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Study: Jewish College Students More Focused on Ethics Than Shabbat

March 9, 2006
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More Jewish college students place great importance on “leading a moral/ethical life” and “making the world a better place” than on observing Shabbat or supporting Jewish organizations, according to a new study of Jewish college students released by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. But the figures vary widely, depending on whether the student surveyed is engaged, unengaged or a leader in campus Jewish life.

Just 24 percent of unengaged Jewish students say that caring about Israel is very important, versus 49 percent of engaged Jewish students and 61 percent of Jewish student leaders. Not surprisingly, students who have been to Israel are twice as likely to hold positive sentiments about the country as those who have not — 57 percent, as opposed to 21 percent. They are also likely to place greater personal importance on Jewish values such as marrying a Jew, fighting anti-Semitism and observing Shabbat.

The study found Jewish observance to be about the same among college students as American Jewish adults in general.

In the past year, more than 80 percent lit Chanukah candles, attended a Passover seder and went to services at least once, but fewer than 10 percent regularly lit Shabbat candles or refrained from spending money on Shabbat.

In line with other recent research that describes college students as “spiritual seekers” rather than “religious dwellers,” the Brandeis study found that almost 30 percent of Jewish college students change their denominational identification while in college, and two out of three changed their level of Jewish observance, usually in the direction of decreasing rather than increasing.

But like their non-Jewish peers, much of their religious activity, including holiday and Shabbat celebrations, take place outside the formal structures of campus life. That means that more students are involved in religious behavior and spiritual seeking than is suggested by only counting the numbers attending organized events.

And universities offer students very little guidance in these religious choices, the study found. In a culture that prizes academic excellence, spiritual growth is left to campus ministries and student clubs. By the end of their senior year, 67 percent of Jewish students say the college experience has taught them about themselves; only 14 percent say it has caused them to question their religious beliefs.

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