In their lifetimes, the iPhone has captured the American imagination while traditional Jewish institutions, from Federations to synagogues, have struggled to stay relevant. As a result, the mainstream Jewish community has spent countless dollars and hours trying to reach Millennials.
Except…Millennials are kind of old now. And a whole new generation of Jews, born in the late-late 90s and early 2000s, is primed to make its mark.
The effort to understand Gen Z, these new pipsqueaks on the block, drove a new 2019 study by The Jewish Education Project that surveyed 17,576 teens across 14 youth-serving organizations like USY, BBYO, and Young Judaea. What everyone wants to know is: What kinds of Jews are these? How are youth groups helping these Jews be who and what they want to be? And knowing that, what do we learn about today’s American Judaism?
The results are alternatively relieving and frustrating; absurdly obvious and somehow surprising, based around responses to 14 general Jewish criteria.
While the full report is a recommended read to any Jewish professional or lay leader, below are key excerpts, organized by subject, to stir the mind.
Engaged, but far from representative
The report by The Jewish Education Project is specifically about Jewish teens engaged in young-serving organizations. But comparing them to Jewish teens who have never been in a youth group shows a little of what, and who, is missing from mainstream Jewish life.
For example, almost 80% of the teens in youth groups said that everyone in their family is Jewish. By contrast, all-Jewish families were only reported in 20% of teens that have never been in a youth organization.
“Given trends in interfaith marriage among American Jewish adults over the past few decades, these numbers were surprising to us,” researchers wrote. “While interfaith families may be less likely to raise their children Jewish, the 2013 Pew study of American Jews suggests that the majority of interfaith families are raising their children Jewish in some way.”
Why, then, is there such a large difference between interfaith and non-interfaith families when it comes to teen participation in youth groups? Researchers speculated: “Possible answers include: they are not welcome, they are not interested, or they had negative experiences in Jewish programs as a child.”
Interfaith teens are also sensitive about not always being counted as Jewish, but the report didn’t include any example of teens who refused to be in a youth group because of that.
Transgender or gender nonconforming teens are also underrepresented in Jewish youth groups.
“Among the teens who responded to our survey, only 0.5% identified as nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or ‘something else,’” researchers said. “This is lower than the close to 3% of the general teen population that research suggests identifying as transgender or gender nonconforming.”
In responding to the data, researchers were straightforward in their conclusions. “Welcoming diverse teens may not be enough if the programs they are invited to join were not designed with them in mind,” they said. Interestingly, there was no data about Jews of Color.
Childhood Jewish engagement, without teen years, a bust
Any Jewish professional worth their salt should have automatically rolled their eyes at this section’s header and sighed a frustrated “DUH.”
What’s interesting is not that Jewish experience for teens is crucial to stay Jewishly engaged; that’s common knowledge. But the details of the trend are worth considering.
“Teens who had been engaged before but not during high school reported similar patterns of response across most (10) outcomes as those teens who had never been involved in Jewish educational activities at all,” researchers wrote.
“And on four outcomes, teens who had been engaged only as children [emphasis added] rated themselves lower than teens who had never been engaged (either before or during high school).”
And those four outcomes rated lowest?
“Jewish teens have experienced learning that has been both challenging and valuable”; “Jewish teens learn about and positively experience Jewish holidays and Shabbat”; “Jewish teens develop the desire and commitment to be part of the Jewish people now and in the future”; “Jewish teens develop a positive relationship to the land, people, and State of Israel.”
Teens with childhood-only Jewish experiences are worse off than if they’d never had any Jewish experience at all. And regardless of childhood background, researchers found that Jewish experience during high school (like those provided by youth organizations) is what really led to Jewishly positive teens.
A side observation: The last two of the four outcomes, dealing with assimilation and Israel, are what most of the Jewish world is working on today.
Non-denominational wandering Jews
“We did not include a question in our survey that asked teens which Jewish denomination they were raised in or identified with…we found that many teens did not relate to this question or found the categories to be confusing.”
Jewish denominations, it seems, are largely irrelevant on the personal level. Instead, researchers found that more than half of Jewish teens involved in a youth organization are involved in more than just one.
“This more omnivorous approach to Jewish engagement has also been observed among Jewish college students who move among Hillel, Chabad, and other campus organizations (Rosen et al., 2016),” researchers wrote. “Younger American Jews are comfortable seeking Jewish meanings and friendships from multiple sources and often do not carry the same sense of obligation to one group or brand that older generations may hold.”
Researchers suggest that encouraging Jewish wandering in teens should be the future of youth-service organizations – though not without a hitch.
“Such a viewpoint will require organizations to shift from equating success purely with numbers in attendance; they need to move to a model of success built on teen thriving. How can Jewish institutions promote their own vision but also make room for teen exploration within Jewish tradition?”
A side note: In my experience, every Jewish professional knows that real impact isn’t made or shown by numbers. But the Jewish philanthropic world, at the moment, is built in a way that makes most funding for non-profits dependent on seeing results. And probably the only way to clearly “see” the result of Jewish impact is to show attendance for programs. (Just think Birthright Israel – their primary model of success is the amount of people they’ve engaged since 2000.)
This means that asking organizations like USY, BBYO, and NCSY to reduce focus on attendance is indirectly asking them to jeopardize funding. As much as that might be good for Jewish teens, it’s a hard sell.
