At a talent show earlier this spring, a group of sixth graders from Manhattan’s Abraham Joshua Heschel Middle School played “Hey, Jude.” Soon enough, everyone in the room — kids, parents and teachers — was crooning the Beatles hit song together. This never would have happened in my school days during the 1960s.
Back then, college kids said they wouldn’t trust anyone over the age of 30, and a clear chasm separated the youth culture from the sensibilities of the “Establishment.” Today, by contrast, there does not appear to be much of a generation gap, at least not between the baby boomers and the subsequent cohorts of American Jewish adults.
Yet a flurry of recent studies focusing on younger American Jewish adults seems to give a different impression. Over the course of the past half a year three different organizations — Reboot, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and the Cohen Center at Brandeis University — have publicized findings about the Jewishness of the 18-25-year- olds, known as “Generation Y” or alternatively as the “Millennials.” Furthermore, there have been two other studies, one sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the other a preliminary report presented by the American Jewish Committee, that have widened the lens to consider 18-39-year-olds.
Most of these studies seem to be making the point that the lives of the youngest American Jewish adults are radically different from those of their elders, whether siblings, parents or grandparents. Together these reports emphasize the high pride and self-confidence that young Jews express about their Jewish identity.
The studies note that young Jews view their Jewishness as one among a number of important commitments. “Religion is one of the few markers that Jewish young people consider very or somewhat important to who they are as individuals, but it ranks comparably with their jobs, political beliefs and gender,” is how the latest Reboot report put it.
Young Jews living in multicultural settings, the reports find, can be culturally curious as they encounter a world of diverse perspectives. Today, young Jews are neither familiar with the myriad Jewish organizations nor are joiners of formal institutions and denominations.
But the studies’ exclusive focus on young Jews obscures the fact that much the same can be said about American Jewry as a whole since the rise of the baby boom, which has moved far away from the old-style self-hatred and self-deprecation that Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason and others — including the distinguished social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who coined the term self-hatred in the first place — have depicted so sharply in the past. Positive image and self-confidence have characterized every generation born since World War II.
Indeed, the great generational divide was between the World War II generation, the world portrayed by Philip Roth in “The Plot Against America,” and subsequent generations. For at least several decades, having a Jewish background has hardly been a liability; if anything, in recent years it has become cool and even desirable. Such is the new fabric of the American mainstream since the late 20th century.
In this changed American context, Jewishness has taken on a different texture: It may be more loosely woven than it was for our immigrant forebears, but it reflects our current conditions. It is characterized by, among other things, higher rates of intermarriage, declines in antisemitism and a rise in the number of elected Jewish officials. In short, the shift has been from a stigmatized status to one that is admired and advantaged in America.
In the past 50 years, ways to express one’s Jewishness have expanded beyond the more conventional options that predominated in the mid-20th century. Jewish life then was centered on the synagogue with the rabbi, the Hebrew school, the sisterhood, the UJA campaign and Israel. Today, the opportunities for connecting are both more varied and more decentralized.
Culture in its many forms is more broadly available. This holds as much for the kinds of alternative cultural settings and hip locales identified by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture study as for the blossoming of Jewish studies on campus and the mushrooming opportunities for adult Jewish learning. Jewish-themed Web sites abound, and there are more new Jewish movies, books, museums and musical offerings than ever. And we’ve seen the growth of Jewish day schools in the main centers of Jewish population.
So the whole opportunity structure has changed. The fear has always been that if Jews are not required to be Jewish by the world around them, there will be little to keep them interested. It seems hard for many to believe that richness of Jewish culture and civilization might provide an answer.
Together, these studies of young Jews make the case that the American Jewish community needs to pay attention to today’s young adults, who typically do not settle down until their early 30s. At the same time, it is important to note that the Jewish self-confidence the studies find in Generation Y can also be found throughout the broader American Jewish population.
Therefore, the strategies that flow in the wake of these findings should not be limited only to young adults. In a sense, the recent hyper-focus on the younger people has done the larger American Jewish community a valuable service by showing the need for institutions to reorient themselves to many of the changes that are afoot.
A shift is needed, to recognize that pride, pleasure and meaning play a bigger role today than fear, guilt and obligation. In this, at least, the idea of “rebooting” the Jewish organizational world is right on the mark.
Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.