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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

Why be Jewish? For individuals to feel connected to a particular religious system or ethnicity when living in an open society where ethnoreligious identifications are a matter of choice, the individual must believe such identification is worthwhile. Social scientists, from the foundational writings of Durkheim and Weber onward, have insisted that the social group defines which connections, beliefs, and activities are and are not valuable and worthwhile,2 and creates, maintains, transmits, and changes the values and behaviors that define a given ethnicity or religion. Religion, with its various activities and rituals are one important (but not the only) way to ―bring individuals together, to increase contacts between them,”3 according to Durkheim, and these daily and weekly contacts help to build ethnic social capital.

When Jews lived in societies in which they had a lot of contact with each other (and very little with non-Jews) they and others usually thought of themselves as “born into” Jewishness. Jews amassed ethnic social capitaliv through daily experience, in the form of ethnic languages, food, music, stories, texts, arts and culture, religion and rituals. These individuals who shared ethnic social capital also tended to value similar things, and to feel an affinity for each other. Some Jews living in densely Jewish societies may have felt ambivalent, and some negative about their Jewishness, but they still believed they were linked to other Jews. After immigration, even American Jews who were not particularly interested in religion still often created primarily Jewish social circles (although they valued the freedom to create friendships with a broad spectrum of people) because they felt most at home with Jews. Many continued to be deeply concerned about the wellbeing of Jews and the survival of Jewish culture.

Today the relationship of young Jews to their Jewishness and to other Jews has changed: Jewish identity—placing “Jew” at the core of one’s identity, and identifying with other Jews in a kind of familial or kinship relationship—has become more voluntary, symbolic, and arguably complex since the 1960s, in part because it is so easy to be Jewish in America today. Ethnic “types” are celebrated (rather than discriminated against) in American culture, and Jews have become acceptable (some would argue indistinguishable) as business colleagues, friends, and romantic partners in secularized liberal Christian America. Ironically, Jews—one of America‘s tiniest minorities—are often not seen as a “minority” by others or by many younger Jews, because they no longer seem to suffer from prejudicial practices.

Younger American Jews are less motivated than many older Jews to identify with and worry about other Jews, because they don‘t perceive the world in ―us and them‖ categories.v Many Jews in their twenties and thirties do not see the point of being concerned about the survival of Jewishness. The newest research reveals that Jewish identity is only salient for many younger Jews if they feel Jewishness helps to provide their lives with: (1) meaning, including intellectually and/or spiritually compelling encounters; (2) peer group and a sense of community; (3) opportunities for social activism that have a Jewish rationale or organizational focus; and (4) intense experiences and activities—including cultural, artistic, or religious activities—that capture their imaginations and become cherished memories. For many, the Jewish experiences that forge connections are provided by the combination of a parental home with strong Jewish values and activities, successful formal or informal educational interventions, and interactions with a peer group that also values Jewishness.

Although they may not realize it, younger Jews are also deeply influenced by the values of their social circles (family, school friends, work colleagues, and others). Even those Jews who are convinced that they are utterly independent of other Jews, as
brilliantly described by Cohen and Eisen in The Jew Within,4 have been (and continue to be) shaped by the Jewish societies that they encounter. To give just two examples of how diverging Jewish societies today continue to define what activities are “worthwhile” to spend one’s time on which are not, many inclusivist American Jews in their twenties and thirties value music with Jewish content only if a concert attracts many non-Jews along with Jews. In contrast, many exclusivist haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews think Jewish learning is more rigorous and valuable if it excludes female learners. In each of these cases, the social circle defines values. Individuals internalize those values and think of them as their own: Jews around outside influence the Jew within.

Thus, even though recent literature places great stress on identity as individualistic and personalized, utilizing the concepts of rational choices in a marketplace of ideas, this in only part of the story. Sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow warns that rational choice theory undervalues the profound impact of social and cultural norms on what real people actually believe and do–especially when looking at “the current patterns of religious belief and practice among young adults.”7 Journalist Malcolm Gladwell argues that researchers miss critical dimensions of ―an individual‘s personal choices or actions in isolation” without studying their community. To fully understand the outstanding individual, one must ―look beyond the individual,” and understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. The values of the people we surround ourselves with–or find ourselves surround by–have a profound effect on who we are.8

Jewish educational settings, both formal and informal–as this paper suggests–can constitute Jewish social circles that help to create Jewish social capital and more connected Jews. But which educational interventions actually succeed in creating
social capital and changing attitudes and behaviors–and for which populations? Advocates of particular formal and informal educational approaches–early childhood education, day school, supplementary classes, camp, youth groups, Birthright Israel, Masa and other extended educational Israel trips, college Israel studies classes, adult education–often argue passionately about the best uses for Jewish communal resources, and which interventions can, and cannot, successfully create meaningful engagements with Jewishness and attachments to other Jews.