Jewish millennials increasingly putting Zionism second and America first

New York - For many American Jewish millennials the notion of tikkun olam — the idea that one must “repair the world” through social justice — is eclipsing Zionism as the glue that binds a community together.

That’s not to say this demographic doesn’t support Israel — it does. However, in recent years the unconditional support so prevalent in their grandparents’ and parents’ generations has begun to take a back seat to involvement in distinctly domestic social issues. Call it a sort of Jewish “America First” view of social justice.

“There is a lot of conversation in the Jewish community about local versus global, about particularism versus universalism,” said Liz Fisher, COO of Repair the World, a Jewish volunteer organization centered around education and food justice that engages thousands of students.

Volunteers at Repair the World are more apt to get involved in projects closer to home where they can make a difference, Fisher said. If they are passionate about hunger in their neighborhood they might volunteer in a local food pantry. If they are concerned about race relations they are likely to get involved in Repair the World’s Act Now for Racial Justice initiative.

The reasons for this perceived shift away from Israel as the great unifier are multifaceted, said Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York City-based think tank.

Abrams said this is partly because non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 through 32 no longer view Israel’s existence as a miracle. In addition, he said, the Israel-Palestine conflict has become a lighting rod for many American Jews — only 43 percent of millennials sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians.

And then there’s the feeling that domestic issues must be addressed first.

According to a massive 2013 Pew Research Center study, younger Jews are less likely than older Jews to consider Israel an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. Where 32% of Jewish adults under 30 say caring about Israel is vital to their Jewish identity, more than 50% of Jews 65 and older feel that way.

According to Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, millennials’ waning zeal for Zionism might have more to do with feeling compelled to make a difference at home than their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the past several years a number of Jewish social justice organizations have burst on the scene, including Repair the World, T’ruah, Bend the Arc, Hazon and Challah for Hunger to name but a few.

Each group aims to address American social justice issues including mass incarceration, sentencing, health care, food security, and climate change.

“I think younger people are looking for a way to integrate their Judaism in how they live in the world rather than separate it out. It’s not that the younger people are stepping away from Israel, it’s really about them trying to live their values,” Jacobs said.

Nevertheless, some are bothered by the lack of attachment to Israel.

“Social justice is super important, but our own Jewish children are not feeling their own connectedness to Israel. We have to figure out that thing that helps inspire them to feel more connected,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs.

One of the most obvious, and effective, ways to connect young people to Israel is to visit, Abrams said.

Yet, according to an article Abrams wrote in Mosaic last year, including the massive push of Israel trips through Birthright-Taglit, only about 40% of American Jews have spent time in Israel. (Without Birthright, the number shrinks by a third.) This compares with about 70% of Canadian Jews, 70% of Mexican Jews, 80% of Australian Jews and 95% of British Jews, according to the article.

For one American-born son of Israelis, though, one needn’t choose between Zionism and tikkun olam.

A self-described social justice warrior, Ron Krudo is the executive director of campus affairs for StandWithUs. And while he understands and values the importance of tikkun olam as a way of expressing one’s Judaism, he said it doesn’t have to surpass one’s support for Israel.

“But people forget you can intertwine both. The story of Israel is a story of social justice, about people coming back to a homeland,” Krudo said.