Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Jewish Gymnast Aly Raisman and the Future of Jewish Identity

August 15, 2012 11:20 pm 7 comments

Gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman. Photo: Facebook.

You don’t have to be a sports fan, to appreciate the Olympics. Every four years, we are treated to two-weeks of the epic, heart-stopping dramas acted out by athletes, most of whom have given everything imaginable to be there, and who probably won’t strike it rich. But this year, it was a little harder for me to work up the excitement. Not only did the Israelis return without a single medal, but The International Olympic Committee turned a cold shoulder to the memory of the Munich 11. For many of us, it took a teenager from Boston performing a floor exercise to Hava Nagila, to pierce our veil of ambivalence.

I want to be honest with you: I hate Hava Nagila. It’s a stereotype and a cliché. But Aly is neither. And in her golden moment, when asked about her music selection, her answer will define the London games for me: “I am Jewish.” She went a step further, honored the slain Israeli athletes and clearly voiced her support for a moment of silence. And during a time when so many athletes won’t risk future endorsements by courting controversy, Aly was too connected to her Jewish identity, too in tune with the feelings of the global Jewish collective to care about playing it safe.

This 18-year-old had a platform; she knew it, and she gracefully seized the moment. Sadly, I worry that Aly is the exception.  How many young assimilated Jews— if given the opportunity—would be so proactive about his or her personal Jewish identity and use her own talent to make such a statement of pride. She invited us all to make a universal global association with our own collective Jewish identity. We don’t know the figures precisely, but the numbers we have don’t paint a pretty picture.  It’s a 50-50 shot at best. According to research conducted by the American Jewish Committee, roughly 60 percent of Jews under 40 consider it “very important” to be Jewish.  When you remove young Orthodox adults and young adults with children from the equation, the number drops to about 45 percent.

What this data tells me is that young Jews will go one way or the other. The enthusiasm among young Orthodox adults, the fastest growing subset in North American Jewry, remains healthy. Ninety-eight percent say Judaism is important.  And it is marginally encouraging that a majority of assimilated Jews with children feel strongly about their Jewish identities.  But unless young people like Aly –  who may not be observant in the traditional sense, but are nevertheless unwavering about their connection to the global Jewish family – become the rule rather than the exception, our profile as a community will be far less diverse and pluralistic two generations from now. The numerous pathways into Jewish life that we see today, and too often take for granted, will shrink.

It is not good enough to say, “Wait until they grow up, get married and have kids.” Aly Raisman did not become a proud young Jewish woman in a vacuum. Her rabbi says she’s been a familiar face at her Reform temple for as long as he can remember. Her parents have obviously been committed Jews for  some time. But when fewer than half of all unmarried Jews under 40 take Judaism seriously as a factor in shaping personal identity, then we cannot take our future for granted. Perhaps we never could.

We know what works, what lights the spark–even when there is hardly a flicker.  Stephen Cohen, a Jewish demographics expert at Hebrew Union College recently found that 10 days in Israel is enough to kindle Jewish pride, and when a Birthright Trip is followed by a stay of five to 12 months—such as one of the 200 experiences offered by The Jewish Agency though its Masa framework of programs—there is nearly an 80 percent chance that the young Jew will return deeply committed.

Of course, sending young adults to Israel is not a substitute for Jewish identity building that begins in affiliated homes, such as the Raismans’.  But if we are to expect future generations of Jews to connect as profoundly as Aly has, we cannot do it without Israel and without investing in the Israel experiences that build or solidify those bonds. If Aly – our proud Olympic gold medalist, who will soon visit Israel with her family – could offer a championship statement of her identity then so can we.

Dr. Misha Galperin is The Jewish Agency’s President and Chief Executive Officer, International Development.

7 Comments

  • As always Misha you have made you all important point very well.
    Kol Hakovod
    Phil Fink
    Radio-j.com

  • Jewish Gymnast Aly Raisman

    American Gymnast Aly Raisman.
    She can be jewish on her on time.

  • Fredric M. London

    My daughter went on a Birthright tour in December-January. She returned so committed to Judaism that, after graduating college, she went to Israel and is studying at a seminary in Jerusalem for a year.

  • A lot has been said in the media about Gabby Douglas being 1st African American to win Olympic AA gold in gymnastics (rightfully so). I’m curious if Aly Raisman is 1st Jew to win ANY medal in same Olympic sport? I would think not since same 4 countries dominate the sport. I hope Aly will compete again at the 2016 Olympics & not only leave Rio as US most decorated gymnast but also be most decorated gymnast over all, solidifying her status as a role model for all.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features World Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Tour operators are calling attention to Jamaica’s little-known Jewish heritage by arranging visits to historic Jewish sites on the Caribbean island, including a cemetery where Jewish pirates are buried. A report in Travel and Leisure magazine describes the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, where there are seven tombstones engraved with Hebrew benedictions and skull and crossbones insignia. According to the report, centuries ago, Jewish pirates sailed the waters of Jamaica and settled in Port Royal. The town, once known as “the wickedest city in the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Telling Israel’s story. It’s the specific title of a short film that Eyal Resh created last year. It’s also the theme behind the 27-year-old Israeli filmmaker’s broader body of work. The widely viewed “Telling Israel’s Story” film—directed by Resh for a gala event hosted by the Times of Israel online news outlet—seemingly begins as a promotional tourism video, but quickly evolves to offer a multilayered perspective. “I want to tell you a story about a special place for me,” a young woman whispers […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →