American Jews are as engaged as ever —
if you look in the right place

OCTOBER 12, 2022 

By KEREN SOFFER-SHARON

Most dominant narratives about the future of American-Jewish life focus on a supposed decline in engagement, a lack of Jewish identity, or, worse, a so-called crisis of continuity. And yet, since Rise Up’s inception, all we can see is a rapidly growing ecosystem of Jewish organizations across the country that are engaging higher numbers of Jews than ever before.

Rise Up launched in the fall of 2019 in order to do something absolutely necessary for the success of our social movements and the future of the American-Jewish community: to nourish the soul of Jewish justice work.

Just three years later, our work only grows more pressing as we face multiple, overlapping global crises: from the ongoing pandemic to unrelenting racism, grinding poverty, and the destruction of our planet. It has never been more urgent to build an organized movement of people to respond to these unprecedented conditions. Jewish people have always participated in social movements throughout history, and this time is no different. We have a crucial role to play — and a prophetic voice to bring — to the struggles of our time. And we must do so proudly as Jews.

It is within this framework that Rise Up emerged — focused on investing in the breadth of spiritual leadership and expression that we see at the core of any successful justice movement. We know that unlocking faith and spirituality is not only important for experiencing the sense of personal and collective wholeness that all of us deserve, but also strategically necessary if we want to organize the level of broad-based support that we need to transform our world.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve studied the important findings in the Pew Research Center study on Jewish Americans from 2020. What can we learn from the 27 percent of American Jews who do not identify with the Jewish religion and the 79 percent who don’t attend religious services regularly, even as 80 percent still feel some sense of belonging in Jewish community? What about the 59 percent who say that working for justice is an essential way they practice their Judaism? Even in the face of declining synagogue membership over the last many decades — something that’s reflected across many religions in the U.S. — the yearning to create a spiritual Jewish community that’s rooted in principles of justice and equity is only increasing.

At Rise Up, we don’t believe there’s any decline in Jewish engagement, nor a “crisis of continuity.” Instead, we see more and more people connecting to Judaism outside of traditional Jewish spaces — in living rooms, zoom rooms, protests, and ballot boxes. That’s why we’re so proud to have grown into a powerful seed funder of such initiatives in just a few years — investing over $1.3 million in 50 inspiring projects across the country, working at the intersection of Jewish spirituality and social justice.

All of our grantees are experimenting with new and creative ways to teach the richness of our tradition, and many of them are using these tools to not only fortify but also politicize thousands of Jews across the country. They’re expanding access points to Judaism for so many of us who are on the margins and who have, at one point or another, felt alienated by a Jewish community in which we’ve tried to participate — including Jews of Color, Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews, poor/working-class people, disabled folks, queer, trans, and/or gender nonconforming folks. Our grantees share much more about these experiences in our Emerging Outcomes Study, which we published in 2021, thanks to the support of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.

We need Jews with those experiences to be the ones building the accessible Jewish spaces we all desperately need to exist, which is why over 47 percent of Rise Up’s projects are led by Jews of Color and over 60 percent by Jews with a marginalized identity. All of us deserve to feel the magic of finding our spiritual and political home, and Rise Up grantees are at the forefront of bringing forth the places of worship, study, and action that are at the heart of our movement.

Even as the need for our work grows, the groups responding to that need remain vastly underfunded. The majority of our grantees share that Rise Up was the first funder to take a chance on them. After receiving an initial grant from us, our grantees’ budgets grow an average of 82 percent in only 1-2 years. Those numbers are astonishing, and speak to what’s possible when we invest in cutting-edge initiatives that are meeting a growing generation of Jews where they’re truly at.

And yet, our projects regularly report having waitlists for their programs because interest and demand exceed their organizational capacity. That’s how much their work resonates with people, and how much they’re struggling to get the resources they need to operate. Rise Up plays a vital role in providing budding organizations with much-needed funding and getting our grantees ready for bigger budgets, but we also don’t have sufficient resources to fund all the groups who need it. And as our reputation grows, the influx of requests for our support only continues to increase exponentially.

If we want to imagine a future for American-Jewish life, we have to expand our current understanding of what it means to practice Judaism. Thankfully, we don’t have to start from scratch — the spaces where we can do so have already begun to emerge, led by members of our community in whom others can actually see themselves reflected and want to follow. It’s time we invested in them.

 

Keren Soffer-Sharon is the Director of Rise Up. She has been a leader in the Jewish social justice landscape for nearly a decade, and formerly organized with Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, where she co-founded the first-ever Mizrahi/Sephardi Caucus in the country and co-authored Understanding Antisemitism: An Offering To Our Movement.