Part 1: Israeli millennials vs. their American Jewish counterparts

Illustrative image - a group of young Jewish millennials visiting Israel on a Taglit - Birthright trip, Photo: Facebook

A poll recently commissioned by Jews for Jesus shows that American Jewish millennials are a more spiritually open generation ready to dialogue about their beliefs and those of others.

And when it comes to Jesus, nearly one quarter of American Jewish millennials interviewed responded that they believe Jesus was God in human form while some 27 percent see him as a spiritual leader or prophet.

Conducted by the Barna Group, a reputed polling firm in the U.S., the study shows that 21 percent of Jewish millennials in America believe that Jesus was God. This, however, could be the result of higher intermarriage rates and a more liberal mindset as opposed to a Messianic belief system.

In an introduction to the 107-page study, Ari Kelman, the Jim Joseph Chair of Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, wrote that the question of who is an American Jew is becoming increasingly difficult to define, but that these millennials might be on the cutting edge of this definition.

“Jewish Millennials are more likely to accept the possibility of being both Jewish and Christian, and they appear to be willing to experiment, combine and tailor religious beliefs and practices to their own needs,” Kelman wrote.

“More than two out of every five Millennials see Jesus (43 percent) and Buddha (41 percent) as teachers …Interestingly, while Buddha and Jesus are regarded similarly in many of the descriptions, including being spiritual, peaceful, wise, inspirational and moral, Jesus is viewed significantly more as a leader, a role model, loving, revolutionary and powerful,” the study found. “A reason for this may simply be a greater familiarity with Christianity and lack of proximity with eastern spirituality among Millennial Jews in America.”

The study concludes: “And herein lies a piece of the Jewish Millennial paradox: They are becoming both more conservative and more liberal in their views on faith and spirituality, an ongoing balancing act between their heritage and the tendencies of their generation.”

But what if this same poll had been conducted among Israeli millennials? KNI interviewed Dan Sered, Jews for Jesus Israel director, to find out his thoughts.

KNI: Had this survey been conducted in Israel, what sort of results do you think we’d be seeing?

Sered: As there is a vast difference between the cultures of the United States and Israel, it is difficult to predict what variances we would see between the answers of the two people groups. Israelis serve in the military and that completely changes their life and worldview. It is extremely difficult to predict what results we would be seeing.

Having said that, what we do know about Israelis is that many of them still do not have a full perspective on who Yeshua was, or about His death, burial, and resurrection and its meaning in the lives of those who believe and find salvation in Him. Whereas, the high percentage of intermarriage in the USA has an effect the Jewish community and has resulted in many mixed homes. This creates situations where a Jewish spouce with his or her kids will attend a church service or participate in Christian holidays; therefore, the child would hear about Yeshua. Thus the knowledge about Yeshua of an American Jewish millennial is greater than the knowledge about Yeshua of an Israeli millennial.

KNI: It seems from the results that Jewish American millennials, even if not Orthodox or observant, consider themselves “religious.” The divide here between being religious and secular appears wider to me — you are either one or the other. What do you think about the Israeli counterparts to the survey participants in this regard? Do you see them also being spiritual, or is it religious or not? 

Sered: Surveys have shown that the majority of Israelis believe in a higher power even if they do not adhere to religious or Orthodox Jewish traditions. However, because of the cultural divide between the secular and religious communities in Israel, I would assume that most secular Israelis would not use the term “religious” as a way to describe themselves. The term “religious” may carry some negative connotations to an Israeli millennial but in actuality when comparing actual practices the Israeli millennial may be found to be more religious than an average Jewish American millennial.

KNI: In terms of what could be influencing the poll results (perhaps culture, politics, demographics, etc.), what do you see as the differences between Israeli Jewish millennials and American Jewish millennials? Similarities? 

Sered: Without having a similar survey done in Israel there isn’t enough data to make conclusive statements on the differences between Jewish millennials in Israel and the United States. What I can say is that Jews for Jesus has been working for over a decade in Israel to share the gospel with the people in the Land and that we are seeing more openness now than we saw ten years ago. We used to experience much more opposition from the general public when sharing about our faith.

While there are still many who don’t wish to accept Yeshua as God, the majority of those that we speak with are willing to at least have the conversation. And there isn’t a month that goes by where we don’t have one or two Israelis, after meeting with us and looking over the scriptures, who come to realize that Yeshua is the Messiah that was prophesied in the TaNaKh.

In my opinion the most important conclusion of the Barna survey is the fact that American Jewish millennials are open to speak about spiritual things. This should encourage the body of Messiah in the USA to reach out and to share the truth of the Gospel with Jewish millennials. This openness to spiritual things, I believe, is something that Israeli millennials have in common with Jewish American millennials.

KNI: Can this survey help you reach Israelis? If so, how?

Sered: Such a survey could give us some ideas about reaching out to the Israeli Millennials, but it wouldn’t fully guide our outreach efforts. Israeli Jews and American Jews are two very different cultures. Even within Israel there is such a diverse set of people groups. Our Jewish people have made their way home from the four corners of the earth, each bringing with them their own traditions, values, food, etc. On top of that, each person has their own individual personality and understanding of the world and it is impossible to reach everyone in the same way. What we can do is to serve the communities that we’re in with the love of Messiah and trust that the Lord will use that service in drawing our Jewish people to Himself.

KNI: What has the reaction been — if any — in Israel to the survey results? Especially in terms of the overlap with Christianity such as Jews believing Jesus is God’s son, and Jews celebrating Christmas.

Sered: We’ve found many who were surprised by the large number of American Jewish Millennials that believe in Jesus as God’s son. This is to be expected as we can assume that the percentage of young Israelis who share that belief would be much lower. We were also surprised at that particular statistic but we shouldn’t confuse someone expressing in a survey that they believe Jesus is God’s son verses actually living their life as a disciple where Jesus reigns as God over their life.

The entire survey can be purchased at The Barna Group website for $39.
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