I am not a number, but a young Jew

Why have we become so content at being the people of the poll?

nefesh olim 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
nefesh olim 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Here’s a tip for the budding social scientist looking to strike funding gold – examine the attitudes of young American Jews. As any Jewish foundation worth its endowment salt is eagerly funding those attempting to peer into the minds of Jewish youth. Indeed, the resulting stream of survey data, focus groups and research studies tells a seemingly unequivocal story. Jews under the age of 35 are less traditional and more estranged from the Jewish establishment and Israel than their parents and grandparents.
Yisrael Wolman, for example, wrote recently on Ynetnews that “young Jewish Americans today are free of their parents’ and grandparents’ primeval fear of the ‘gentile’ environment, great caution and, of course, of the axioms regarding the State of Israel as a substitute for religion, a home for the Jews, or a doomsday shelter.”
There is, of course, a caveat to such a neat conclusion. Other research points to the increasing weight of young Orthodox and conservative Jews who vote Republican (largely due to the Republicans supposedly better position on Israel) in contrast to an aging and liberal older generation which remains steadfastly Democratic. In other words, many commentators take the BP gambit toward the oil spill – they explain exactly what is happening, except in those cases where they cannot.
I, for instance, am under 35, consider myself a Zionist, am Orthodox by practice and work professionally in the field of Israel education to boot. Yet I am liberal by political belief, ambivalent about the role of most established Jewish organizations and voted for President Barack Obama. To which trend line do I belong?
This research, however, is only symptomatic of a general proliferation of statistics about the American Jewish community. Do you want to know the intermarriage rate? Voting patterns? Levels of Jewish institutional giving? Don’t worry, as to borrow from Apple’s line, there is a survey for that. President Bill Clinton was criticized for maintaining a poll-driven administration, yet increasingly we are content to be a people-of-the-poll.
I AM not saying these figures are not interesting, factual or make for ideal water cooler discussions. What disturbs me is how such descriptive data has become a prescriptive recipe for institutional decision making, with policies toward the next generation being only the most egregious example. Statistics point to declining affiliation among younger Jews with the community? Okay, let’s dumb down the content and focus on the low hanging fruit of throwing them parties!
Statistical trends are a numbers game, but if there is one data set that has defied probability and the logical extrapolation of trends it is the Jews. Our history is replete with, excuse the pun, countless examples of how the marginal triumphed over the majority. For instance, little more than 100 years ago the bulk of world Jewry were resolutely non- or anti-Zionist. Similarly, it was an outside sect, the Pharisees, who after the destruction of the Second Temple developed the rabbinic framework that enabled the last 2,000 years of Jewish history. Of course the best indicator of quality over quantity is the State of Israel itself, which was established with a population barely larger than that of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Jewish tradition also has a long-standing suspicion of numbering. From God punishing King David for conducting a census to Hosea’s thundering declaration that the children of Israel cannot be measured or counted, we are a people that often stand up, but prefer not to be counted while doing so. My interpretation of this stance is that Judaism emphasizes the power of the contrarian individual even, and especially, when he or she is part of a larger grouping. If anyone personified the term “statistical outlier” it would be Abraham and Moses.
Surveys tell us everything we need to know, except what is most important – our meaning and our vision. That is to say, why and how do we continue to cultivate excellence? We can start by worrying less about the numbers of kids in Jewish schools than what they learn there; less about how many students travel to Israel than teaching about Israel’s significance; and less about how much Jewish organizations fund-raise than what is the purpose of their and our existence. Statistics are not destiny, and thank God for that.
The writer is the Director of New York Operations for the David Project. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.