People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, New York May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Israel is losing support among minorities and millennials, study finds


What do you think of when you think of Italy?

Maybe you picture beautiful works of art set against rolling Tuscan hills. Maybe a steaming plate of spaghetti topped with marinara sauce served with a deep red wine.

Now what do you think of when you think of Israel?

If you’re like most Americans, you picture walls of concrete enclosing an austere and strict country. The men wear black hats, the women long skirts. Everyone looks pretty serious.

That’s what Brand Israel Group, former advertising professionals who set out to sell Israel to Americans, found in a series of focus groups beginning in 2005. Brand Israel has since commissioned two surveys of the American public — in 2010 and 2016 — and hasn’t liked what it found.

According to the surveys, Israel has pretty broad backing among American citizens, but is losing support among a range of growing demographics. As pro-Israel advocates tout “shared values” between the United States and Israel, fewer and fewer Americans actually think they believe the same things as Israelis.

“Shared values are the bedrock of our relationship, and young Americans do not believe Israel shares our values,” said Fern Oppenheim, one of the group’s co-founders. “That’s a huge issue. We have to have a narrative about the heart and soul and humanity of the Israelis.”

The survey was conducted online last September and October by the polling firm Global Strategy Group, and sampled 2,600 Americans among a range of demographic groups. Here’s some of what it found:

Knowledge of Israel has gone up — but favorability is down.

More people say they know more about Israel now than they did in 2010. While only 23 percent of Americans said they knew at least a fair amount about Israel in 2010, the number rose to 37 percent in 2016. Knowledge of Israel grew among every demographic group except college students, where it fell precipitously — from 50 percent to just 34 percent, a number on par with the national average.

But it appears that the more Americans learn about Israel, the less they like it. In 2010, 76 percent of Americans viewed Israel favorably. In 2016, the number fell to 62 percent. Levels of support dropped as well. In 2010, the study found that 22 percent of Americans were “core” supporters of Israel, which dropped to 15 percent by 2016.

Israel is losing out among a range of growing demographics, from Latinos to millennials.

The groups with relatively high levels of favorability toward Israel, according to the study, included men, Republicans and older Americans. The groups that like Israel less are the mirror image: women, Democrats and millennials, along with African-Americans and Latinos. And those population groups are all growing.

A majority of all these groups still sees Israel favorably, but the numbers are falling. Favorability among Democrats dropped 13 points, from 73 percent to 60 percent. Among women, it dropped from 74 percent to 57 percent.

Among African-Americans and Latinos, favorability toward Israel fell 20 points each, from about three-quarters each to just over half. Fewer than half of African-Americans and Latinos believe “Israel shares my values.”

Most college students hardly hear about Israel at all.

Colleges are hotbeds of anti-Israel fervor, right? Not so much. The study found declining results for Israel among college students, but a majority still view Israel favorably. Moreover, most college students hardly encounter the Israel debate at all.

Favorability toward Israel fell 17 points among college students between 2010 and last year, but still stands at 54 percent. Nearly all Jewish college students used to view Israel favorably, but even after a 13-point drop, the favorability stat still stands at 82 percent.

Still, Oppenheim noted a shifting picture among Jewish college students. While 84 percent of Jewish college students leaned toward the Israeli side of the conflict in 2010, only 57 percent do now. Support for the Palestinian side, meanwhile, grew more than sixfold, from 2 percent to 13 percent.

Notably, nearly a third of Jewish college students said they experience anti-Semitism on campus. Of those, more than 40 percent said the anti-Semitism was not connected to Israel.

But what college students can agree on most regarding Israel is that they barely hear about it. More than three-quarters of college students said Israel rarely or never comes up. On college campuses with an organized pro-Palestinian presence, the number drops only slightly, to 70 percent.

Americans see Israel as ultra-religious and war-torn.

Israel has spent years and millions of dollars trying to portray itself as the place where Gal Gadot invented the cherry tomato on the beach using Waze. Or something.

Israel’s touting of its tech industry, warm climate and Mediterranean food may have worked a bit on Americans, who view Israel as innovative (78 percent) and cool (63 percent). But about three-quarters of Americans still see Israel as dominated by conflict. And although only 10 percent of Israeli Jews are Charedi Orthodox, 73 percent of Americans view Israel as ultra-religious.

So while American Jewish leaders have protested this week that a small Charedi minority dominates Israel, that minority, for many Americans, is the image of the Jewish state. 

