Atra gathering
Atra gatheringSpokesperson

Young American Jews want more experiences with rabbis because those interactions help them feel more spiritually connected and more connected to a Jewish community, says a new report released today from Atra: Center for Rabbinic Innovation.

The first-in-a-generation research, conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group, paints a rich picture of what factors lead to positive interactions between 18-44-year-old American Jews and rabbis, how these interactions help young adults feel more comfortable and confident being Jewish, and where rabbis can look to engage even more young people.

Key findings of the young American Jews who were part of the Rabbi Experience Research:

  • A relationship with a rabbi is important to young American Jews. 64% say it is important to them currently and only 12% of those who say it is not currently important say it will not be important to them later.

  • Young American Jews prioritize their rabbis accepting them for who they are as people and how they want to be Jewish, while also seeking guidance and knowledge from their rabbis.

  • Young American Jews have predominantly had positive experiences with rabbis who are welcoming, friendly, and knowledgeable. These positive interactions are impactful:
    • 91% said it made them feel more positively about being Jewish.
    • 90% said they felt more spiritually connected.
    • 88% said it made them more confident and comfortable being Jewish.

  • Most young Jews have had an interaction or experience with a rabbi (69%) although 40% of respondents said they have difficulty finding a rabbi. While they believe synagogue is a natural place to find rabbis, it is also seen as a barrier (not accepting/too expensive).

  • Only 7% of all young Jews report having had a purely negative experience with a rabbi. Negative interactions are largely characterized by feeling that the rabbi was judgmental, rude or unhelpful, leaving young Jews disappointed, annoyed and uncomfortable. Note that positive experiences have a greater impact than negative ones, signaling the importance of positive experiences at young ages.

“The findings show that rabbis in different settings are integral to both welcoming young adults into Jewish life and, critically, helping them find a level of spirituality, meaning and connection to Jewish community they clearly want,” says Dr. Rebekah Tokatlilar of Atra. “We have an exciting opportunity to support spiritual leaders to engage people both inside and outside of synagogue walls. Rabbis can deploy wisdom artfully and connect with as many people as possible, wherever they are. Younger American Jews want rabbis–and they want their rabbis to seek them out where they spend time and in ways they can relate.”

Atra has been meeting with rabbis, scholars, and Jewish leaders to share the findings and discuss policy and investment implications. Common reactions are that the research confirms what many in the field have observed anecdotally—that rabbis matter. Many wonder how this research can inform rabbinic training in the future. Others point to additional questions this study raises about the kinds of rabbis that have the most positive impact and whether positive experiences with rabbis are one-offs or occur over time.

Says Dr. Jon Levisohn, Director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, “The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis was delighted to partner with Atra to convene a research consultation at Brandeis about this important new study of how American Jews perceive rabbis in their lives."

"The study itself is exciting, suggesting ways that American Jews may be open to greater connection with and support from rabbis as they navigate moments big and small in their lives. At the research consultation, each of the ten Brandeis scholars brought their own knowledge and scholarly perspective to bear on the topic, carefully considering what we can learn from this new study and what the implications may be for Jewish communal policy and practice."

"These occasions are so rare—sitting together in a collegial environment, sharing ideas openly and honestly, and brainstorming ways to support the growth of individual Jews and the flourishing of the Jewish community.”

"The research is both compelling and affirming in what it tells us about young people and how they navigate the world today," says Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Executive Director of NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and Co-director of the NYU dual MA in Jewish nonprofit management. "Young people want leaders in their lives who relate to them, accept them, and who signal to them that it's ok to be vulnerable, to be unsure of things in life. With the right training and support, rabbis are those leaders! Now we need to figure out how to match as many rabbis as possible with as many young adults as possible to develop these meaningful relationships.“