As featured in Sh’ma, a national journal of Jewish ideology, alongside articles by former Senator Russ Feingold and Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna:
Last spring, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. It was a routine visit: He was to deliver a few brief remarks, answer a handful of questions, and in the process court a soon-to-vote portion of his constituency. That morning, as students were still shuffling into the gym, I spotted the congressman and approached him.
“Hi, Congressman,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake his and tell him about a project I’d helped create on our campus. Our “Global Response” team had made buttons to raise funds for Japan’s earthquake victims. The congressman’s eyes glazed over. When I handed him one of the buttons, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, muttering, “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things.”
The congressman’s response shouldn’t be read as a sob story. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the national Jewish community: My generation is plagued by a glaring apathy toward the political process and a crippling passivity with regard to civic engagement. Various outside factors — represented here by the congressman — are hindering our ability to grow beyond that apathy.
Empirical data paint a daunting picture. In the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972, 72 percent of eligible adult voters (ages 30 and above) cast ballots. More than half of eligible young voters (ages 18-24) participated in that same election.1 In the election of 2000, the number of adult voters remained unchanged. The statistic for young voters, however, suffered a rapid and now consistent decline. A marked indifference has crept swiftly over the youngest segment of the electorate.
That decline continues to persist. Recent reports2 estimate that only a quarter of all eligible people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. (The 2008 election is, no doubt, a political, societal, and statistical anomaly). Another survey3 found that only one in 20 teens and one in twelve young adults read a newspaper on a near-daily basis. Aside from the obvious changes in reading patterns, apathy about world events and voting — the clout of each vote — is growing exponentially.
I can’t speak to the byproducts of apathy in other communities; to theorize about how the rest of “my generation” contributes to these trends would be hollow speculation. But, as the fruit of a modern American Jewish upbringing, I can shed light on the broader ramifications within my own social microcosm: I study at the largest Jewish community high school in the country, taking classes in Jewish thought, Hebrew, and American government. I’ve spent summers at Camp Ramah, walked through the dimly lit pathways beneath the Western Wall, and chanted kaddish amid the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz — all alongside my American Jewish contemporaries. I am someone who engages, quarrels with, and appreciates young adult American Jews on a consistent basis.
Some of my peers don’t know the name of our vice president; others are amused to discover that my Internet homepage is CNN.com; many make lofty, irresponsible, or erroneous claims about the State of Israel — often built on a blind acceptance of their parents’ or teachers’ opinions. In school and synagogue, among my peers, I watch teenagers lay claim to beliefs that are not their own. It isn’t that they’re indoctrinated; it is that they’re indifferent.
That indifference is precarious: Neither passion nor advocacy can grow from the reflexive adoption of someone else’s ideas. My generation is growing up without a sound skill-set or mechanism for expressing or defending statements. Belief without basis is futile; we are writers without a story to tell.
Although several Jewish high schools around the country offer classes like Model United Nations and Model Congress, and even advanced placement courses in government and economics, ignorance wears a stubborn armor. Young people remain uninterested in and unknowledgeable about current events.
It is my contention that in these months of fervent national conversation — and into the foreseeable future — Jewish professionals who teach, motivate, influence, and interact with Jewish youth must consider a paradigm shift. In the impressionable eyes and hearts of my generation, modern Judaism — at least for the time being — is in need of recontextualization. A focus on the spiritual is valuable, but a focus on the experiential, practical, empirical, and political — exposure to civic responsibility and our role as global citizens — is invaluable and imperative. Such an investment may help to usher out an era of apathy; it can drive the perseverance of a people and their values. We are the youngest members of the American Jewish electorate. Educate us: Teach us to use our collective, vital, and ever-potent voice.