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Say It Loud, I’m Jewish and I’m Proud: Study Finds Identity, but Less Affiliation

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Young Jews in the United States are proud of being Jewish, even if they’re not sure what that means. They feel part of a global Jewish community, but not the federation or synagogue community of their parents and grandparents.

And although they avoid denominational affiliation currently, they have fond memories of the Jewish institutions of their childhood, including Hebrew School.

These are some of the findings of a new study of college-age Jews conducted by Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Reboot, a New York-based network of Jewish creative initiatives.

JTA received an advance copy of the report, which will be formally unveiled April 2 in Denver at the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network.

“Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices,” bears one of the more imaginative titles in recent sociological research, using a Starbucks analogy to explain Generation Y Jews, young people between the ages of 18 and 25.

“The ability of the individual to mix and match the contents of his or her grande cup is really no different than the power to choose the way he or she defines identity in America,” says Stacy Abramson, Reboot’s executive director.

The study’s central finding is that young Jews embrace their Jewish identities, but struggle to find meaningful Jewish communal connections.

The study is based on in-depth interviews with 35 scientifically selected young Jews and group interviews with another 37 in focus groups, representing a wide geographic and religious spectrum.

The data were used together with data from “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” last year’s Reboot study of young Americans of various faiths and ethnicities, which interviewed 1,585 young people. That study focused on religious identity, practice and civic engagement among young Americans in general — and is one of several recent studies of young American Jews conducted by major organizations, including Hillel and Brandeis University.

The “Latte” study found that, like their non-Jewish peers, young American Jews have multiple, overlapping identities, of which “being Jewish” is just one, and not always the primary one. They avoid institutions, they have diverse social networks, they’re self-confident and they feel part of a global media culture.

“Their Jewish community is theoretical, populated by people they have not met,” Greenberg writes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t very real, she says. “In some cases, it manifests itself when they meet other Jews and discover they have a common shorthand, easy conversations and shared childhood experiences to talk about.”

One young California woman told Greenberg, “I feel very lucky to have Jewish roots. I feel like I’m connected to something that is millennia old. I think it’s amazing.”

Another woman from Minnesota said, “It is like you belong to a club in a way,” adding, “It is cool because anywhere you go, if you are in college, and you are like, ‘Oh, you’re Jewish? Cool, I’m Jewish too!’ And then you have something to talk about.”

They’re not joining synagogues — only 30 percent consider attending services an important part of being Jewish — although many of them say they might join when they get older and have kids. Compared with other religious and ethnic groups, young Jews are less likely to attend services regularly: Some 22 percent of Jews go every week versus 35 percent of young people overall.

They’re certainly not joining major Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, United Jewish Communities or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Most respondents didn’t even recognize those names, much less understand what the organizations do.

“The young generation is hungry” for Jewish meaning and community, says Roger Bennett, senior vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, one of the study’s funders. “But few of the mechanisms we’ve invested in appear to be working. They’re not complaining about Jewish institutional life, they’ve gone a step further — it’s completely irrelevant to them.”

The senior associate national director of the ADL, Ken Jacobson, says he’s “not discouraged” by these findings. Noting that 73 percent of those surveyed said remembering the Holocaust is very important to one’s Jewish identity, he says that “shows young people take things seriously, when you get them in a room and talk to them.

“There are unfortunately a lot of young people not affiliated, but those who are in some way affiliated are a group about which one can be very hopeful,” he says.

Eric Levine, the UJC’s vice president for Jewish renaissance and renewal, says he welcomes studies like this that tell Jewish organizations what people are really thinking.

Reacting to respondents’ inability to recognize the acronyms of major Jewish organizations, Levine wondered how many American Jews of any age would be able to do so. “I don’t think it means we need to throw out the entire structure” of Jewish organizational life, he says, “but it might make us think about how to create new kinds of expressions and organizations that are more reflective of the next generation’s interests and concerns.”

Answers by college-age Jews at a recent “Jewlicious” conference in Long Beach, Calif., organized by the blog and by Beach Hillel, reflected some of the study’s findings.

Asked what it means to be Jewish, Zach Newman, 20, of Orange Coast College, said, he’s “not sure,” and is “still trying to figure that out; you can explain one part of it, and then there’s always something more.”

Nadav Greenspan, 24, a recent graduate of the University of California at San Diego, answers a question with a question. Asked whether he avoids institutions and synagogues, he said, “that depends on what you consider a synagogue.” He used to attend Hillel services, but isn’t sure that “counts.”

His friend Tammy Goldstein, a senior at UCLA, says that for her, being Jewish means “being proud, wearing a Star of David necklace and saying, ‘yeah, I’m Jewish!’ ” Both are very attached to Israel, because they grew up there, but they quickly add that “makes us different” from most of their peers.

Not that different, actually: 43 percent of the “Latte” respondents had been to Israel — a higher percentage than other comparable studies — and 54 percent said that “caring about Israel” matters “a lot” to their notion of what it means to be Jewish.

Overall, Bennett and Greenberg describe the study results as very optimistic.

First, Greenberg points out, young Jews “are positive about their Jewish identity, and that’s something we haven’t seen before on research about Jewish youth.”

Those she interviewed “have a notion of being a people that has survived,” and take pride in that. “In the homogenous pop culture they live in, it makes them different,” she suggests.

Also, Greenberg points to the respondents’ happy memories of childhood Jewish institutions, which she says “gives them a reservoir of positive feelings about Jewish identity.” The challenge to Jewish communal leaders and organizations is, she says, to “figure out how to deal with” those memories, particularly given the high rate of intermarriage.

Bennett says the study results argue for creative approaches on the part of the organized Jewish community.

“The Jewish communal future is in our own hands,” he says. “Every Jewish institution that understands that and puts its faith in young people has a rosy future. Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”

Bennett points to some of the new, creative Jewish initiatives — JDub music, Tiffany Shlain’s movie “The Tribe” and Sandi Dubowski’s documentary on Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians, “Trembling Before G-d” and the Progressive Jewish Alliance — and says that what they have in common is a reliance on the power of culture to convey meaning and create community.

“That’s the beauty of culture, it travels,” he says. “As these organizations grow and spread, the community can be as well served as any.”

In particular, Bennett points to Jewish blogs like Jewlicious.com, and says that a “global network of people engaged in Jewish culture” is growing up around them.

These young, computer-savvy, globally conscious Jews are, he says, “self-confident and ready to grapple with challenging issues like meaning, identity, community and ritual.” It’s up to Jewish institutions, he says, to create structures in which that dialogue and that searching can flourish.

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