The ‘Boomer Rebellion’


My grandparents never lived to reach the age of 64, as I recently did. They were dead in their 50s, murdered by chopped liver, corned beef, kishke and schmaltz — a pale yellow goo of chicken fat that was used like butter at almost every meal. 

A few decrepit relatives did straggle on into their 60s, but the daily sedentary boredom of playing the card game Kaluki seriously diminished their physical and mental capacities. Aside from being wheeled into the occasional bar mitzvah or wedding, they were pretty much done with life.

None of them could ever have imagined that their gene pool would produce progeny like me. I’m the gray-haired guy sweating profusely through a hot yoga class four days a week. Among the swami photos in this crowded room in Studio City, I am surrounded by young would-be actors and their lithe, sexy, muscular bodies. 

During the first down dog, my knees crack, upsetting everybody’s meditative silence. At the ending shavasana, my labored breaths override the soothing silence. But aside from these disruptive noises, I am utterly unnoticeable — absolutely invisible — to my younger classmates. On the rare occasion that a wrinkle-free millennial happens to cast an irritated glance in my direction, I beam back my most blissful yogi smile, silently thinking, “Let’s see if you’re still doing this at my age.”

Participating in a hot yoga class isn’t all that my grandparents’ generation would have thought impossible. They wouldn’t have dared believe that a person their age could someday rise up, refuse to be victimized by a destroyed economy and make the transition to a new professional path. Or that members of their age group would be updating their brains, becoming facile with new and constantly evolving methodologies as they learn to engage with and navigate a changed world. 

They certainly couldn’t have pictured pouring their anger and energy into inspiring an uprising among their generation to take back their rightful place in society, where they would demand respect for their wisdom, skills and innovative creativity. And they couldn’t have conceived of anyone older than 60 having the power to shake up a new generation’s belief systems.

The Great Recession of these last several years, even if it is officially “over,” has changed so much for so many. This economic disaster forced legions of the boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964 — to abandon their plans for retirement. In our 60s, some of us are now valiantly struggling to re-create our savings and ourselves. It is the biggest challenge of our lives and careers.

I am one of those people.

I didn’t see it coming. I had a 40-year career in marketing, communications and advertising, where at times I was a superstar. When I started out, I was one of the hippest young guys in town, working in the world’s top ad agencies, creating award-winning campaigns for Fortune 500 clients such as Apple and Coca-Cola. 

When I finally felt secure enough in my early 40s to de-hip myself, I transitioned out of the ad world and into the nonprofit sector, where I learned a whole new field. Now, with a nonprofit marketplace for my skills, I built another agency and traveled extensively, working closely with some of the most influential and passionate people on the planet. 

In my mid-50s, I transitioned again, this time from agency owner to consultant. I took great risks to convince self-made business people, the kind who donate millions of dollars to causes, that I understood the path to their philanthropic success. Through all these transitional ups and downs in my career, I was always in demand and never lacked for work.

Then I turned 60.

That’s when everything changed. Soon after, the Great Recession hit my income. I had never faced the kind of professional challenge these two simultaneous events presented.

The nonprofit spigot turned off. It no longer paid the kinds of fees I had been commanding, and turned to the hordes of young people who were coming into the job marketplace and who knew how to work and navigate social marketing sites. Nonprofits believed that these young people with their social marketing skills possessed all the knowledge necessary for a new world — plus, they could be hired for peanuts.

Although reality kept staring me in the face, I kept on fighting … until the first of a series of wake-up calls knocked me over. Eventually, I understood the gravity of what was being communicated, both directly and through nuance:

I was considered old.

I was perceived as irrelevant.

The economy had crashed and I had been replaced by 22-year-olds. 

There I was, in my early 60s. I was not wealthy. I could not yet afford to retire, nor did I want to. I had planned on and looked forward to working for many more years. I had never anticipated that at this stage in my life, I would need to head into yet another professional transition. And I knew that if this was happening to me, it was happening to others like me. There had to be other boomers, particularly in creative professions, staring down the barrel of the same fate.

What followed over the next four years involved fear, panic, jealousy, exhaustion, depression, emergence, challenge, learning, discovery, transition and triumph. These years of transition have been the hardest and most challenging of my life. Yet, they have produced the greatest personal growth, propelling me to learn and excel in ways I never thought possible. 

