Most of what we know about Jews’ self-identity comes from surveys, such as the recent Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 and the American Jewish Identity Survey. I know firsthand how important these studies are. I was involved in the latter and have conducted other national surveys of religious identification. But as essential as these representative samples are, they have limitations. For starters, they generally cover only adults. And they don’t give respondents a chance to express complex thoughts in their own words.
So I was excited last spring to have the ability to ask a small but elite group of young Conservative Jews to express their views about some deep issues in Judaism. My questions included how they perceive their Jewish identity, what Jewish secularism means to them, and what they regard as the most important Jewish value. The answers, while of course not statistically representative, were illuminating on their own terms.
I asked my questions before making a presentation on Jewish demography to ten seniors at Ivry Prozdor, the Hebrew high school of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where my son is a junior. Prozdor students are articulate and Jewishly engaged. President of the board Dr. Ariela Noy, of Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, New Jersey, wrote to parents recently, “The Ivry Prozdor program has made it possible for my three children to continue their education in a progressive, intellectual atmosphere.” For me, it was a chance to take the pulse of the same sort of students that were interviewed for “Eight Up,” a longitudinal study of young Conservative Jews, from 1995-2003.
Although the students have not studied Jewish demography, it was immediately clear that they understood the issues on a personal level.
I started with a question patterned on the one we used in the American Jewish Identity Survey: When you think of what it means to be a young Jew in America today, would you say that it means being a member of a religious group, an ethnic group, a cultural group, or a people?
One student wrote: “I feel that I am a member of all these groups. I am religiously connected because of laws in the Torah, ethnically connected because of my origins, culturally connected because of my practices, and all these make me part of a people.”
Another wrote: “At the most basic level, it means being part of a religious group and a people. However, the more religious Jews would also be part of a cultural group as Jewish customs have been kept throughout time all over the world.”
A third student zeroed in on the challenge of contemporary Jewish demography: “In today’s America being a Jew means being part of the Jewish cultural group due to the large number of Jews without religious affiliation.” And this the student wrote before I presented data on the growing number of Jews who profess no religion and the growing number of Jewish children who are raised without religion.
Some of the students even expressed secular views themselves: “If the options were not there, I would probably answer that being a young Jew in America is being a part of a culture. To me the meanings of ethnicity and a “people” are vague. Religion, I feel, is irrelevant.” Another said: “To me it is a cultural group because I identify myself as culturally, not religiously, Jewish and so I find others who feel the same way.”
I asked if they thought that young Jews in Israel perceive their Judaism differently. One student answered: “Yes, because in Israel there is a Jewish majority, and so religious aspects are divided into very religiously conservative and very secular, and those two communities rarely overlap. There is also less of a feeling of ‘otherness’.”
When asked their opinions about the most important Jewish value, this same student wrote: “Community, which is one of our defining traits making us ‘other’.” As did another: “Community –’If I am not for myself who will be for me and if I am only for myself what am I’?”
The students offered other suggestions: “Tradition, because it is part of what bonds us over generations.” And: “I think the most important Jewish value is scholarship, because Judaism has a great intellectual tradition and that ought to be preserved.”
How often do we ask young people serious questions like these? How often do we encourage them to convey their thoughts about Judaism? These students certainly appreciated the opportunity for their voices to be heard. We should do it more often. We can all learn a lot about how young people perceive the meaning of being a Jew today.