Originally posted on ejewishphilanthropy.com
Why do American Jews volunteer, make charitable contributions, sit on community boards, sign petitions, and vote? To what extent are their motivations for civic engagement tied to Jewish values and wisdom, or motivated by something else?
For our two foundations – Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – these questions are not merely of academic interest. We invest in strengthening Jewish life and promoting service, philanthropy, and civic engagement because we believe that the Jewish community has the opportunity and the responsibility to make a positive impact on society. We want people to be inspired by Jewish values and wisdom to act, make a difference, and repair the world on the local, national, and global levels.
In order to help our Jewish community live up to this potential, we need to understand if and how American Jews today make a connection between being Jewish and engaging civically – and if not, how we might help more people connect these two dots.
As the Talmud suggests, addressing complex issues like what drives civic participation requires more than theoretical deliberation. It demands a deep understanding of the people we are seeking to serve. In the words of the Talmud: Go out and observe what the people are doing (Berakhot 45a; Eiruvin 14b; Menahot 35a). So we did.
Beginning in the spring of 2019, we commissioned Benenson Strategy Group (BSG) to conduct a research project exploring the relationship between being Jewish and communal and civic engagement. BSG conducted a literature review, interviewed key thought leaders, convened focus groups, and fielded a national online survey of American Jews ages 18 and up.
The research has helped to answer some of our questions, and it has inspired many more. We are excited to share Connecting the Dots: American Jews and Civic Engagement and want to highlight three notable takeaways:
American Jews see being involved in their communities and participating in democracy as a way to live a Jewish life. When presented with the idea that civic engagement is a core Jewish value, American Jews respond strongly. But unless the activities are specifically related to being Jewish – like supporting Jewish organizations – they are more likely to attribute their actions to universal rather than Jewish motivations.
This research provides a key opportunity for foundations and organizations that invest in Jewish life; specifically, it can help them better understand and make the connection between Jewish life and civic engagement. Our research uncovered a willingness to identify Jewish wisdom and values as reasons to engage in civic life. We can help build on that mindset and turn willingness into action – for Jews to engage in their communities because they are Jewish and because it is the right thing to do. We have the opportunity to help draw a straighter and bolder line between Jewish values and wisdom, and the call to be engaged citizens in today’s world.
At a time when many Jews are wondering in what way being Jewish is still relevant, this research demonstrates that our Jewish tradition can be a rich source of inspiration and motivation to get involved in our communities – be it through volunteering, philanthropy, community organizing, voting, and so much more. Our job now is to find new, effective ways for Jewish wisdom and values to deepen and amplify the work American Jews are already doing for the Jewish people and for the world. We hope that our research helps advance this work.