This has all taken me places I never thought I would go. I have emerged as a university adjunct professor whose reputation is soaring and whose classes have waiting lists. I am also the COO of a global initiative on a university campus, reaching out to Fortune 500 companies. A blogger with a huge following. An author. A seminar facilitator. None of it would have been possible without this struggle and a refusal to be victimized by my age and by the misguided perceptions of a younger generation.

Yet, millions of my fellow baby boomers who have plenty to offer society are still stuck and disregarded. Although the economy is bouncing back, boomers have been labeled as too old and irrelevant to be an integral part of this recovery. 

We have lost several years during this recession as young people moved in. Millennial leaders increasingly regard us as fossils. They believe we are too technologically befuddled to participate dynamically in this new era of creativity. Tweets, posts, downloads, Instagrams and links trump experience and wisdom. 

Investment for startups goes to young people. Philanthropic funding goes to them, too. It’s as if we don’t have value, stamina, ambition or sense of purpose. We are treated as if we are already decrepit, slowly being murdered by a pernicious new form of schmaltz and chopped liver.

This is all a gross injustice that is being perpetrated upon millions of active people and expansive minds of my generation. We are being thrown out, way before the expiration date! Our politicians say that the economic comeback means that Americans are once again poised to lead the world in so many arenas, but shouldn’t we also be leading the world to understand the big ideas and the possibility that older people can contribute to society on so many levels? 

The lasting legacy of the boomers does not have to be only the ’60s. It can also be how we returned to our rebellious and soulful roots in our later years and created a Boomer Rebellion that changed the world forever.

Here’s the question: Does my generation have what it takes to pull off a rebellion at this stage in life?

We do.

Look around. We are radically altering the aging landscape. We flock to cross-training and meditation retreats, attend Wisdom 2.0 conferences in Silicon Valley. We return to psychotherapy and drink wheatgrass juice and four cups of green tea a day. Chicken fat spread has been replaced with a testosterone spread for men’s armpits. Kishke casing injected with a puffy filling has been replaced by collagen injections for women’s lips. 

Those of us now in our 60s come from the generation of the ’60s. We saw possibility then, and we see possibility now. We changed the world once. Boldly. Powerfully. Pervasively. Globally. And just think — we did it all without technology! We did it based on our value system. OK, so we also did it with a lot of sex and drugs, but I’ll bet you those were more energizing and stimulating forces than Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

We need to return to our ’60s roots and find a current way to apply our generation’s culture, the one that changed the world then, to change the world again. We need to do it for ourselves and for all future generations as they age, too.

We are different from my grandparents’ generation because we are a generation in constant pursuit of what it takes to remain vibrant:

Our minds are absorbing the ways of a new world. Our knowledge is growing. Our wisdom is increasing. Our creativity is flourishing.

We adapt. We are filled with possibility. We have vision. We have goals. We have dreams. We have power.

According to National Public Radio reporter Ina Jaffe, we represent approximately 20 percent of the population. We account for about 50 percent of all consumer spending and control about 60 percent of the country’s disposable income. Yet, a quarter of us are struggling.

No matter our age, we have much life ahead of us. We are not giving up. This rebellion is ours to seize.

Gary Wexler is executive manager of The Third Space Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the author of the recently released “Sorry, Millennials, We’re Not Dead Yet: The Boomer Rebellion.” This edited excerpt is reprinted with permission.

Judea Pearl reaches out to young Jews


“I look at young Jewish boys as the army of the future, the elite force of the army of decency.”

With these strong words, Judea Pearl — activist, scholar and father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — used an Oct. 17 lecture to a group of Millennials to emphasize how important it is that proud Jews be a force of good in the world.

“This is what I feel about them, and that is what I want them to feel about themselves,” Pearl said.

He appeared before a group of about 30 people as part of an event organized by the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) regional chapter of ACCESS, the young professionals initiative of the global Jewish advocacy organization that trains professionals in their 20s and 30s to represent AJC on the local, national and international levels. 

It took place in the Encino home of philanthropists Richard and Marcia Volpert, and drew ACCESS members who work in law, medicine, government relations and other fields. It was open to the public, but offered at a discount to ACCESS members. 

The talk on young American Jewry could be considered commentary on the recent and much-publicized study by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Released last month, the report showed Jewish affiliation, particularly among young Jews, on the decline.

Without mentioning the study by name, Pearl, a UCLA professor emeritus and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, suggested that the way one achieves Jewish pride is by absorbing the history of the Jewish people and by placing Israel at the center of identity.

“By saying we are proud of the story, we are building the future together in the same shape, same mold,” he said during remarks that lasted about one hour and included a
Q-and-A.

