Hoenlein said that you have to bring people into the community to truly reach them.
“There is a real hunger for information and connection, [but] maybe not in the traditional ways,” he said.
Hoenlein also explained that the younger generation is less interested in facts, context and history and has a shorter attention span, making Israel’s case harder to make when compared to sound bites and photographs showing the plight of the Palestinian refugees.
However, he added, the organized Jewish community is beginning to engage younger Jews to reach out to their contemporaries in ways that the older generation of Jewish leaders is just not equipped to do.
Jewish organizations must “get feedback and hear more from young people,” Hoenlein said.