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...

  • Arts and Culture First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    The first English-language trailer for Natalie Portman’s directorial debut — A Tale of Love and Darkness — based on Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir, was released on Thursday. The movie, originally filmed in Hebrew, tells the story of Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem at the end of the British Mandate and the early years of Israel’s independence. Portman, who was born in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew, plays the lead role of Fania, the author’s mother. She struggles to raise her son as she deals with inner demons, a […]

    Read more →
  • Features As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    JNS.org – Sonnenallee, a street in Berlin’s Neukölln district, looks like it comes straight out of an Arab city — so much so that it goes by the nickname “Gaza Strip.” Kebab and bakery shops are advertised in Arabic; men sit in men-only coffee shops; and bridal shop windows showcase glittery, not-so-stylish gowns. But take a random turn, and you’ll find a swath of bars, burger joints, and Indian restaurants where hip Berliners announce that they have arrived to urban coolness. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot engages in fierce action sequences in the new Wonder Woman trailer, which Warner Bros. premiered during the San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. The nearly 3-minute trailer, the first to debut for the superhero film, shows scenes of Diana, princess of the Amazons, fighting alongside men in the battle against the world’s toughest enemies. The first shot of the video shows Wonder Woman discovering a man, Steve Trevor (played by actor Chris Pine), washed ashore. The clip then takes viewers to the all-female island where Wonder Woman was born. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    Is diplomacy worthwhile, even if the end result isn’t what we hoped for? That is the question, among many others, posed by the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Making its New York debut at Lincoln Center, the play examines the secret diplomatic process that led to the historic 1993 peace accords. The character of Shimon Peres makes an appearance onstage — and he, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, tower over the proceedings. But they mainly do so in absentia. Instead, […]

    Read more →
  • Spirituality/Tradition Sports Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    JNS.org – Other than being part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Sandy Koufax and Dean Kremer have something else in common: a respect for Jewish tradition. Koufax — who was recently ranked by ESPN as the best left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) history — decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur. “I would do the same,” Kremer said in an interview. Last month, the 20-year-old Kremer became […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    The famed lead guitarist of British rock band Queen, Brian May, encouraged Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Lambert to perform in Hebrew during their upcoming joint concert in Israel, an entertainment industry advocacy organization reported on Tuesday. During a recent interview with Israeli television personality Assi Azar, May was played a 2005 video of Lambert singing the popular song Shir L’Shalom, (Song for Peace). May was so impressed by Lambert’s singing of the Hebrew track that he told the American singer, “We have to do that. Let’s […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    JNS.org – Kenyan-born marathoner Lonah Chemtai is expected to compete for Israel at the Olympics Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil next month after gaining a last minute approval. “I am very proud [to represent Israel] and I hope to achieve a new personal best time,” Chemtai told Reuters. Chemtai, who grew up a rural village in western Kenya, first came to Israel in 2009 to care of the children of her country’s ambassador to Israel. The 27-year-old runner recently gained […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    To date or not to date? That is not the question for most Modern Orthodox singles in New York. The question is when will they find their future spouses, and when will their families stop nagging them about having babies? Inspired by the success of the Israeli show “Srugim,” Leah Gottfried, 25, decided she would create and star in her own show, “Soon By You.” “Dating is so serious already,” Gottfried said. “We wanted to take a lighter approach and laugh at the […]

    Read more →