Cole Ettman, one of the evening’s attendees, agreed that the history of the Jewish people — which spans thousands of years, from times living in disparate tribes to modern society with Jews acting as leaders in art, science, business and technology — can be an effective bait to grab the attention of the unaffiliated.

An ACCESS member who works as chief operating officer of the law firm Levine and Blit, Ettman used his soapbox during the Q-and-A to suggest that Pearl’s philosophy should be embraced by larger outreach efforts. While other organizations may promote Judaism by getting young Jews to wrap tefillin or keep Shabbat, identifying with the Jewish story is what’s essential, he suggested.

“You’ve got the right path, and it is enough,” Ettman said.

Pearl’s appearance followed a brief rendition of Bach’s “Sonata No. 1 in G Minor,” performed by 20-year-old violinist Stephen Tavani — the event doubled as one of the many concerts taking place worldwide this month as part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days. 

An initiative of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, World Music Days is an international network of live music performances during the month of Daniel Pearl’s birthday. This is the 12th consecutive year of concerts to honor Pearl and his love of music.

Founded by Daniel Pearl’s family and friends, the Daniel Pearl Foundation is a nonprofit that works for peace by supporting programs and fellowships around music, journalism and cross-cultural dialogue.

My Judaism: Millennials speak out following Pew poll


The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project issued its “Portrait of Jewish Americans” on Oct. 1, setting off alarms throughout the Jewish community about the future of Jewish life. Among the greatest concerns is this statement: “Among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the Millennials — 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.” 

To hear the voices behind the statistics, the Journal invited Millennials to speak for themselves about what it means to them to be American Jews. Each tells a different story: 


ISABEL KAPLAN

The recently released Pew survey distinguishes between “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” — otherwise called secular or cultural Jews. I tried to determine which of these two kinds of Jews I am, but neither term felt quite right, and I grew increasingly confused and frustrated as I delved deeper into the survey results and found, for example, that 16 percent of Jews by religion don’t believe in God, and 18 percent of Jews of no religion do believe in God.

Ultimately, I realized that the source of my frustration was that I was searching for clarity instead of accepting complexity. My relationship with Judaism is continually changing and full of unresolved questions. Like many of the Jews surveyed, I defy straightforward classification. So perhaps I’m better off describing my Jewish identity piecemeal, as opposed to trying to categorize myself within a binary.

Like 40 percent of Jews by religion and 20 percent of Jews of no religion, I identify with the Reform movement. I attended Hebrew school for eight years, although there was many a Sunday morning when I wanted to stay in bed, and many a Wednesday afternoon when I longed to be at play rehearsal instead of trudging through the Ve-ahavta. During my bat mitzvah, I gave a speech about trying to come to terms with the hypocrisy of the Jews becoming slave owners shortly after escaping slavery in Egypt. I (usually) fast on Yom Kippur, infrequently attend religious services and have a (Hebrew) tattoo. And I don’t believe in God.

This is the first time I’ve written that, and acknowledging it feels liberating, necessary and a little bit terrifying. Liberating and necessary because it’s central to my religious identity and terrifying because inside of me there lives the shadow of my younger self: a girl who always wrote G-d, panicked at the thought of accidentally dropping a siddur on the ground and desperately wanted to believe but was hounded by uncertainty.

Although I don’t believe in God, there are few things in life that I find more soothing — and spiritual, even—than reciting the Shema. I’m well aware of the contradiction. But when I recite the Shema, though I don’t feel a connection to God, I do feel a profound connection to the generations of Jews who came before me, who recited these very same words. I feel comforted by a sense of community and humbled by the history of the Jewish people and their strength of spirit. The Book of Genesis says God created man in his image, but I think it’s the other way around. Perhaps what I’m praying to, what I believe in, is a God that comes from and exists within the human spirit.

I arguably fit within the trend of decreasing religiousness among young Jewish Americans, but I will not be among the growing number of Jews raising children without religion. I know with certainty very few things about my future, but I know that when I have children — if I have children, which I hope I will — they will be raised as Jews, in a Reform community.

For this decision, I credit my parents and my upbringing in a Reform congregation that presented me with a religion open to interpretation and adaptation, where thoughtful inquiry was encouraged, and doubt was acknowledged and accepted.

I want my (hypothetical future) children to learn about Jewish history and values, and to feel connected to and a part of the Jewish community. And when it comes to God and religious belief, I want to empower them with the tools to ask their own questions and the freedom to decide for themselves what being a Jew means to them — just as my parents did for me. And I can only hope that they, in turn, will someday do the same for their children.

