The Meaning of Being Young Jews Today
by Ariela Keysar
Most of what
we know about Jews'
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
But as essential
as these representative
For starters, they
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,
Although the students have not studied
Jewish demography, it was immediately clear
that they understood the issues on a personal
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
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
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
Ariela Keysar, associate research professor of public policy and law, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, is a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey, ARIS 2008.