Are we really more selfish?

By Jonathan Boyd, June 12, 2014

Are British Jews becoming more materialistic and selfish? When Steven Lewis, Chairman of Jewish Care, suggested last week that they may be, it should have raised a red flag across the community. He works tirelessly to raise charitable funds and has clearly experienced dissonance between the wealth he sees and the willingness that exists to invest it in Jewish communal causes.

But is he right?

Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) survey evidence indicates that British Jews are no less charitable today than they were a decade ago. Our recent National Jewish Community Survey (NJCS) found that approximately nine in ten Jews make at least one donation a year (to a Jewish or non-Jewish charity), a very similar proportion to that found in research JPR conducted in 2001-02.

However, whilst the overall proportion of Jews who give has remained largely steady, the actual number of givers - particularly those in their 30s, 40s and 50s - has declined. Why?

Quite simply because the Jewish population in that age band has contracted; there are fewer of them around to give.

This should concern not just charities but us all

At the same time, the number of Jewish charities in the UK has increased by 20% since 1997. So today, there are more Jewish charities trying to fundraise but fewer people around to donate to them.

Given this, it is extraordinary that the community's major charities are doing as well as they are. Whilst some British Jews may well be shaped by the materialism they experience around them, a declining pool of others appears to be giving with sufficient generosity to ensure we receive the community services we need.

However, the indicators suggest that this may not be sustainable over time, for one key reason. At the heart of Lewis's critique is a concern about the place of charitable giving in people's Jewish identities. He is absolutely right to feel troubled.

Irrespective of the proportions or numbers of Jews who give, JPR's data indicate that younger Jews are less likely than their elders to regard charitable giving as an important part of their Jewishness.

Specifically, whilst 42% of those aged over 65 maintain that donating funds to charity is "very important" to their sense of Jewish identity, only 32% of those aged 16-39 feel similarly.

This pattern is repeated within every denominational grouping. All younger generation Jews, irrespective of the type of Jewish identity they hold, are less likely than their equivalent elders to regard charitable giving as important. For example, among Jews who describe their Jewish identity as "Traditional", 51% of 65-plus year-olds think that donating funds to charity is very important to their sense of Jewish identity, compared with 32% of 16-39 year-olds.

The equivalent figures for Jews who self-identify as "Orthodox" are 77% (65+) and 60% (16-39); for those who consider themselves "Reform" or "Progressive", the proportions are 45% (65+) and 29% (16-39).

Thus the overall decline cannot be blamed loosely on assimilation. Rather, the data suggest that the very concept of charitable giving is not being internalised by younger Jews to the same extent as it was by their elders. Compared to their parents and grandparents, donating funds to charity is simply a less important part of their understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

With all the investments made in Jewish education in recent decades, why don't young Jews feel a strong Jewish responsibility towards giving to others?

The fact that they do not suggests that our methods of teaching this fundamental component of Jewishness may be insufficiently robust. We are falling short. This should not just concern charity trustees; it should bother us all.

Increased levels of materialism or selfishness may actually be a symptom of a more fundamental underlying cause. The dimension of Jewishness that emphasises giving to others is not being communicated effectively enough. Like all aspects of Jewishness, it needs to be practised not just in schools but, far more importantly, in our homes. Giving to others needs to become a habit, something we practice openly, with regularity, not just to benefit the recipients, but to teach our children.

Dr Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

Last updated: 12:44pm, June 12 2014