Isabel Kaplan is working on her second novel, a screenplay and a nonfiction book about arson and murders in the 1930s.


DANIEL SCHWARTZ

My home life was not typical of an Orthodox household. We kept kosher, went to shul and observed major holidays. But if you sat in hashkama minyan between my father and grandfather, you were treated to very unorthodox commentary. “Pesach and Chag He’Aviv were two different holidays,” my grandfather would mutter during Torah reading. Or my father, during the haftorah: “See how the rabbis ruined Judaism?” I was raised to be suspicious of Orthodoxy, even though it was what my parents had chosen for me.

In yeshiva, my suspicions were ignored. The big issues — biblical criticism, Darwinism, theodicy — were decided before discussion began. Biblical criticism was an anti-Semitic canard; Darwinism and creationism were seamlessly compatible; and the Holocaust was inexplicable, hence, irrelevant. We had no time for these nuisances anyway, not with nine periods of Gemara a week. Thus, we spent more time agonizing over talmudic minutiae than over the justifications for its existence.

Judaism was about prescribed ritual, end of story. We attended Shacharit every morning, while the principal stood facing us on a stage at the front of the room, scanning, screaming and shuckling. If you talked, he screamed. If you dozed, he screamed. If you sat when it was time to stand, he screamed. After awhile, I began to associate halachah with two things: fear and coercion.

But college was where my loyalties were really tested. There, you chose your lifestyle, and if you chose Orthodoxy, you were forced to make sacrifices. I began asking myself why I was sacrificing this or that and started thinking seriously about what the answers I’d been given amounted to — obscurantism, sophistry, superstition. It wasn’t about temptation; it was about what I was being tempted away from.

And then there was the temptress. Forget for a moment things like sex and cheeseburgers. In college, there’s this shattering encounter with Western wisdom for which yeshiva students are utterly unprepared. I remember my first Kant class, in particular, taught by the best professor I ever had, a steely-haired German fellow with a thundering voice.

The arguments were incredibly complex, but they had a vivid, irresistible logic to them. I had this sense of bumping up against a transcendent intellect, the Transcendent Intellect. All this other junk in the Jewish tradition, all the pitifully tenuous logic, all the willful distortions — none of that could be divine. Judaism couldn’t offer anything this complex or compelling. So what was it all worth?

After college, I spent a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem trying to find out. There were nuances to Judaism that my yeshivas had obscured or overlooked. The Bible could be complex when it wasn’t read through Rashi. And if you viewed halachah as an evolving ethical system, more of the minutiae started to make sense. But even Pardes didn’t have enough of the answers. And there was a lot of time spent apologizing for indefensible norms and notions. What was more, it was too little, too late.

I met with a teacher after the program ended and told her I was done with Judaism. Why, she wondered, couldn’t I discard the bad in Judaism while retaining the good?

Say you were wronged by someone you loved, a girlfriend who treated you badly, not once or twice, but for the whole of your relationship. You made a clean break. Then your friend comes along and reminds you of all the good times. Why can’t you look the girl up every once in awhile? Why can’t you hold on to what still works? But of course you can’t. The wounds are too raw, and the good and bad are all mixed up inside you. You can’t be friends, at least not for a few years. And maybe longer. Maybe you can never be friends.

Daniel Schwartz is a freelance writer studying screenwriting at UCLA. He blogs at WhotheEffisJeff.


COURTNEY BATZOFIN

When I sat down to write this piece, I found myself at a bit of a loss. How do I define my “Jewish journey” when I feel I’m still at the start of it? Feeling overwhelmed, I did what many a writer has done before me — turned on my television. A little “SNL” would surely inspire, no? Ironically, during the “Weekend Update” segment, Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy came on. Lo and behold, this was the inspiration I was searching for! As I laughed and rewound and laughed some more, I found myself a bit unsettled by what unfolded. The sketch was fairly simple; it was Jacob explaining to Seth Meyers, Cecily Strong and the rest of the audience what he had done the previous evening. Jacob told Seth:

“We celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shabbat! And since my bubbe was over, we acted like we celebrated every week!”

