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Gen-Z Jews ‘not thriving’ in religious lives, survey shows




(JTA) A massive survey conducted over the past year found that even as young Americans are rejecting traditional organised religion, they are still embracing faith and spirituality, broadly defined.

The pollsters behind the Springtide Research Institute, a new non-profit organisation dedicated to research about the “inner and outer lives” of young people, say their poll, of more than 10 000 Americans between 13 and 25, is without recent precedent in its size and breadth. They also said Jewish respondents — 215 in total, a sample size they identified as statistically significant — appeared to be among those thriving the least in their religious and spiritual lives.

The Jewish results, shared exclusively with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, confirm some elements of conventional wisdom about Gen Z Jews in America and challenge others. They also raise longstanding questions about whether Jews can effectively be studied the same way as people from other religious backgrounds.

It’s difficult to study how Jews compare to other religious groups because some individuals may identify as culturally, but not religiously, as Jewish, according to Richard Flory, a sociologist serving as the executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

“A person can say, ‘I’m an atheist, but I’m a Jew’,” Flory said. “Well, how do you deal with that? It’s a problem.”

The Springtide researchers opted to sort survey respondents into a wide range of categories: Jewish appears alongside other religious identities, as well as agnostic, atheist, “nothing in particular”, and “something else”.

The respondents who identified themselves as Jewish stood out from their peers from other “major religious groups” — Protestant Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus — in several ways, the Springtide poll found. Young Jews, more than members of any other group, said they were “not flourishing” in their relationships with friends, family, teachers, or other trusted adults. The same was true when asked about their physical health, mental health, social, and online lives, and “faith lives”.

Young Jews also led the pack with the highest percentage rejecting the sentence, “In general, I feel very positive about myself.”

And about 40% of young American Jews in the study said they don’t need “a spiritual community”, the highest rate among major religions — a potential point of alarm for those who are hoping to increase young Jews’ engagement with synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

“This should be a call for greater urgency for those positioned to care for young Jews, including teachers, employers, coaches, and especially leaders of synagogues,” said Springtide Chief Executive Josh Packard. “There’s real need and opportunity to start leading with relationships to help young Jews flourish.”

But are Jews really so different from their counterparts in other religious groups? Springtide’s poll questions about “faith life” and “faith community” may not have captured the modes of religious engagement that are present for Gen-Z Jews, or their parents, said Ronit Stahl, a professor at University of California, Berkeley who studies recent history and is involved in the university’s Center for the Study of Religion and Center for Jewish Studies.

“It strikes me as very Christian language,” Stahl said. “If you ask young Jews about their relationship with the Jewish community, you’ll get a very different answer than if you asked about their relationship with their faith community, because Jews typically don’t talk about Jewish life as being part of a faith community.”

Surveys about Jewish engagement and attitudes more traditionally focus on measures that are less open to interpretation, such as synagogue affiliation and frequency of various practices. That’s the case with the surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, the latest of which focused on Jews was released earlier this year and also found evidence of declining institutional engagement among younger Jews. Pew conducts similar surveys of Christians as well, and regularly releases surveys of attitudes across religious groups that are broadly trusted by American Jews.

Springtide is trying to do something different from what Pew does. According to Packard, Springtide is hoping to understand and support young people as they “explore life’s biggest questions” like “Why am I here? How should I live? What happens when I die?”

Founded in 2019, Springtide operates under the fiscal structure of a Catholic non-profit publishing company called Lasallian Educational and Research Initiatives, but the two entities are independent, with Springtide pledging to study young people from a non-sectarian perspective.

Packard acknowledged the difficulties in developing poll language about spirituality that’s universal but said the survey asked questions in multiple ways to capture different perspectives. He also noted that Springtide relied on an advisory board with representatives of many traditions including Judaism.

“Even with all of this in place, it’s tricky to try and find language and concepts that are accessible to young people broadly speaking,” Packard said. “Language that makes sense to young Muslims will not always resonate with Christians or Jews, and the nearly 40% of young people who are unaffiliated might not understand much religious language at all.”

He said this team was open to adjusting its survey methods, and next year, Springtide hoped to carry out a national study focused entirely on young Jews.

If it does, other measures suggest that it might well draw some similar conclusions.

Flory, the University of Southern California sociologist, said Springtide’s findings match what’s already well known in his field. He was referring to the work of the National Study of Youth and Religion out of the University of Notre Dame and to his own book published last year, Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults, which is based on a decade of research.

“There’s no surprise in any of the data that younger people across the board are moving away from institutionalised religion,” Flory said. “I can tell you the groups that aren’t doing well: Jews, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. They’re doing the worst.”

The suite of Jewish organisations seeking to engage Jewish teens and young adults is large and diverse, ranging from legacy institutions with a presence on college campuses like Hillel and Chabad, to the newer models like the fast-growing world of Moishe House with its global network of homes-as-community-centres, and startups such as GatherDC, which just got a $1.5 million (R23.5 million) grant to take its work on something called “relational Judaism” national.

Leaders of several Jewish organisations who reviewed the Springtide numbers said they weren’t sure how seriously they should treat the data, and expressed optimism on the outlook of engaging young Jews.

David Cygielman, the chief executive of Moishe House, for example, saw a glass half-full when he read that 41% percent of Jewish respondents weren’t flourishing in their faith lives. It meant that 59% were.

“As we’re looking out into the future and investing in this demographic, we’re not starting with a minority here, we’re starting with the majority that we want to see grow,” he said.

And from Chabad’s perspective, the numbers don’t exactly reflect the interest they are seeing at colleges.