Also, don’t take my side notes at face value. Ask your local Jewish professional about these trends, as I could be wrong in my analysis.
Family and Jewish connectedness
It’s no surprise: teens mentioned family-centered experiences on holidays like Hanukkah to be among their most positive Jewish engagements. Simply put, “being Jewish is something [teens] do with their families.”
And though teenage years are stereotyped for rebellion and difficult relations with parents, teens are reported to talk a lot with their parents about what’s going on in their lives. Their religious perspectives and level of Jewish observance is also mirrored by home practice.
“They often imagine that any Jewish practices they continue in the future will also be primarily family and home centered. Teens talk about wanting to keep these domestic holiday celebrations going into adulthood more than other elements of Jewish practice, like synagogue membership, for example.”
“However, the teens in our study don’t necessarily talk with their parents about being Jewish,” researchers said. “In our survey, we asked teens specifically whether they asked their parents questions about Jewish life. This was one of our lowest scoring survey items.”
Curiously, the teens’ identification with other Jews involved less focus on the classic idea of Jewish peoplehood.
“When teens do talk about connections to other Jews in the present, they tend to use the word “community” over people or peoplehood,” researchers said.
“They tend to draw connections to Jews they know and have met face to face, rather than abstract notions of other Jews in distant places with whom they share an ethnic bond. The word community carries a sense of volition. It consists of those who participate and are present. It is less tied to ethnic or genealogical ideas about who is included.”
Anti-Semitism and teens’ concerns
Another no-brainer: Teens’ top concerns are about dealing with anxiety, depression, mental health overall, and school stress.
But anti-Semitism, arguably the biggest concern of the mainstream Jewish community, wasn’t so high up on the list.
“Few teens mentioned anti-Semitism as a pressing personal problem,” researchers wrote. “Many teens, however, reported behavior in which they felt negatively singled out for being Jewish. They generally registered these anti-Semitic comments as a nuisance or even as confusing and unsettling rather than as threatening or scary.”
This begs the question about how teens are being taught to recognize and respond to anti-Semitism.
The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a white nationalist murdered 11 Jews at prayer in an act of domestic terrorism, happened partway through in-depth interviews being done by the study researchers.
The Jewish teens, they wrote, “formed different conclusions about what [the shooting] meant for contemporary society and for American Jews. Some saw it as a particularly Jewish tragedy that illustrated that anti- Semitism was a serious and lethal threat in the United States today. Others saw it as primarily reflecting other problems in the United States that were not related specifically to Jews or anti-Semitism, including the rise of political extremism and gun violence.”
Shootings and anti-Semitism, generally speaking, are a matter of perspective.
”Some teens offered that while they believed anti-Semitism exists, they feel just as, if not more, threatened as high school students as they do as Jews in America. That is, they see the events in Pittsburgh, while tragic, as no more dangerous or disturbing to them personally than school shootings.”
“The majority of the teens in this study agree that they feel not just a connection, but a strong connection, to Israel,” researchers reported. Traveling to Israel helped a lot with that.
But where long-term experience with Jewish day school or summer camp before high school led to an increased connection to Israel, long-term Jewish supplementary school experience actually meant a decreased connection to Israel. The “why” is unexplained.
And when it came to knowledge about Israel, teens didn’t have much confidence.
“Teens were often hesitant to assert their own knowledge about Israel. Some teens (often those with relatively robust knowledge about Israeli history) suggested that they did not have enough information to form a strong opinion about the conflict.”
The report quoted a teen named Dara when exploring that teens who knew the most about Israel, were also asking the most questions about Israel – often without adult support.
“They don’t really like us to talk about politics,” Dara said of asking questions about Israel in her Jewish day school. “Some of the kids in my school do; they do get in trouble for it which I don’t think is right, but they do. It’s not really mentioned. I would love to talk about it with someone but we’re not allowed to.”
The researchers sound almost astonished when writing about their exchange. Dara, apparently, used the interview time to ask them questions.
“Here, Dara’s questions are not about [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] but about human rights, religious pluralism, and the day-to-day experience of being in Israel,” they wrote. “Dara doesn’t feel she has a trusted adult who will answer her questions [about Israel], so she asked her interviewer – a stranger.”
Side note: Based on numerous secondhand accounts, I would say this isn’t an isolated trend in American Jewish Israel education. Many people felt or feel like there are questions they can’t ask in normative Jewish settings.
Researchers summed up their data bluntly: “Jewish community-connected teens are interested in and have questions about Israel. They want trusted adults to help them navigate these questions in educational spaces where every question is allowed. They do not want to feel that adults hide information from them. They do not want to learn about Israel in highly polarized climates of political debate.”
Per Jewish tendencies, researchers framed their conclusions with final questions. Their last conclusion, in full, is below:
“For many years the Jewish community has invested heavily in different interventions that have been said to “work” in terms of developing teens into particular kinds of Jewish adults. The most common examples have been in the settings of Jewish day schools, summer camps, and to a lesser extent the Israel experience for teens.
“Our research shows that [youth-serving organizations] work. Teens in YSOs rate themselves higher on almost every GenNow outcome we measured. And teens tell us their YSO activities and relationships matter to them and to who they are today.
“Yet YSOs have generally not garnered the same level of community support and enthusiasm as other programs for teens. What would it take for the Jewish community to invest significantly in a YSO infrastructure that offers diverse teens a full spectrum of Jewish ideas and opportunities?”