Brookline native Emily Raine began volunteering in high school. She volunteered throughout college, joined AmeriCorps while working towards her master’s degree, and continues volunteering today as a young professional.
When she talks about volunteering, she doesn’t talk a lot about tikkun olam or tzedakah. She talks about civil obligation and cultural understanding.
“For me, service is about exposure and connection,” Raine, 31, said. “It’s about having an opportunity to understand the larger community through a broader lens.”
She’s not alone.
A recent survey conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications found that while a large majority of Jews between 18 and 35 volunteer for social causes, few identify the practice with Jewish values.
“Most Jewish young adults don’t connect their Jewish identity, values and heritage to their volunteer work,” said Fern Chertok, the study’s lead researcher at the Cohen Center.
The study found that while 72 percent of young Jews volunteered in the past 12 months, only 10 percent worked primarily with Jewish organizations.
It’s not surprising, Chertok said, given many young people don’t connect their Jewish identity to most parts of their life.
“[Young people] are happy and proud to be Jewish, but it’s not salient in their day-to-day life,” she said.
Other findings include: Seventy-eight percent of respondents said it did not matter if their volunteer organization was Jewish or not. Orthodox Jews have the highest percentage of volunteers at 86 percent. Those who identified as Other (including Reconstructionist) had an 81 percent volunteer rate; Reform, 77 percent; and Conservative, 66 percent. More Jewish women volunteer than men. Seventy-eight percent of females have volunteered in the past year, compared to 63 percent of males. While only 1 percent of participants said they volunteer on Israel related projects, 9 percent expressed interest in volunteering in Israel and the Middle East.
The study was commissioned by Repair the World, a Jewish service organization, to figure out how to better engage young Jews in Jewish-sponsored service.
The study surveyed 951 young Jews from across the country. It was administered online and by phone. The researchers drew on a pool of more than 300,000 applicants to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program and from Knowledge Networks, a national online research panel.
Among volunteer activities cited were mentoring or tutoring under-privileged children or adults; working at a food pantry or clothing distribution center; and building or repairing homes.
The survey found that the more involved someone was in Jewish life, the more likely they were to volunteer.
But most young people identified volunteering as a universal – not Jewish – value, according to Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World.
“This is the most diverse generation,” Rosenberg said. “They are incredibly tolerant of differences and hesitant to feel that lines are being drawn around them and around their identity. They construct their identity out of many different sources.”
Respondents were asked to rate the reasons why they volunteer on a scale from one to seven – seven being the most important reason, one being the least important.
The response “to make a difference in people’s lives” averaged a 6. “It is a Jewish value to help those in need” averaged a 3.9.
The survey found that most young people were interesting in volunteering for organizations that assisted the needy, worked in healthcare, and promoted education or literacy.
The survey also found was that while a large majority of young Jews donate time or money to a social cause, few do so on a regular basis.
Only 5 percent of those surveyed volunteer once a week. Thirty percent volunteer once every few months.
Here in Boston, the Jewish community is a little ahead of the curve, according to Nahma Nadich, director of Social Justice Programs at the Jewish Community Relations Council.
For several years, the organization had been trying to launch a young adult volunteering program with little success, Nadich said.
So, like Repair the World, JCRC conducted its own, albeit smaller, survey. It invited a group of young Jewish volunteers to meet with program coordinators and discuss possible volunteer activities.
Young Jews told JCRC they were concerned with issues of education and literacy; they were looking for a way to connect their Jewish values to a broader community; and they wanted programs where they could see tangible results.
After that meeting, JCRC designed and launched Reach Out, a nine-week program than funnels Jewish volunteers to primarily non- Jewish organizations. For example, they work with United South End Settlements, helping South End and Lower Roxbury residents prepare for their GED exam.
It is a successful young adult volunteer program, Nadich said, because it reflects the generational concerns of its volunteers.
“They want to be stakeholders, not just consumers of volunteer programs,” Nadich said. “They want to know they are having an impact and are building a community.”
The national survey revealed a similar mentality across the country.
“These millennials believe they can make a difference and they really want to do so,” Chertok said.
Like JCRC, Repair the World is expanding its partner organizations even further beyond the Jewish community. In Detroit, it is connecting the Jewish Coalition for Literacy with the local United Way, Rosenberg said.
The survey can also help Jewish organizations attract young volunteers, Chertok said.
“Service is an important part of contemporary life,” she said. “The more we understand it, the more we can cast a wider net and engage young people in more regular and meaningful volunteering.”
Even though Emily Raine didn’t cite Jewish values as the main reason for volunteering, she said she still wanted to connect to the Jewish community. She said she found in Reach Out an organization that bridged the Jewish and broader community here in Boston.
Raine helped two women study for their GED by having them practice grammar and vocabulary by reading aloud from young adult novels.
When they began, the women stumbled through the chapters.
By the end of the nine weeks, both women were reading “beautifully.” That impact, said Raine, was reason enough to volunteer.