Study's authors say poll 'demonstrates opportunities'

67% of young US Jews say ‘ideal rabbi’ could better connect them to Jewish identity

Most survey respondents say having a relationship with a rabbi important, half want to be more connected to Judaism

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Illustrative: Students at the Yeshivat Maharat liberal Orthodox seminary for women. (Chavie Lieber/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Students at the Yeshivat Maharat liberal Orthodox seminary for women. (Chavie Lieber/Times of Israel)

Many American Jews may be ambivalent about organized religion, but they don’t have to be. That is, not if they have the right rabbi, according to a survey released Wednesday on the role of clergy for US Jews.

In the poll, 67% of American Jews aged 18-44 said that they would feel more connected to their Jewish identity if they could make a connection with their ideal rabbi.

Having a relationship with a rabbi was important to just under two-thirds, or 64%, of the respondents in the survey by Atra: Center for Rabbinic Innovation, an organization devoted to improving Jewish spiritual leadership in the US.

“Contrary to the narrative that suggests that young Jews do not want to affiliate, are not interested in engaging with religious or spiritual leaders, and are only interested in peer-led Judaism, this study demonstrates that American Jews aged 18-44 enjoy interacting with and want guidance from rabbis,” the report’s authors wrote.

The study “seems to show that there is a cultural window right now where young people are interested in relationships with rabbis but do not know exactly how to access them,” they said.

The survey queried a representative sample of 800 US Jews and had a 3.5-point margin of error.

In a major 2013 survey of Jews in the US by the Pew Research Center, only 26% said religion was very important in their lives. In a follow-up Pew study published in 2021, that figure dropped to 21%.

But to Atra, their own study, conducted online in 2022 by the Benenson Strategy Group with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, suggests there is nonetheless openness among US Jews to spiritual leadership.

Nearly 70% of the survey’s respondents had an experience with a rabbi at some point and their experiences, 47% of which were positive. Only 7% described the experience as negative, another 23% said it was mixed, and 25% called it neutral.

Of those who had positive interactions with a rabbi, 91% said it made them feel more positive about being Jewish; 90% felt more spiritually connected and 88% said it made them more confident and comfortable being Jewish.

Across denominations, about half of all the participants said that they want to be more connected to Judaism.

“This study established a baseline and we believe it demonstrates opportunities for the Jewish communal sector to better leverage its most underutilized resource: rabbis,” the report said. “Ultimately, if young Jews can make a connection with their ideal rabbi, they believe their connection to their Judaism and the Jewish community will be strengthened and their engagement will grow.”

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