They are coming of age with Parkland and Pittsburgh and the hyper-polarized politics of Washington. And whether you call them the iGeneration or Gen Z, today’s teens and young adults — feeling at once vulnerable and empowered — are entering adulthood poised to upend the Jewish community in unexpected ways.
A major new survey of Jewish teens affiliated with youth organizations suggests that, influenced by today’s toxic political moment, the generation following millennials is already displaying characteristics that could reshape Jewish life in the coming years.
“Identity for young people today is simply so much more fluid in every way,” said Robert Sherman of Maplewood, who recently retired as chief executive officer of the Jewish Education Project, which conducted the survey. “In order to be able to meet them where they are today, you have to begin with them. You cannot make the same assumptions about what’s important and what you want to accomplish” that we’ve made in previous generations.
At a time of rising anti-Semitism, perhaps most striking is this generation’s views on the recent lethal attacks on schools and synagogues.
“There’s a sense that they are vulnerable just every day, in their schools, just as a teen in America today,” said Arielle Levites, an author of the new survey of more than 17,500 Jewish teens from all over the United States and Canada, including 1,352 from New Jersey, conducted in collaboration with 14 youth-serving organizations across the Jewish denominational spectrum. “So the shootings in the [Tree of Life] synagogue, they unearthed a special kind of fear and anxiety and sorrow and trauma, but it’s scary just to go to high school. They’re afraid of getting shot at school.”
In addition to school shootings, teens worry about white nationalism and the increasingly polarized political climate in which they’re living. “Some teens spoke about growing anti-Semitism or the unleashing of a latent anti-Semitism that had already been there,” said Levites. “But a lot of teens wanted to focus on a widening of the political gulf, a lack of civility generally, the current administration.”
The survey was conducted online by the Jewish Education Project from December 2017 to January 2018, with follow-up interviews between September and November 2018.
When it came to religious engagement, many teens expressed a greater affinity for Jewish culture than for traditional religious engagement. The teens surveyed displayed an interest in engaging in more than one type of Jewish expression, getting involved with multiple youth organizations across the denominational spectrum. Researchers even found that involvement in more than one youth organization predicted higher ratings on the outcomes measured by the study, such as connections to community.
Will Nilsen, a senior at Summit High School and member of Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit Jewish Community Center, spoke on a panel at an event launching the report and in an interview with NJJN. “The focus of Jewish teens nowadays has shifted away from traditional classroom learning and to social experiences after school,” he told NJJN. What he calls “social experiences” usually involve a community-service component, which he sees as an essential part of his Jewish identity. Throughout high school he’s been involved in several teen programs through Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, including the Iris Teen Tzedakah program and the Justice League, a social action group.
The findings paint a picture of a generation so universalist in orientation that some of its beliefs would be nearly unrecognizable to the generations that preceded it. David Bryfman, CEO of the Jewish Education Project, says that orientation — a worldview that is more humanistic than specifically Jewish — is a natural result of trends affecting all teens today.
The study confirmed that today’s Jewish teens, like American teens of all backgrounds, respect their parents and report less conflict with parents than previous generations. The closer relationships between parents and teens could influence the way teens shape their own values in relation to their parents. Sherman called the marked contrast from his own generation “stunning.”
“We would have talked about how differently we talk than our parents and how they don’t get our culture,” he said. “Everything was so different from the clothes we wore, to the music we listened to, to our politics. We saw ourselves as having so little in common with them and largely rebelling against their institutions. These kids do not feel that way. They are very much in sync with their parents.”
“It’s a liberal generation of parents, and it’s an even more liberal generation of young kids,” said Bryfman, noting that this generation of teens appears to be holding onto the values instilled by their parents. “The kids you see today are going to be the Jewish community of tomorrow — all of the values that they hold really dear to them today are going to be the values of the community tomorrow.”
That universalist tendency sets up a contrast between the current generation and the ones that preceded it on issues like anti-Semitism and Israel.
The realization, said Bryfman, “that we’re raising a generation that cares as much, if not more, about humanity than they do about specifically Jewish life, is not going to sit well with generations older than them and with the established community, and yet that’s the community we’re raising today.”
Teens’ attitudes toward Israel, according to the survey, were largely positive, with 71 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement, “I feel a strong connection to Israel.” But follow-up interviews showed that some teens felt that their Jewish education around Israel had not adequately prepared them for conversations about the conflict that they might encounter outside of exclusively Jewish environments.
After switching from a Jewish day school to a public high school, Annabelle, one student interviewed in the survey, described her surprise when she learned that there were other perspectives on Israel. “I got to ninth grade and nobody at my school likes Israel, because of the whole Palestinian thing. I just felt stupid,” she is quoted as saying. “I was like, ‘Why has nobody ever taught me this?’ I’ve been learning about Israel for years, but I’ve never heard anything about the other perspective.”
For some teens, a mismatch between their politically liberal values and those espoused by the Israeli government was apparent.
“In their lifetime, they’ve only known a non-socially progressive government in Israel, and therefore it’s only natural that when they apply their worldviews onto their understanding of Israel, that it doesn’t always come out in support of the orientation of the current Israeli administration,” said Bryfman. “The learners today need to be thought of as intelligent discerners of their own information, and the only way you can do that is presenting multiple perspectives and allowing kids to reach their own conclusions.”
Teens’ attitudes toward anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in America revealed a similar multi-perspective approach. While many teens noted a rise in anti-Semitism as a problem uniquely affecting Jews, Bryfman noted a large group that connected rising anti-Semitism with white nationalism and felt equally, if not more, fearful of school shootings.
But Nilsen was not among them. “I feel more at risk when I’m at synagogue,” he said, pointing out the high level of security at Ohr Shalom, compared with what’s visible at his school.
Regarding anti-Semitism, he prefers to take action rather than worry about the uptick of incidents. “The best way to fight it is through education,” he said. “Making ourselves more known to people would give them a chance to learn who we really are.”
“Teens affiliate with different communities intellectually,” said Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of the Orthodox Union’s National Council of Synagogue Youth, a participating group in the study. “They see themselves as part of the high school student community, which is under siege, and they see themselves as part of the Jewish community, which is under siege.”
The report noted the low proportion of gender non-conforming teens who participated in the survey. Only .5 percent of those participating identified as nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or “something else,” compared with close to 3 percent in the general population. Because the study focused on teens’ participation in youth organizations, the report suggests “an opportunity” for youth service organizations to engage more deeply with this population. “It’s worthwhile exploring … to understand what it’s really about,” said Sherman.
Buffeted by these trends, the report concluded that todays’ teens are well served by Jewish youth organizations. Survey participants were asked to rate themselves on 14 outcomes, such as a strong sense of self, a sense of pride in being Jewish, and connections to community. Researchers found that teens who were involved in Jewish youth organizations showed higher scores on 11 out of 14 outcomes, including outcomes that were not explicitly related to being Jewish.
“These Jewish youth organizations not only help these kids be more Jewish, but help them become better human beings as well,” said Bryfman. “The purpose of being Jewish today is changing for this generation of young people; it’s not necessarily to just be more Jewish, but to become better versions of themselves and to help them thrive in the world.
Shira Hanau is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. Contact Johanna Ginsberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.