Jacob went on to explain Shabbos and why we as Jews celebrate it, but I couldn’t get that line out of my head. It brought me right back to my own youth. A little background: My family is Jewish on both sides; my parents came from highly observant homes. They immigrated from South Africa in the late 1970s, eventually settling in Los Angeles by way of places including Texas, Nebraska and Northern California. The physical practice of our familial Judaism, however, was varied in my youth. We had one mezuzah, Friday night dinners somewhere between once and three times a month (much like Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy), and attended temple on High Holy Days only when I became a teenager. This was after a botched attempt at a bat mitzvah, as my training was interrupted by a relocation to San Diego. In San Diego, my friends looked to me as highly Jewish, since I attended the Orthodox synagogue on the holidays — but I didn’t understand any part of the prayers being spoken. However, that immigrant mentality that so pervades my family strongly informed my understanding of what it is to be Jewish and allowed me to feel confident in calling myself a Jew.

Currently, I’m more observant than I was growing up, but I’m definitely not someone you would call strict or even highly knowledgeable about the traditions of the religion with which I strongly identify. I’m spiritual and believe in God, yet sometimes I find myself struggling through basic Bible stories. I know Bruegel the Elder did a painting of the Tower of Babel — but I’m not totally sure what the details of that story are. I feel the tenet of community within Judaism, and Judaism in Southern California, in particular, has always seemed an important one, at least to me. More than anything, that sense of belonging, of being strangers in a strange land, has lent itself to the formation of my Jewish identity.

When I relocated back to Los Angeles, a city of immigrants in its own right, to pursue a career in entertainment, I became even more confused with where my Judaism fit into my life. I’m almost certain the people I surround myself with, both personally and professionally, strongly identify me as Jewish. But again — where was this coming from? I don’t have that answer. And yet the sense of community, above all else, remains. I feel comfortable knowing many in this industry and I share a religion and the associated values that are instilled (whether culturally or through study). Maybe it will become clearer as my education grows and my journey continues. Until then, I’ll try to follow some sage wisdom that Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy relayed to Seth and Cecily:

“Moving forward as an adult in the Jewish community, I promise to fulfill the following commandments: Perform mitzvot, or good deeds; study Torah; and some day, visit Israel, even though I have nightmares about it!”

Courtney Batzofin currently works for a small production company and freelances for several publications.


JULIE BIEN

It took being the anonymous target of someone’s shabbily aimed rocket for me to truly internalize my Jewish identity —one I’ve historically had a complicated relationship with, despite being heir to many generations of Diaspora Jews.

Let’s be clear: I have an affinity for kishka and kugel that no gentile would quite understand, as well as an unwavering opinion about hamentashen — apricot is the best.

But I do not practice Judaism in the religious sense. Of course, I’ve been to many a Kol Nidre service, and there isn’t a Passover in memory that hasn’t included Manischewitz, gefilte fish and some bread of affliction. 

Despite that, I’ve always been highly self-conscious of my brand of “pick-your-own” Judaism. 

Then I went to Israel for the first time in 2010, on a two-week Birthright trip, and everything changed. Instead of a distinct discomfort with my religion, I felt proud of my cultural heritage. I found I could engage with my inherited traditions without having to buy into a belief system that I could not completely reconcile with my own worldview.

I returned to Israel in the summer of 2011 to film my thesis documentary about the social protests sweeping through the region. I witnessed tens of thousands of Israelis rallying together for social change — more Jews than I’d ever seen in one place, all participating in something that wasn’t about Judaism. Religion was simply a side note to the politics at hand.

For the duration of that trip, I stayed in Sderot, a city 2 kilometers east of Gaza City that has been a flashpoint for the ongoing regional conflict. Sure enough, while I was there, qassam rockets were launched targeting Sderot; bombs were dropped on Gaza, and a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus occurred in the Sinai.

After the third or fourth time that I felt the reverberations of bombs one weekend, I had a moment of extreme clarity. I realized the rocket-launchers on the other side of the border wanted me dead because I’m here, and probably Jewish. They didn’t know me, but they’d sure be happy if they hit me. 

And then I thought about the kid over there in Gaza who was thinking, “You, bomb-dropping Israelis, don’t care if you destroy my home and my family in your quest for retaliation.”

The insanity of the situation — the fact that most people on both sides of this volley of weaponry were probably thinking the same thing, “What the hell did I personally do to you?” — demolished any shred of inclination toward true religious observance that I’ve ever had: God and the scenario at hand were mutually exclusive. But it also reinforced my cultural identity as a Jew. Not just in my own eyes, but in the eyes of strangers as well. 

