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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

After the teen years, the most critical point of intervention along the life cycle is emerging adulthood. Successive studies have underscored the fact that in 1960–when the parents of today’s young adults were young–77 percent of American women and 65 percent of men below the age of 30 had accomplished the five sociological milestones of adulthood–“completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.”32 Today, fewer than half of women and one-third of men fit that fully adult profile. Instead, young adults go back to school, compete for unpaid internships, teach for America or serve in the Peace Corps. The proportion of Americans aged 25 to 34 who have never been married exceeds those married, Justin Wolfers noted in a recent New York Times op-ed (October 13, 2010). As well-educated post-collegiate Americans postpone marriage, childbirth, and sometimes career choices well into their thirties and sometimes later, social scientists have named a new stage of life: “emerging adulthood,” and have studied the tasks and characteristics defining that stage.33

American Jewish young adults conform to their educational and socioeconomic cohort, but pre- or “emerging” adulthood stage has special resonance for American Jews and the communities they live in. A new study of younger American Jewish leaders34 reveals that the leadership cadre among American Jews ages 22 to 40 are not less attached to their Jewishness than previous generations, but they are differently attached. Older American Jews, whether or not they were formally religious, typically felt less self-conscious among Jewish co-religionists, who they regarded as a kind of family. In contrast, younger American Jewish leaders, writers, artists and entrepreneurs in their twenties and thirties, speak about “not wanting to be restricted to the tribe,” or to divide the world into “us” and “them.”

On the other hand, in greater depth than their parents, younger American Jewish leaders embrace the cultural “nucleus,” the particulars of Jewish culture, intellectual heritage, social values, and religion. Sociologists have long argued over whether firm boundaries are the most important element, or whether, instead, cultural content defines ethnic distinctiveness even when boundaries are low or porous. Many among today’s young American Jews have found their own resounding answer to that question: cultural content is compelling, kinship less so. They defined Jewish music, food, books, comedy and cultural performance, family styles, social values, and religious rituals as the primary expressions of their ethnicity. This preference has strong implications for an exploration of “Jewish education.” Clearly, the definition of “Jewish education” must be expanded to include books, films, music, and other cultural expressions when one is dealing with adult Jewish populations. The recent demise of a cultural enterprise like J-Dub records, important not only in producing and promoting Jewish music, but also in nurturing the careers of young Jewish musical artists whose incorporation of Sephardic and Mizrachi music won alienated young Jews over to new Jewish connections, has particularly ominous significance.

Despite the stability of Israel attachments among children of two Jewish parents, the qualitative nature of those attachments has changed. Younger American Jews inhabit a different Jewish world than their parents and grandparents. Some view
social justice as the raison d’etre of Judaism as a religious culture. Their unromantic assessment of Israel is often accompanied by a romantic fascination with the Jewish Diaspora experience and a revival of interest in ethnic Jewish languages, literatures, and cultures, and especially Jewish music from around the world. Although they do not minimize Diaspora history, many young American Jewish leaders defiantly declare that the Jewish future must be equally supported within Diaspora Jewish communities and Israel. Here then is a profound challenge to today’s establishment leaders and institutions: younger American Jews respond to Jewish culture and Jewish activities, but many are unengaged by perceived differences between Jews and non-Jews. Some are attracted to Jewish social justice and educational activities, but unresponsive to activities to “protect” Jews, since they don’t feel vulnerable or different. As a result, we can’t expect to push the buttons of ethnic solidarity that worked so well–and so easily–for earlier generations (and often spanned the religious-secular divide). We need complex educational approaches to all three groups: those young adults who are dynamic “defenders of the State,” those who are attached but critical, and the majority, who run the gamut from passively–if not deeply–pro-Israel to apathetic or uninvolved.