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Survey of Active Reform Jews: Under-40 Crowd More Observant

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A new online survey of the most active Reform Jews reveals a younger generation that is more comfortable with Jewish ritual than their elders but just as committed to communal causes and improving the world.

The increased ritual observance comes despite the fact that 19 percent of the under-40 group surveyed grew up in intermarried homes. Reform leaders say that proves their position that intermarriage in itself is not a deterrent to Jewish identity, but that Jewish upbringing is a more important factor.

In addition to increasing ritual observance, the younger Reform Jews showed a strong commitment to communal and ethical priorities. More than 95 percent of both the under-40 and over-40 crowd said “leading an ethical life,” “making the world a better place” and “celebrating Jewish holidays” were important parts of being Jewish.

And similar numbers of both groups — about 80 percent — said remembering the Holocaust, caring about Israel, supporting Jewish organizations and attending synagogue were important to them.

The survey was conducted by the Union for Reform Judaism among a self-selecting group of the most highly involved Reform Jews. It was sent by e-mail to 45,000 officers, board members and clergy of Reform congregations, as well as people who subscribe to the movement’s free “10 Minutes of Torah” online service.

It comes on the eve of the movement’s biennial in San Diego, where a major focus will be on outreach and membership.

Nearly 14,000 people responded to the survey, with the results compiled from the first 6,221 responses. With the data not yet analyzed, the survey at this point represents an initial, informal picture of the beliefs and practices of the most Jewishly engaged segment of the Reform community.

Among the key findings:

* 39 percent of those surveyed say they were raised Reform, while 25 percent were raised Conservative and 6 percent were raised Orthodox. The other 30 percent were raised in another stream, Christian or with no religion.

When one looks at the differences between those older and younger than age 40, a slightly different picture emerges:

* Among the over-40 set, 35 percent were raised Reform, 28 percent were raised Conservative and 7 percent Orthodox;

* Among the under-40 set, 56 percent grew up in Reform households, 11 percent Conservative and 2 percent Orthodox.

Movement leaders say this indicates that the Conservative and Orthodox movements are not losing as great a percentage of their people to Reform Judaism today as they did in decades past. At the same time it shows that the most active younger Reform Jews come from an increasingly strong Reform background, including attending movement summer camps and youth groups.

“They’re not running away from something like their parents were,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which sponsored the survey. “They were raised Reform” and feel strongly enough about what the movement represents to remain within it.

Another major difference between the older and younger respondents involves Jewish practice, particularly when it comes to diet.

* 39 percent of Reform Jews under 40 bring shellfish into their home, compared to 58 percent of the older crowd; 29 percent of the younger group bring pork into the home, compared to 43 percent of older Reform Jews; and 16 percent of younger Reform Jews eat only kosher meat, compared to 9 percent of their parents’ generation.

* A higher percentage of the under-40 crowd keeps Passover (77 percent compared to 68 percent) and eats dairy on Shavuot (43 percent to 32 percent).

Freelander says this increased commitment to kashrut and other Jewish dietary practices among younger Reform Jews does not represent a greater commitment to halacha, or Jewish law — just 53 percent of the under-40 crowd said halacha was important to their sense of being Jewish, a negligible increase from the 49 percent of older Reform Jews who said the same.

Rather, Freelander said, the increase in ritual observance is due to “communal norms,” the desire of younger Reform Jews to do what other Jews are doing rather than maintaining the more rebellious position of their parents’ generation vis-a-vis the other Jewish streams.

“The younger generation is more ritually comfortable across a wide range of practices, from kashrut to prayer,” Freelander said. “It’s a slow process of evolution within the movement.”

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