My heritage is undeniable. My unruly, curly hair gives me away as a Jew if my judicious sprinkling of Yiddish words hasn’t already — and so does the tattoo of a hamsa that I got inked onto my shoulder in Tel Aviv in 2010. The irony is not lost on me.

It’s important to me to make clear to the world (and to the pearl-clutching religious folks who are lamenting the loss of “the secular youth”):

Have no doubt — I am 25 years old, and I am Jewish. 

Julie Bien is the blog manager and a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal.


JARED SICHEL

About seven years ago, in the middle of a discussion with my father about Judaism, I said, “I’m not sure I believe in God.” 

“You don’t believe, or you aren’t sure if you believe?” he responded.

“Agnostic,” I replied.

I was well on my way to becoming part of the 10 percent of Jews raised in the Conservative movement who now identify with no denomination, as outlined in the just-released Pew Research Center study of American Jews. Although I was becoming less religious, even at that time I was hardly on the path to becoming a Jew of no religion (7 percent of Jews raised Conservative) or not identifying as Jewish (also 10 percent). There was too much that I enjoyed about Judaism.

As a child, my warmest Jewish moments came spending Saturday afternoons with some of my closest friends, who were Orthodox, and when I occasionally spent holidays with Orthodox relatives in Connecticut.
Yet by the time I enrolled as a freshman at Tulane University, in 2008, had I given my Jewish standing any thought at all at that point, I probably would have assumed that since I was on my own for the first time in a city with plenty of distractions (New Orleans), the odds of increasing my observance while in college were low.

Then, one Friday night early in fall semester, after attending a play in the French Quarter with one of my classes, I decided to stop by the Chabad at Tulane for dessert. It was warm and comfortable. So much so that I felt at ease challenging the rabbi with plenty of questions (or problems) I had with Judaism.

Soon after that, my Friday night routine included going to Chabad for Shabbat and then going out with friends. As I made new friends at Chabad and became close with the rabbi’s family, I regularly studied with him, and witnessing the warmth of an observant Jewish home again made Shabbat a fun day — even if I hadn’t entertained the possibility of fully observing it.

Shabbat became a weekly source of pleasure, so as a rising sophomore, I decided to observe the weekly holy day the way Orthodox Jews do. Not because I felt it was my obligation, but because I enjoyed those 25 hours more when I was acting Orthodox.

Among the non-observant, Shabbat is often viewed as a day on which you can’t do stuff. You can’t use your phone; you can’t use your computer; you can’t drive; you can’t watch movies. For me, however, dedicating an entire day to spending time with God, friends and community is warmer, more pleasurable and provides more meaning than making Saturday just like Sunday. 

If Pew had called me when I was a freshman, I would have labeled myself an unaffiliated Jew, among about 30 percent of American Jewry, according to Pew. Perhaps that is not a healthy trend for the future of Judaism. But what those numbers don’t reveal are the stories like mine: What portion of that 30 percent is actually growing religiously and doing things (learning, lighting Shabbat candles, cooking holiday meals with other students) that they have never regularly done? Maybe non-affiliation isn’t a problem, when there’s also an opportunity for being welcomed into increased religious involvement in Jewish groups like Chabad and Hillel.

Now, as a self-identifying observant Jew (can I call myself Modern Orthodox if I still eat tuna subs at Subway?), I know that those days that I “unintentionally” spent observing Jewish law on many Shabbats and holidays were, at least in part, my way of bringing more enjoyment into my life. That’s a compelling case for observance. 

Jared Sichel is a staff writer at the Jewish Journal.


ZAN ROMANOFF

I graduated from college in 2009, a year when even the administration couldn’t pretend to be optimistic about our chances of success in the job market. The university president gloomily addressed us, and our parents, about the economic climate and the declining worth of our pricey degrees. We were, essentially, patted gently on the shoulder and told there was nothing more they could do for us now, so we should go with God. 

Every generation feels it alone has been marked out for uncertainty and turmoil, but for us, the adults of the world seemed to agree with that assessment: Nothing will ever be the same, they said, and we can’t tell you what will happen next. 

Of course, eventually, we all got jobs, though it took longer than we wanted it to, and the future is still and always will be uncertain. It happened that my jobs have been Jewish ones, in large part because I left Connecticut, where I’d gone to school, to come back to Los Angeles, where it doesn’t snow, and where my Jewish parents have Jewish friends. 

I promise this is not a mercenary story.

Since graduation, I have been a substitute teacher at a Jewish elementary school and a freelance writer for a Jewish newspaper, and next week I will start a position as the program coordinator at a Jewish community center. My goyish friends think this is hilarious. The Jews, as a rule, seem to get it.

