Keeping Jewish Millennials Connected

Florina Newcomb and Amanda Loflin

By Richard Friedman

Having watched the new film “Image of Victory,” the true story of one of the most gripping battles of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, I can’t get the movie out of my mind as I reflect on a recent American Jewish Committee study on the attachment today’s American Jewish Millennials have to Israel.

In the film, most of the young Jewish defenders featured so powerfully are the same age of those whom we today call Millennials. They were from an array of backgrounds and experiences who, just as their adult lives were beginning, were called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of Israel’s rebirth as a modern Jewish state.

For me, what links the Millennials of today with their age-counterparts from that era are questions many have asked about the depth of ties they have to Israel. And beyond that, what are the implications — especially as political attacks against the Jewish state mount and Iran, the terror groups it supports and other hostile countries still dream of destroying the world’s only majority-Jewish country.

The AJC study provides some answers, as do conversations with staff at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Birmingham Jewish Federation who are involved in their Federations’ outreach to and engagement of Jewish Millennials.

The AJC study defined Millennials as those between the ages of 25-40.

Key findings suggest that significant majorities of American Jewish millennials say it is important that the American Jewish community and Israel maintain close ties, with 72 percent in agreement, and 48 percent saying it is very important.

Seventy percent of millennial American Jews think a strong State of Israel is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, and 81 percent think a strong Jewish community outside of Israel is necessary.

Reflecting on the study, AJC’s Atlanta-based regional director for the Southeast, Dov Wilker, said, “First and most important to me is that Millennial Jews both in America and Israel think that a strong state of Israel is important for the survival of the Jewish people.” The study also surveyed Israeli Millennials.

Wilker also noted that more than half of the young Americans surveyed — about 54 percent — “believe that Israel is important to their Jewish identity.” AJC’s findings, he said, “counter the anti-Israel narrative that younger Jews are falling away from Israel. In my opinion, the overall majority of young Jews believe in the state of Israel as a Jewish state.”

This, he believes, “reflects the effort that the organized Jewish community has put on creating connections with Israel, a direct reflection of the success of Birthright and the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Wilker also suggested the survey results reflect the emergence of Israel as a world leader in areas such as high tech and social issues, things that appeal to Millennials.

Necessary for Jews

Florina Newcomb is the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s Senior Director of Engagement. Through her work and social relationships, Newcomb, 38, constantly engages with Jewish Millennials, many of whom are her peers.

“I personally agree with a lot of the findings,” Newcomb said. “I think the state of Israel is necessary for the Jewish people. I agree personally with all the majority viewpoints. Professionally, I like what this study is saying — that a significant number of Millennial Jews feel an attachment to Israel. There have been other reports over the past few years that have painted a different picture, so I am glad that the attachment among a sizable portion of Millennials is strong.”

Newcomb has worked for the BJF for seven years. Before that, she worked for the Memphis Jewish Federation. Born in Moldova, she and her family immigrated to Birmingham in the early 1990s with assistance from the BJF and agencies it funds.

Lately, she has seen a significant uptick in young families becoming interested in taking family trips to Israel. “While what goes on in Israel is not something we discuss day to day, it is telling that I am seeing more families wanting to go to Israel and experience it together. Also I think there is a desire to learn more about the country.”

Newcomb thinks that the well-documented increase in antisemitism that has taken hold recently is also playing a role in awakening and reawakening interest in Israel among Millennials, many of whom went to Israel on Birthright trips when they were younger.

“Given the parallel time frame between heightened interest in Israel among Millennials and the growth in antisemitism, which is something that is now real in our lives, I assume there is a connection. Suddenly you are singled out and begin to realize more deeply the importance of having a strong Israel to which Jews can move to if need be.”

Newcomb also believes that connecting with Israel, especially at times of Jewish uncertainty, provides comfort, and creates a broader collective that can strengthen each Jew psychologically. “Connecting with Israel reminds us that ‘we are all in this together.’ When your religion is attacked you seek comfort within your group.”

Through her work and on a personal level, as a younger member of the Birmingham Jewish community, Newcomb still would like to see more offerings that connect people to Israel. “I want to make sure that peers my age and their families continue to stay connected to Judaism which I think will help them stay connected to Israel — I feel that Judaism and Israel are intertwined.”

She speculates there may be one other factor influencing the study’s results, something she can especially appreciate given her family’s decision to leave Moldova in the early 1990s. “We are living at a time of great political instability and tension, at home and abroad. Anyone who knows Jewish history knows that in the past such times have resulted in problems for Jews. All of this is in the back of my mind personally and I am sure others are thinking the same way.”

Generating Excitement

At the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, 34-year-old Amanda Loflin serves as the director of Next Gen and Mentorship, engaging Jewish young adults. She’s been in her job just five months and moved to New Orleans only two months ago.

She is passionate about the importance of Israel in Jewish life, though frustrated at times because she has encountered Jewish peers, both in New Orleans and elsewhere, who have distanced themselves from the Jewish state.

She thinks the way the media portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has deterred more people from becoming involved, she said — “particularly those younger Jews see the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a human rights issue in a way that disadvantages Israel.”

However, based on the AJC study, as well as her own work, she believes such Jews are in the minority. Yet it frustrates Loflin nonetheless. The backbone of her job is outreach and, as she noted, in smaller Southern communities, such as New Orleans and Birmingham, every Jew is important.

“I definitely think that the programs the Federation puts on and national programs such as Birthright are important. These programs generate excitement and people who have been on trips to Israel tend to have different and better informed views than those who haven’t been.”

Different Ways

When asked what the Jewish community should do with the study’s findings, Wilker said “We continue to develop initiatives and programs that engage young American Jews. We need to build on what has been successful; to consider the different ways we can be successful.”

For today’s Millennials, the young heroes who defended Israel in 1948, such as those portrayed in the film, “Image of Victory,” were part of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ era. Their heroism and sacrifices live on, though as the decades unfold those daunting times may become less remembered.

Nonetheless, it is they who bequeathed Israel to today’s Millennials -— and to the Jewish people in general. Protecting that legacy and sustaining those bonds is serious and sacred work, and the AJC study not only provides insight, but it also illuminates opportunities.