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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

College and graduate and professional schools led to acculturation for many American Jews during the first half of the twentieth century, and high levels of education and occupational achievement sometimes meant outright assimilation. However, for twenty-five years the opposite is true: highly educated Jews are more, not less, Jewishly involved, yet college still has the inaccurate reputation for diminishing Jewish observance and involvement, because for all young Americans–not just Jews–experience temporary decline in religious observance during college. However, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health from 1994-1995 and 2001-2002 argues that higher education does not cause a decline in religious beliefs but, rather, emerging adults in college reduce their religious practice. Other studies find transformations, rather than decline, in interest in spiritual matters among college students.28 Of the ethnic and religious groups in the study, Black Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were the least affected by the transitions of early adulthood in their religious affiliation and the importance of their religious beliefs in their lives, and they “drop out of their religion at the lowest frequency.” The researchers also found that, “Black Protestant and Jewish respondents have higher odds than mainline Protestants of maintaining their religious salience in early adulthood.”

Judaic Studies departments, or at least programs and classes, in most major universities have also changed the college experience for many, making college into a location where students can encounter the Jewish intellectual and cultural heritage on a very different level than most experienced in their home communities. A Brandeis study described by Amy Sales and Len Saxe showed that 45% of the students at the colleges and universities in the study ―had taken at least one Jewish studies course by the time they were seniors.” The likelihood of taking a Jewish studies course was strongly increased by previous exposure to Jewish education–―the stronger a student‘s Jewish upbringing, the more likely s/he is to take a Jewish studies course.” However–and we emphasize this because it is critically important–“a fourth of those who were raised in non-Jewish or mixed households, of those who had minimal Jewish education growing up, and of those who consider themselves secular Jews find their way into [Jewish Studies] courses.” Sales and Saxe suggest Jewish Studies courses are perceived as a “safe environment for self-exploration” due to their academic nature. Their “bottom line” is that “those who take Jewish studies courses have significantly higher levels of Judaic knowledge; they place significantly higher weight on Jewish values; and they report a significantly greater connection to the Jewish people, a greater pride in being Jewish, and a greater importance of Judaism in their lives.”29

Of course, the Israel trip phenomenon has profoundly changed the equation between secular America and Jewish peoplehood during the college years. Birthright Israel, launched in 2000 with 9,500 participants, in its first decade (through 2010) brought 250,000 young Jews from 54 countries to Israel in a ten day, subsidized program. Evaluations and research papers published by Brandeis University scholars Len Saxe, Ted Sasson, and others vividly demonstrate the powerful and lasting positive impact of Birthright Israel trips on participants. Mostly notably, about three quarters of Birthright Israel participants marry Jewish spouses, compared to fewer than half of non-participants. Feelings of kinship with other Jews, Jewish peoplehood, and concern about Israel are also measurably strengthened.30 How this process works is explained by Shaul Kelner in Tours That Bind. American Jewish policy planners and educators look to Israel trips to “strengthen Jewish identity”–but, unlike their Israeli counterparts, they aim for a “specifically diasporic” identity, rather than the centrality of Israel to American Jewishness. Thus, while Israeli sponsors may hope participants will be “better” Zionists, their American planners and supporters hope they will be “better” Jews and even better Americans.31

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