March 16, 2023

First-in-a-Generation Study Shows Positive Influence of Rabbis on Young American Jews, Helping Them Feel More Spiritually Connected


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.”

Atra is hosting a webinar on Tuesday, March 28 at 12-1pm ET to discuss the key findings and their implications.

The organization, which recently changed its name from the Center for Rabbinic Innovation, is in the midst of a $6 million strategic plan aimed to expand its offerings and programs. Atra started as a project of the Office of Innovation led by Rabbi Dan Smokler in 2016. Today it supports rabbis and spiritual leaders across denominations and in environments ranging from long-standing synagogues and schools to more emergent communities and projects. It provides cohort-based learning and support for visionary, innovative rabbis with outstanding potential, and broader training for clergy who need tools to adapt their practice to contemporary needs.

Atra commissioned the Benenson Strategy Group for this research, conducted over the second half of 2022 among 18–44-year-olds who identify as Jewish in a broad way – either as a Jew by religion, or a Jew from a cultural, spiritual, ethnic or family heritage, or religious perspective, even if they didn’t identify Jewish as their religion; and not identify as practicing Messianic Judaism. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the research was conducted to make for easy comparison to the 2020 Pew report on Jewish Americans.


Additional Methodology Information:

Benenson Strategy Group conducted two phases of research for this study, qualitative online journals followed by a quantitative survey.

  • Stage 1: Online Qualitative Journals (August 2022) Benenson Strategy Group  interviewed 41 young American Jews aged 18-44 years, representative of the Jewish young adult population nationwide for the journals. They were fielded from July 28 – August 7, 2022.
  • Stage 2:  Quantitative Survey: For the second phase, Benenson Strategy Group conducted a quantitative survey with n=800 Jewish Americans ages 18-44 from October 10-21, 2022. The sample size of 800 was chosen to ensure that our margins of error were high enough during subgroup analysis to be statistically significant and to have an accurate representation of the young Jewish adult population. The survey was conducted online utilizing BSG’s online panel of vendors to reach a representative sample of our targeted audience of American Jews ages 18-44.

By beginning with qualitative journals, researchers heard from young Jews in their own words, offering unfiltered, unedited, authentic language they use to describe their feelings and experiences. This storytelling methodology was particularly beneficial for this research project, as researchers wanted to hear young Jews talk about their experiences with rabbis in an in depth way, which focus groups typically cannot capture. The quantitative survey is then used to verify the findings from the qualitative phase and allows for representative analysis in addition to subgroup exploration.