Jewish Gymnast Aly Raisman and the Future of Jewish Identity
by Misha Galperin
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.