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At Gathering, Young Jews Confirm Findings About Choice and Diversity

New studies of Gen-Y Jews paint a picture of a generation that is proud to be Jewish, avoids denominational labels and institutional life, is spiritual rather than religious, doesn’t know much about Israel, and is fully integrated into popular culture and the greater American society. Do young Jews themselves think that’s a fair portrait?

More or less, said Sasha Perry, 21, a film student at Chapman College in Orange, Calif.

“I live in a very secular world,” she says. “This is probably the most time I’ve spent around religious Jewish people.”

Perry was one of 200 students and recent grads at Jewlicious@TheBeach.2, a four-day festival co-sponsored by Beach Hillel; Jewish Student Services; and Jewlicious.com, a Jerusalem-based blog.

The weekend drew a mixed crowd of young Jews, some wearing long skirts and knitted yarmulkes, the vast majority in jeans and t-shirts. They attended workshops about new Jewish music and the Jewish blog scene, got henna tattoos, formed a mosh pit at the closing concert and prayed in three separate groups, from Orthodox to egalitarian meditation.

Perry describes herself as a “Conservadox Chasid,” but her shaved head, black clothing and ear plugs announce her allegiance to the anarcho-punk world, where she says she “spent a long time hiding” her Jewishness.

“In the scene I’m involved in, for a progressive, vegan, feminist woman to hold Shabbat dinners and believe in God, it’s not OK,” she said.

“But I don’t care,” she added with a shrug.

As part of returning to the fold, she took to wearing tzitzit, or ritual fringes that many religious Jewish men wear. An elderly Orthodox man spit on her.

“You have to dress a certain way to be in an Orthodox shul,” she complained “That’s what I thought for the first year.”

Then she met some younger, progressive rebbetzins, like Rachel Bookstein, executive director of the Long Beach Hillel.

“They said, ‘you don’t have to do that, you can be comfortable, so long as you are within halacha,’ ” or Jewish law.

Perry considers it “fun, a challenge” to explore how far she can go with ritual observance while remaining true to the rest of her identity. Being Jewish, even observant, doesn’t mean she has to give up other parts of who she is.

“I’m not here to be a stereotype or a commodity, I’m here to learn and to worship,” she declared. “I don’t mind if I’m seen as a freak in the Orthodox world. If I can worship wearing pants, by golly I’m going to do it.”

The young Jews at the February get-together presented a somewhat skewed sample. After all, they had chosen to spend Shabbat in a very Jewish setting.

But they’re not that different from students across the nation who go to Hillel activities, visit Israel on birthright trips or listen to Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu — in fact, Matisyahu himself spent Shabbat with the Jewlicious crowd while in town for a concert.

What was striking about the Jewlicious weekend was how easily the young people of different backgrounds and observance levels got along. No one seemed to mind the separate-sex dancing, instituted by the students themselves out of respect for the few fervently Orthodox participants.

At the same time, no one blinked at the couples groping each other in a corner, or the few who insisted on using their cell phones during Shabbat lunch.

That commitment to diversity was a central finding of all the new studies.

“In our parents’ world, no one wore a yarmulke in public,” Bookstein told a group of young women in one workshop. “Today we have the luxury of deciding how Jewish we want to be. Our parents didn’t have those choices.”

Sarah Bushinsky, 20, a third-year student at Orange Coast College in Orange, Calif., said many of the Jewish students she knows are looking for denominational affiliation. But she chalked that up to the Booksteins’ arrival two years ago, when the dynamic young Orthodox couple jump-started a moribund Hillel. They quickly became role models for many of the students, Bushinsky said.

“Students are becoming more observant,” she said.

“I grew up very Reform, didn’t have much exposure,” she said. Her father “thinks it’s great” that she’s becoming more interested in religion, “but he doesn’t want me to go at it too fast.”

Other students at the Jewlicious weekend were less Jewishly involved.

Zach Newman, 20, of Orange Coast College, said he’s “not sure” what it means to be Jewish.

“I’m still trying to figure it out,” he offered. “You can explain one part of it, and then there’s something more.”

He doesn’t go to services except on holidays, though his family eats Friday night meals together. The “vast majority” of his friends are Jewish, but he said he had “no idea” whether or not they avoid institutional affiliation.

Yonah Feinstein, a fourth-year student at University of California at Santa Cruz, agreed with the studies’ finding that his generation has multiple identities, and that “being Jewish” doesn’t always come first.

“If I want to be Jewish, I come here,” he said, indicating the conference. “If I go to a bar, I don’t have to present myself first as Jewish, because I’m many other things too. I have different identities and I choose where to use them.”

“College students want community,” said Rachel Schiff, a 2005 graduate of California State University, Fullerton. “We don’t know who we are yet.”

Schiff had little Jewish background: She didn’t go to Hebrew School and didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. When she started lighting candles three years ago and observing Shabbat, she gravitated to Hillel so she wouldn’t have to observe the rituals alone. Eventually she became president of her school’s Hillel.

“I told my mom, you can have a kid who’s more religious then you, or one who’s not religious at all and marries a nice Catholic boy and has nice Catholic children,” Schiff quipped.

She doesn’t know how to explain what she calls “the wave of frum-iness,” or heightened religious observance, at these southern California colleges. The Palestinian intifada had a lot to do with it, she suggested, but “it’s also Matisyahu and Heeb magazine and the Internet — it’s huge. Not only is Judaism becoming cool, it’s unifying.”

What does her generation want?

“We want it all,” she laughed. “Give us a mile, we’ll take the damn road. We’re the click-now community, we want it fast.”

That inspires passion, she said, but also entails responsibility.

“The point is to take the time and the resources given us by the community and use them,” she said.

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