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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Commentary In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    JNS.org – “Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Sports Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    JNS.org – For Daphna Krupp, her daily workout (excluding Shabbat) at the Jewish Community Center (JCC or “J”) of Greater Baltimore has become somewhat of a ritual. She not only attends fitness classes but also engages with the instructors and plugs the J’s social programs on her personal Facebook page. “It’s the gym and the environment,” says Krupp. “It’s a great social network.” Krupp, who lives in Pikesville, Md., is one of an estimated 1 million American Jewish members of more [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Sports Illustrated Profiles Orthodox NCAA Basketball Player Aaron Liberman

    Sports Illustrated Profiles Orthodox NCAA Basketball Player Aaron Liberman

    Sports Illustrated magazine featured an extensive profile on Orthodox-Jewish college basketball player Aaron Liberman on Wednesday.  The article details Liberman’s efforts to balance faith, academics and basketball at Tulane University, a challenge the young athlete calls “a triple major.” Sports Illustrated pointed out that Liberman is the second Orthodox student to play Division I college basketball. The other was Tamir Goodman, the so-called “Jewish Jordan.” As reported in The Algemeiner, Liberman started his NCAA career at Northwestern University. According to [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.