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Jewish identity as strong in young singles as their married peers, study shows
June 19th, 2008
New York (JTA) — Close to 3,500 people showed up the evening of June 7 for Dawn, the all-night Shavuot celebration at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
A mostly young, unaffiliated Jewish crowd of nearly 3,500 attended Dawn, an all-night festival at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, to celebrate Shavuot on June 7, 2008. Photo by Tommy Lau.
Most in their 20s and 30s, they’d come ready to shell out $15 to spend the night marking a Jewish holiday in a Jewish institution with performance art, dancing to live bands, listening to cutting-edge authors, and even studying Jewish texts.
Between 500 and 1,000 didn’t get in. Even so, this year’s event was 10 times as big as last year’s.
“Many, if not most of the people there had never celebrated Shavuot before,” says David Katznelson, 39, who has run this dusk-to-dawn reimagining of the traditional Leyl Shavuot four out of the past five years.
“And people weren’t just filling the rooms with the fun stuff. They were filling the rooms where the serious conversations were going on as well.”
Something else was going on with this overwhelmingly young, unaffiliated Jewish crowd, Katznelson says.
“There’s a thirst for Jews being with Jews. And for understanding what Judaism is, and how to make it relevant to 21st century culture.”
The tidal wave of Jewish cultural creativity in the under-40 crowd, and their willingness to show up for these Jewish-themed art, music, dance and literary events, has been noted for some years by Jewish communal leaders, sociologists and writers.
A new report lends muscle to certain aspects of the phenomenon, hinted at by Katznelson: young Jews’ desire to be with other young Jews, and their interest in creating their own Jewish experiences rather than signing up for long-standing programs.
Proud and pro-Israel
“Uncoupled: How our singles are reshaping Jewish engagement” is the third in a series of reports on Jews under 40 by sociologists Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman from the University of California at Davis.
Its main findings show that young, single, non-Orthodox Jews are just as proud of being Jewish and just as interested in exploring their Jewish identities as their married peers. Their Jewish behaviors might differ, but not their attitudes.
Like the two reports that preceded it, this study uses data from the 2007 National Survey of American Jews, a mail-back and web-administered survey of self-identified Jews.
Cohen and Kelman focused on the 1,704 non-Orthodox respondents between the ages of 25 and 39, and compared singles to in-married Jewish couples.
Their findings showed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Jewish engagement does not kick in only when young, non-Orthodox Jews get married and have kids.
While married Jews do show higher levels of institutional affiliation, including synagogue membership and contribution to federation campaigns than their single counterparts, those behavioral changes occur whether or not the couples have children — another surprise for the researchers.
“The biggest behavior changes come with getting married, not with having children,” says Kelman. “Neither of us expected that.”
And Jewish singles are just as interested in being engaged Jewishly as their married peers, just not along institutional lines. They’re just as pro-Israel, just as proud to be Jewish, and just as likely to have many Jewish friends.
Nearly half of both groups say at least half their friends are Jewish (42 percent of the singles and 52 percent of the couples).
And 51 percent of the singles say they talk to their friends about Jewish matters, compared to 44 percent of the married Jews, while 36 percent of both groups say they talk to their friends about Israel.
Regarding Jewish identity, it’s just as strong whether they’re married or single.
Fully 98 percent of the singles say they are proud to be Jews, even more than the 95 percent of the in-married young couples. And both groups are quite pro-Israel: 86 percent of the in-marrieds, and 83 percent of the singles.
“I was surprised by how proud they are and how pro-Israel they are,” Cohen says. “Frankly, it’s reassuring.”
Because, however, the singles are not seeking out Jewish involvement along traditional institutional lines nearly as often as their married counterparts, that presents a programmatic challenge to the Jewish community, Cohen says.
“Instead of thinking how to bring young Jews to our institutions, we should be thinking how to support young Jews in creating their Jewish lives,” he says.