And Other Interesting Findings in Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today
Part 2 of 2
[Part 1 – Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today – can be found here.]
By David Bryfman
Last month, we unveiled the new report Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today, commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and The Marcus Foundation. The report offers 14 outcomes that organizations and programs can measure themselves against to determine if their offerings to Jewish teens are “moving the needle” in areas of life about which teens care deeply.
But while developing outcomes was the impetus for this research, Generation Now in large part tells the story of the lengthy and varied process that ultimately brought us to arrive at these outcomes. An integral part of this process was the qualitative research that revealed some incredibly informative, insightful, and in some cases surprising aspects about Jewish teens today – how they think about their lives, their families, their identities, their social groups, and much more.
Like nearly any other segment of the population, broad strokes fail to fully capture how teens think about, feel about, relate to, and engage in Jewish life. But, certain themes emerged after examining the entirety of the research. We believe highlighting some of these findings with you will be helpful. Some of the findings presented below are accompanied by quotes from teens. Of course there were many quotes we could choose to share; we tried to present varied perspectives here, and certainly invite you to read more about the research findings in the digital version of Generation Now.
Higher connected teens[i] are more comfortable with the idea of “particularism.” They feel more of a special connection, comfort, and understanding with other Jews than lower connected teens say they feel. Rather, lower connected teens are more comfortable with the idea of “universalism,” which views all humanity, life, and religions as being connected. However, most teens articulated feelings of both ideas, flowing between the two mindsets often.
Being Jewish makes most teens feel “different.” Feeling different and unique was top of mind for most teens when describing their Jewish identity. Some expressed pride in feeling special and unique; some felt discomfort when being Jewish makes them feel too different from peers.
Being one of the only ones makes you feel unique, and it’s kind of good to feel unique and you feel happy that you’re not just like everybody else at your school.
Younger, High-Connected Denver Teen
There’s a lot of people who let religion dominate their life. It’s kind of all they are. And I don’t do that because, I don’t believe in it… I don’t want to have that label just be what people think of me.
Younger, Low-Connected Los Angeles Teen
Jewish friends are different. Teens strongly value their friendships; being with friends takes up a lot of their time; and “hanging out with friends” is a favorite pastime. Most teens have both Jewish and non-Jewish friends and many appreciate the diversity. Some – including lower-connected teens – feel that their Jewish friendships, often formed through camp or youth groups, are somehow different from their friendships with non-Jews – the difference comes from not needing to explain about one’s culture and background, and/or the sense that there are things that can be talked about with Jewish friends that non-Jewish friends just wouldn’t relate to in the same way.
I have friends who are Jewish. I have friends who aren’t Jewish. I’ve been friends with almost all of them since kindergarten. I invited all of them, Jewish and not Jewish, to my bat mitzvah. So it’s just never made that big of a difference to me. I connect equally well with all of them.
Younger, Low-connected Los Angeles Teen
When I’m with my Jewish friends it makes me feel I can talk with them about my religion. But with my friends in school, they just get confused whenever I talk about my religion and I have to explain it to them and I don’t have to do that with my friends from synagogue and camp.
Younger, High-connected Atlanta Teen
Teens were most likely to find Jewish knowledge meaningful when they could see the connections and relevance to the rest of their lives. Some teens see the link between Jewish education and B’nei Mitzvah. Yet, even those who were proud of having studied for their B’nei Mitzvah were proud of their accomplishment, as opposed to finding enduring value in what they learned.
After my Bar Mitzvah, I wanted to know more about Jewish opinions on things. We went on a trip to Washington DC, which was really cool because we learned a lot of Jewish opinions on gun control and abortion and that kind of stuff. Even if I didn’t agree with some of them, it was just cool to know that my religion has a stance on this stuff.
Older, Low-Connected Denver Teen
Holidays are a source of connection. The American Jewish “primary holidays” of Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are almost universally part of teens’ experience. Teens appreciate time to bond with immediate family, visit extended family, and enjoy family traditions, particularly around “traditional” foods. An important note here is that most of today’s teens enjoy spending time with their parents. Some teens (mostly higher connected) found other parts of the holidays meaningful too: The history behind holidays, connections to a larger community, and the feeling that holiday celebration lifts one above daily routines.
During Passover it’s cool to have one of those days where it’s a big, sit-down, family meal. It’s one of those big food holidays where we’re allowed to just sit and eat with our families and talk. It’s a cool feeling.
Younger, Low-connected Denver Teen
“Doing good” is an important value, but seldom a Jewish value. Almost all of the teens do activities that contribute to society and create positive change. And these experiences are meaningful to them, even if done to fulfill requirements. Some teens were familiar with concepts of mitzvah and tzedakah, and a few with Tikkun Olam. Yet, some teens strongly rejected the idea that doing good is linked specifically with Judaism, often feeling uncomfortable with the particularism that implies. Instead they had a more universalist mindset – either that all religions are equally committed to improving the world, or that doing good is a personal choice not dependent on religion.
I think that a lot of the foundation of Judaism, isn’t just how to be a good Jew, technically, but how to be a good person. I think it teaches you about helping the needy, helping the poor, giving to those in need.
Older, Low-connected Denver Teen
“Spirituality” is a foreign concept to teens. Most struggled to wrap their heads around the concept. Yet when probed, some articulated their ideas with depth. Most teens agreed that you can be spiritual without being “religious,” and shared different perspectives on spirituality
Like the outcomes themselves, these findings and insights about teens raise important questions that are worth time and resources answering. For example, while some teens engage in Jewish activities, most teens did not say that these activities were part of their “favorite things to do.” Even when teens said that those Jewish activities were meaningful, they’re not considered “free time.” Instead, they occupy a separate category that falls somewhere between the obligation of school and freely chosen, “fun” pastimes. We should know why.
Our hope is that these findings contribute to a robust conversation – and action – about Jewish teen initiatives. How do we design them most effectively and then hold ourselves accountable? To advance this process, Rosov Consulting is surveying teens across the country to assess whether current Jewish teen offerings can be deemed effective. Rosov Consulting is utilizing the findings discussed above to inform the survey questions asked. We of course will share the results so that we can continue collaborative efforts to engage and educate even more Jewish teens.
[i] As described in Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today, teens were categorized as either high or low connected based on “organizational affiliation.”
David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project. This research was conducted with his colleagues Jamie Betesh and Justin Rosen Smolen.