“We’re seeing a surge of young Jews on campus clamouring for community, Jewish life, and engagement,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, the chief executive of Chabad on Campus International. “They are looking for meaningful ways to build their own authentic Jewish identity.”

But some in the Jewish world said they found Springtide’s approach refreshing, and thought the findings should be seen as relevant to American Jews. Josh Feigelson, a rabbi who leads the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, said the fact that poll language about faith and spirituality was seen as out of step with Jewish culture is in fact a problem for young Jews.

“For a lot of reasons, the American Jewish community has shunned overt spiritual language,” Feigelson said. “We don’t talk about the presence of G-d in our lives or offer words of blessing to each other in a non-self-conscious way. There’s a correlation there with a feeling of estrangement that doesn’t surprise me.”

As an applied sociologist, Tobin Belzer conducts research and evaluations on behalf of numerous organisations and philanthropists across the Jewish world. Her findings, based on several studies of Jewish young adults’ perspectives and experiences, suggest that this demographic isn’t hopelessly estranged.

“Young adults aren’t necessarily interested in rabbis who act like a ‘sage on the stage’,” she said. “They want someone who is real, approachable, and authentic, who is going to have an actual relationship with them. Also, they’re not typically looking for the one community where they can engage fully, they are looking for a smattering of different options.”

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App ups the game for KDVP leaders



Dannica De Aguiar, Amira Karstaedt, and Aerin Cohen leave King David High School Victory Park with a combined tally of 24 distinctions, but they also leave behind an app to help the school’s future matriculants.

Amira Karstaedt

Aerin Cohen


The app they created, called EVE, was introduced by the student representative council (SRC) last year.

“It serves as a platform for students to stay up to date with any important information, to express concerns, and share ideas,” says De Aguiar. “Ultimately, this app was developed by students for students, to meet their needs.”

As head girl, De Aguiar’s main role was to lead and support the SRC, while Karstaedt was its chief whip.

Cohen, the school’s deputy head girl, came up with the idea for the app when she noticed that students needed a platform to express their needs and have their voices heard.

“EVE was created to make the normal school day easier and happier, as well as to provide an easy way for students to communicate new ideas and concerns,” says Cohen. “We found a platform that allowed us to develop and distribute our own app.”

The student leaders, in turn, responded to the submissions from students on the app and took necessary action. EVE is also the place where students can access timetables, find out about the school’s upcoming events, and order from the tuck shop.

“EVE was constructed for the well-being of students,” says Cohen. “Therefore, in addition to a holiday countdown that boosts morale and motivation, EVE provides details of how students can reach out to [counselling service] Hatzolah Connect.

“This app has great potential for growth and I hope that one day, EVE will be developed professionally to serve many more schools and their students,” she says.

EVE is being further developed by Victory Park’s deputy head girl and boy and SRC of 2021/22.

During De Aguiar’s time as head girl, she represented the students and the ethos of the school as best as she could, and ensured the smooth running of numerous procedures.

Together with the SRC, she oversaw a variety of portfolios. “We had the opportunity to run initiatives, committees, and introduce [activities],” she says.

Karstaedt was involved in assisting various portfolios to execute their ideas, and ensured that each SRC member was heard and supported. She helped to organise the Fempower virtual event along with the rest of the school’s executive committee, which she describes as “a memorable and inspiring project”.

As mayor of the Johannesburg Junior Council, a prominent youth-led, non-profit organisation, Cohen was responsible for ensuring that fellow councillors had the support, guidance, and motivation they required to reach their goals.

“It was my role to encourage and organise to make sure that all councillors had the opportunity to learn together while serving the community around us,” she says.

Two Grade 11 students are elected to represent the school on the council each year. “I was honoured to be elected with my best friend, Paris Obel, who served as head of arts and culture,” says Cohen.

Deciding to run as mayor, Cohen went through multiple rounds of impromptu and prepared questions and speeches before the council voted her into the position. “I was up against some of the most brilliant minds and inspirational young people. I suppose I just really believed in myself and in my ability to turn passion into real, tangible change.”

De Aguiar considers receiving the Aileen Lipkin Sculpture for Good Fellowship her biggest success in her final school year.

“This award was voted for by my peers, and is awarded in recognition of commitment to the values of integrity, tolerance, and respect as well as commitment to the school,” she says. “This award is special to me because although good marks are something to be proud of, they don’t define you as a person.”

Karstaedt won the Israel Quiz in 2020, and achieved full colours in creative writing.

“My path to success in the 2020 Israel Quiz was gradual, requiring endurance and dedication,” she says. “But being able to expand and refine my knowledge of Israel’s history, culture, and geography during the three years I participated in the quiz was a rewarding and enjoyable experience.”

Her passion for creative writing has been a constant in her life, and was further consolidated when she became a member of the Writing Club in Grade 8.

“I especially love writing poetry,” she says, “and am thankful for the many opportunities that I received throughout high school to share my poems with others and listen to some of the exceptional pieces written by my peers.”

Karstaedt and De Aguiar put their good results down to hard work in a matric year in which they wrote mid-year exams at school during the third wave, and having early morning lessons and bi-weekly webinars.

“I worked hard to obtain the results that I expected of myself, and that motivation played a significant role in my approach to completing assignments, studying, and writing exams,” says Karstaedt.

“You need to focus in class, practice at home, and put in the hard work to prepare for your exams,” says De Aguiar.

She says 2022’s matrics should expect a tough year, but they should accept the challenge and rise to the occasion.

“In the end, you’ll be rewarded for all the effort. Most importantly, make sure you remember to have fun and enjoy the year.”

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi



It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar



As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.

Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.

The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.

A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.

Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.

Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.

Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.

The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.

Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.

In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.

And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

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