I think it helps that I went to a Jewish elementary school: I learned the Hebrew alphabet alongside the English one, and I know the rituals and the prayers like the seasons, like myself. It wouldn’t be fall without Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or spring without the complicated misery of Passover and trying to explain to non-Jews why I can’t eat that, or that, or … anything, actually, sorry. 

But really I think what has happened is that I’ve always believed, always felt myself to be faithful, and what I’ve gotten through these jobs is a structured way to remain involved in the community. It’s easy to drift away and tell yourself you’re still a Jew at heart; I’ve been lucky to have so many opportunities to keep in practice at something that goes beyond the parts that involve faith.

It doesn’t hurt that I like ritual and that I love being part of a community; I left Connecticut for a lot of reasons, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that loneliness was among them. I had friends, of course, close ones whom I loved dearly, but I did not have any kind of family out there.

In June, my grandmother died, and my family’s chavurah, a group we’ve been a part of since I was 12 — a collection of families whose daughters are like my sisters — came over to our house for a shivah minyan. Jews do not suffer grief alone; we gather our loved ones to us, we say familiar prayers and move slowly through the stages of mourning. 

In December, we’ll host a wedding shower for one of those girls. It will be in the same living room where we held the minyan, and where we celebrated before our bat mitzvahs, well over a decade ago. 

Whether you think you live in trying times, the future is always uncertain. The promise of ritual is that there will always be something familiar there for you, an action to perform and a ceremony to repeat. The promise of community is that you will have someone to go through those motions with you. I practice my Judaism because it provides me with continuity and with comfort, through the hard times and on to the good ones. 

Zan Romanoff is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal and is about to begin a position as program director at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center.


ZEV HURWITZ

Three types of students walk past the Union of Jewish Students table during student organization fairs at UC San Diego, where I am a junior. The first, non-Jews, approach our table, ask what we do and then walk away. The second group, the USY and Hebrew school alumni, excitedly ask us when our next event will be. Then, finally, there are the folks who glance at the Star of David on our banner, the lulav and etrog on the table or the yarmulke on my head and then walk away hurriedly in a manner such that we can only understand them to be non-identifying Jews.

Findings from the new Pew Research Center survey on Jews in America indicate that this third group of students may be the fastest-growing demographic. At UCSD, a campus of more than 20,000 undergraduates — 8 percent of whom are estimated to be “Jewish” — this trend is visibly affecting the number of Jewish students who are involved in Jewish life. Meanwhile, the identifying and practicing Jewish students here and across the country are working to ensure the stability and growth of the Jewish community.

Granted, it’s no easy task to be a shomer Shabbat Jew keeping strict kosher, on a campus with little in the way of kosher amenities, while living with four non-Jewish housemates. I might be described as an observant or Modern Orthodox Jew, but, in my experience, it is far too simplistic to boil down religious Judaism to just who eats what and on what days. For many of us, community is the core value of Judaism. Our campus’ Jewish leadership is constantly working to strengthen both the number of people in our community and the quality of the services and amenities available to us. 

For me, the notion of the Jewish People is hybridization of the Jewish and the People. Our community needs our common faith, values and practice, while Judaism can only exist via a community in which it is followed. The founder of cultural Zionism, Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg — better known as Ahad Ha’am — is attributed as having said, “More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.” This is the focal reason I stick with the religious practices of my upbringing. Not only to further my own spirituality, but to assure the continuity of our community.

At UCSD and college campuses nationwide, the Jewish people are at a turning point. Dozens of campuses host annual Israel Apartheid Weeks, and the Anti-Defamation League reported in July that anti-Semitic incidents on campuses had tripled in 2012, even as overall anti-Semitism is on the decline. Jews and pro-Israel advocates have been on the defensive, needing to respond to attacks and criticisms from anti-Zionist groups and, in some cases, anti-Jewish activities. In a way, these outside groups are dictating the Jewish life and activity on campus. 

However, we college students now have the opportunity to define what our community is about. Now is the time to celebrate our culture, heritage and faith — and not only act in response to others. Those who choose not to participate will do what they want, but the future leadership of the Jewish People, is ready to engage, grow and thrive — regardless of what any survey may tell us. 

Zev Hurwitz, a graduate of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, is a junior at UC San Diego, managing editor of the UCSD Guardian newspaper and president of United Jewish Observance on campus.