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Focus on Issues: Brandeis Survey Gives Insight into Issue of Identity Among Teens

For Josh Epstein, a teen-ager from Great Neck, N.Y., the Jewish holidays are integral to his view of the calendar and to defining his identity.

“I really like the Jewish holidays and look forward to them all year round,” Epstein said, as he took a break from the athletic competitions in the Jewish Community Center Association Maccabi Games held in August in Long Island, N.Y.

According to a recent Brandeis University study, Epstein’s affection for the holidays, outweighing other aspects of Jewish identity, is not unique among American Jewish teenagers.

The recently released study is believed to be the first to examine the values and attitudes of American Jewish teens. It was conducted among 1,000 participants in the four regional JCC Maccabi Games held in 1993.

Holiday observance was cited by 56 percent of the teens surveyed as the most important expression of their Jewish identity, according to the study, titled the “Values and Concerns of American Jewish Youth.”

For Jewish community leaders concerned with Jewish continuity and high intermarriage rate, focusing on the celebration of Jewish holidays may be the answer, said Amy Sales, who coordinated the study done by the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

The number of teens who identified holidays as the paramount link to Judaism far surpassed the 44 percent who listed knowledge of Jewish life and history or the 30 percent who thought that having a connection to Israel was as essential to their Jewish identity.

“If you’re raised as a Jew, somehow you internalize the Jewish calendar,” Sales said. “You may not follow all the tenets and mitzvot but you do know when the holidays are.”

Although they may like the holidays they do not necessarily like the services that are traditionally a part of the holidays, Sales said, explaining why only 25 percent of the teens answered that attending synagogue services was important to them.

“There needs to be a focus on what’s joyous about Jewish life,” she added.

The study also uncovered some surprising yet important attitudes held by Jewish teenagers.

In contrast to adults, the teens made a distinction between dating and marrying within the religion. More than half the teens surveyed – or 52 percent – said marrying someone Jewish is very important to them while only 37 percent said that exclusively dating Jews is of equal importance.

“By and large these are two separate concepts for the kids and they would prefer that the adult world deal with them separately,” Sales said.

While parents may bury their heads when they hear that distinction asserted, the teens rationalize to themselves “I don’t want to marry, I just want to go to the prom,” Sales said.

Kate Jacobson, a 14-year-old from Hartford, exemplifies this quandary.

“As long as it doesn’t get too serious,” Jacobson said she would date a non- Jew.

However, intermarriage would not be “the best decision,” Jacobson said. “I want my children to have a strong and good Jewish upbringing.”

But not all teens see dating and marriage as two separate entities.

When Andrew Biteen of Montreal said he would consider dating non-Jews, his teammate on the Montreal swim team, Monica Weshler, adamantly opposed his stance.

“Once you date one, then what’s the big deal, then another and the next thing you know you’re married,” she said.

For others, such as Andrew Rosenthal of Springfield, Mass., a swimming participant and an aspiring weather meteorologist, the issue of intermarriage is not so clear cut.

“All people are people and what religion they are is not important,” he said, though he added that he would probably instill Jewish values in his children.

Rosenthal is one who uses the holidays to express his Jewish identity. Last year he invited his non-Jewish schoolmates to his family’s Passover seder.

“I got a lot of compliments on it,” Rosenthal said.

“The present survey addresses the serious lack of information as it opens a window onto the attitudes and concerns of American Jewish teen-agers: who they are, how they spend their time, what they value and what their concerns are,” according to an introduction to the report.

The study confirmed a self-evident reality – that the high level of achievement in the Jewish community is set in motion at an early age. Sales found that the emphasis on success is firmly in place by seventh grade.

The single greatest concern of the teens – 84 percent – was their future and their college career, with doing well in school not far behind at 82 percent.

In focus groups she ran, she said she found that there is a “strong familial role” in pushing kids to achieve.

They are already working on building their resume before they enter high school, Sales added.

The study also found that AIDS worried the teens.

“This appears to be a defining event in their sexual maturity,” Sales said.

AIDS ranked higher than anti-Semitism, homelessness and drug abuse as a social issue where the teens would like to make a difference.

Jacobson said that through awareness and education, the epidemic can be eliminated.

“It’s something that can be controlled as long as we’re careful about how we act.”

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