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Orthodox youth group keeps kids more Jewish, study finds

NEW YORK, Nov. 23 (JTA) – As a debate rages on about the most effective type of Jewish education – formal or informal – a new study provides evidence that participation in an Orthodox teen youth group spurs people to lead more Jewishly committed lives, even if they don’t come from observant homes. The study of alumni of the National Council of Synagogue Youth, a program of the Orthodox Union, found marked differences between their Jewish behavior and Jews of the same age group, as measured in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study. The prestigious Lilly Endowment funded the $377,000 NCSY study. It follows on the heels of a study released last month that showed that alumni of another Jewish youth movement, Young Judaea, lead more Jewishly active lives. In NCSY’s early years, which began in 1959, about 60 percent of participants came from non-Orthodox homes and attended public or non-Jewish private schools. The balance were yeshiva kids from Orthodox homes. Today that proportion has flip-flopped. Just 40 percent of NCSY participants attend non-Jewish schools, while the majority are educated in yeshivas or Jewish day schools. NCSY, with an annual budget of $10 million, runs Jewish culture clubs in 87 public schools around the country. Almost all of the teens who participate in these clubs are otherwise uninvolved in Jewish life, said Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, national director of the youth movement. Other NCSY programs range from weekend-long Shabbatons to a weekly sports nights in three Midwestern Jewish community centers, which each attract between 70 and 100 kids. The NCSY approach has always been this, said Stolper: The youth movement itself “is rigid in its observance of commandments and it is liberal with young people. It puts no pressure, gives them no guilt trips and doesn’t demand that they do anything outside the organization. “We let them find their own level,” he said. The study of 1,070 alumni shows that such an approach works to lead kids to more active – and even more strictly Orthodox – Jewish lives. About three-quarters of respondents now consider themselves Orthodox, with “a significant shift to more strict observance since high school,” the study says. The overwhelming majority of high-school-aged participants continued their formal Jewish education during and after their college years. While the fact that 94 percent of the NCSY alumni who were yeshiva students in high school continued their Jewish education may not be surprising, the fact that 80 percent of the public school students did is surprising and validating, Stolper said. “It means they did things beyond going to Hillel events” on their college campuses, Stolper said. “They went to Yeshiva University or Touro College,” two Orthodox institutions, he said, or studied full time in a yeshiva in the United States or Israel. Just 2 percent of NCSY alumni have married non-Jews, compared with a 52 percent intermarriage rate among the most recently married Jews surveyed in the National Jewish Population Study. Similarly, the Young Judaea study released in October showed alumni of that Zionist movement had only a 5 percent intermarriage rate. Participation in an NCSY program also seems to lead to greater fertility. While the birthrate among American Jews is 1.9 children per couple, NCSY study respondents had given birth to an average of 2.3 children. And since the mean age of respondents was 26, with several potential childbearing years ahead of them, the fertility rate is expected to grow even higher. The program is also touting the high retention rate of Orthodox kids demonstrated by the study – and NCSY’s success in turning high school kids connected with the liberal movements into Orthodox Jews. Of NCSY alumni who said they were Orthodox in high school, 94 percent say they still are, and 3 percent say they’re Conservative. In the National Jewish Population Study, less than a third of those raised Orthodox remained so as adults, whole 40 percent identified as Conservative and 18 percent as Reform. Of those NCSY alumni responding who said they were Conservative Jews while in high school, 21 percent now consider themselves Orthodox, as do 10 percent of former Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, according to the new study. “I was really surprised to see what a large percentage of alumni ended up more observant than their parents, in a world where today the opposite is generally the case,” said Nathalie Friedman, a retired senior research scholar at Columbia University who conducted the NCSY study. The study also found that 92 percent of respondents said they were affiliated with a synagogue, compared to 38 percent of respondents to the National Jewish Population Study who identified as Jewish. Nearly three-quarters of the male NCSY alumni, and almost half of female alumnae, attend synagogue services at least once a week, according to the new study, compared with a tiny fraction (9 percent of men and 6 percent of women) of randomly selected American Jews in the population study. The findings of the new study show that participation in a youth movement like NCSY “is a big step toward continuity, when continuity is the key word these days,” Friedman said. “Nothing can compare to a good day school or yeshiva education,” she said. “But NCSY and others, in their informal structure,” can do a lot, “especially for those kids who can’t attend day schools or yeshivas.”

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