One of the most noteworthy trends in American Jewish life is the growing proportion of Jewish adults who have taken Jewish studies courses in college. From the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, we learn that among students enrolled in college and or graduate school in 2000-2001, 41% have taken such a course, representing a “sharp and steady increase” relative to their older counterparts.
The news is heartening for a number of reasons. First, it reflects the growth of the “supply side”: Jewish studies programs and departments are blossoming across the nation’s campuses. There are upwards of 100 American colleges and universities offering Jewish studies departments; as recently as the late 1960s, there were virtually none. And even more individual courses are being offered in other departments. The Association for Jewish Studies, founded in 1969 with 58 members, drew more than 1,000 participants to its 2003 this week in Boston.
Second, bear in mind that most American Jewish kids go to college. Nearly 60% of American Jews adults age 25 and older hold at least a college degree, and this proportion rises to nearly three out of four among 25-34 year olds — a rate approximately double the percentage among American white non-Hispanics.
Higher education is both very much expected and vastly esteemed among Jews, as I found in a 1998 study of baby-boomer and younger Jews in the greater New York area. More parents were upset at the prospect of their children not earning a bachelor’s degree, 76%, than at the possibility of their children converting to Christianity, 74%, or marrying a non-Jew, 49%. So the bodies are there.
Third, the rising enrollments in Jewish studies courses suggests that a large proportion of students is interested in learning about Jewish-related subjects — a prospect that flies in the face of the American Jewish community’s sense of its increasing erosion. We have long held onto the belief that college-bound Jewish students face the greatest risk of losing any Jewish connection they may have had in the first place.
The time may have come to revisit these assumptions about the costs and benefits of Jewish life in America. Typically, we have thought that more education means a weaker connection to Jewishness, and sending kids off to college played on this anxiety. That, after all, was the basic assimilatory pattern of second-generation American Jews, the children of immigrants as portrayed by Bellow, Roth and Malamud.
But it is no longer the pattern for most students today, who by and large come from homes where the parents, too, went to college. While living on campus may offer young people a haven away from their parents, going to college no longer functions as a ticket out of a lower middle-class, parochial Jewish life into the mainstream of America — Jews in America are already there. Today the college experience for young American Jews is more about personal adult development than about the sociological transformation of a whole aspiring minority.
In this context, Jewish students are free to take courses in Jewish studies along with any other courses that may appeal to them. They can explore Judaism, history, literature, culture and ideas. No longer viewed as parochial, studying Jewish subjects may end up being of great interest in its own right.
Today’s Jewish students are no longer driving their parents’ Oldsmobile — rather, a really cool car of their own.
Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation and was a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.