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In Study, Youth See Holocaust and Jewish Culture as Keys to Identities

Reprinted with permission of JTA.org. Visit www.jta.org.

OAKLAND, Calif., March 26 (JTA)--Some of the more interesting findings of the newly released Reboot study of young U.S. Jews focus on how Generation Y Jews understand what it means to be Jewish.

Respondents--Jews aged 18 to 25--were presented with 12 possible factors and asked how much each “matters” to being Jewish. Top on the list was “remembering the Holocaust,” which 73 percent of respondents said matters “a lot.”

Next were two universal values, “making the world a better place” and “leading an ethical and moral life,” which garnered 64 percent and 63 percent, respectively. Then came two more ethnocentric values, “understanding Jewish history” (58 percent) and “learning about Jewish culture” (57 percent), underscoring the importance Gen Y Jews place on Jewish history and culture as defining Jewish identity.

By contrast, expressing Jewish identity through traditional rituals came low on the list. “Keeping kosher” matters “a lot” to 33 percent, while “attending synagogue” comes last, rated highly by 30 percent. Family is central to young Jews' conception of self, with 69 percent saying their family is important to how they describe themselves.

Religion is another important identity marker, with 51 percent saying it is very or somewhat important to who they are as individuals. But it doesn't rank much higher than job (49 percent) or political beliefs (48 percent), and it ranks below gender, named by 54 percent.

Study researchers explain this finding by saying that Gen Y Jews rarely if ever experience anti-Semitism, and have never been excluded from society because they are Jewish. They therefore don't need a sense of communal cohesion to survive, unlike their parents and grandparents. Their values are, overall, not very different from those of their non-Jewish peers.

One exception is that a higher percentage (39 percent) of young Jews consider their ethnic origins important, versus 27 percent of other urban whites and 22 percent of suburban whites. This illustrates that Gen Y Jews do consider themselves “different,” and place importance on that.

When it comes to community involvement, young Jews are still disproportionately politically active--29 percent of young Jews have “protested,” versus 12 percent of Catholics, 14 percent of mainline Protestants and 13 percent of African-Americans, and 21 percent have worked to get someone elected to public office, versus 11 percent, 11 percent and 19 percent for the other groups.

But young Jews are less likely than their peers to get involved with activities at their houses of worship (26 percent), versus 43 percent of mainline Protestants, 65 percent of evangelical Protestants, 28 percent of Catholics and 46 percent of African Americans.

The study is based on in-depth interviews with 35 scientifically selected young Jews and group interviews with another 37 in focus groups, representing a wide geographic and religious spectrum.

The data were used together with data from a study conducted by Reboot last year of young Americans of various faiths and ethnicities, which interviewed 1,585 young people.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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