A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way: Understanding Jewish Emerging Adults Better than We Do Now

by Rabbi Scott Aaron

A recent piece posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.com, “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement“, addressed the disparity in resources and priority on young adult Jews at the expense of those who are middle-aged or older. While the piece was controversial and stimulating for a host of reasons, one particular part of the piece caught my attention as a researcher of Jewish Emerging Adults (ages 18-26):

  • I’ve had it with the constant song and dance around “young adult engagement” as the only promise of any Jewish life anywhere ever at all. I know, I know. How dare I. Look at Birthright. Look at Masa. Look at the service opportunities programs. Look at so many groups swarming the Land every summer. Look at the grants, requests, waiting lists! Don’t you know what research shows? Didn’t you read the studies? Here, let me show you the numbers…. Yes, I have seen it. In fact, some of these programs have been directly or indirectly run from my office. I’ve sat in countless meetings trying to figure out new, innovative strategies and solutions to just these challenges I am deeply aware of and genuinely care about.

While it was not her primary focus of the article, the author is raising a really important point about that data we are relying on to try and strategize solutions for engaging Jewish Emerging Adults. The data we have, those studies and numbers she refers to, is incomplete and we are putting a lot of eggs in a basket that has not been fully woven yet.

I am not criticizing the data that has been collected to date on our large immersion programs for Emerging Adults like Birthright, Masa and service learning nor am I criticizing the programs themselves. Those studies and numbers have given us some real insight on the short-term impact of these programs on the behavior and connectedness of the program alumni to Jewish life and to Israel. My concern is that we do not have more data about the target population of Jewish Emerging Adults themselves; we do not know nearly enough about the people we are sending on these travel experiences before they go much less about them when they get back, not to mention the Jewish Emerging Adults who do not go on any of them.

There are two main reasons for this dearth of understanding. First, researchers in the developmental psychology field of Emerging Adulthood tend to treat religion, ethnicity and culture as separate components of identity, and when Jews are studied they are categorized and compared as a religious affiliation. Jews simply do not fit that construct. As Christopher MacDonald-Dennis noted in his work on Jewish identity, “Jewish identity consists of a number of factors and defies simple social categories.”

  • In discussing Jewishness and Jewish identity, it is important to remember the multifarious nature of Jewish identity and the fact that Jews are a very diverse people. One of the biggest difficulties in discussing Jewish identity and “place” in the United States is that Jews do not fit neatly into established and understood notions of ethnic, racial, national, or religious identity in this country…. Jews are not merely a religious group nor are they merely an ethnic/national group. (MacDonald-Dennis, 2006)

Long story short, there is not an equivalent breakdown for Jewish identity in the research fields; we are an anomaly.

The second reason we are not fully understood is that there is relatively little distinct research on Jewish-American identity in comparison to other groups, especially Jewish Emerging Adults. One recent author on the impact of gender on specifically religious practices of Emerging Adults, Chana Etengoff, noted this gap of data in a recent study she published:

  • The Jewish American population was specifically studied to give voice to a religious minority that is frequently ignored in the field of counseling and psychology in general. Furthermore, Jewish American subgroups are included in this study, as the limited research concerning gender differences in the Jewish religious experience has often not included the specific subgroup religious- identification of the Jewish participants. (Etengoff, 2011).

By subgroup, Etengoff is referring to distinctions that are common in our Jewish communal culture such as denominational affiliation, secular, modern, traditional, DIY, etc. We cannot imagine trying to understand Jewish identity without those distinctions but researchers have tended to lump us all together. This is not only an inaccurate perception of our community, but it also leads to sweeping generalizations about our community’s members that sacrifice the nuanced understandings of the individual member in favor of general conclusions to be overlaid upon the community at large. We not only have little data available on our identity, but what we have is largely based on misperceptions by researchers of who we actually are and how we actually view ourselves.

So we have a quandary in that the programs that we know work to broadly instill Jewish identity in our Emerging Adults are targeted to a population that we empirically know relatively little about. That makes the work we do as educators and communal professionals who work with this age group much more a factor of relying on our kishkes than our keppies. As Jews we know there are times when you rely more on your gut than your head; Birthright’s founders did just that when they made that initial risky investment because they believed it would work and not because it was proven to work. But our community is past the risk stage and we need to use new tools and strategies to insure an even greater return to our community from its investment in Jewish Emerging Adults. The good news is that the social science to make that happen is not itself rocket science. Three relatively simple efforts will make a world of difference in not only what we know about Jewish Emerging Adults but how we know it.

  1. Fund research specifically about Jewish Emerging Adults, not just in the context of the important communal programs we rely on but in general to better understand them as a unique subset of our community. Ensure that our community has as much knowledge about our upcoming generation as the African-American, Latino, Asian, Mormon and other communities that have been studied in much greater depth than ours know about their rising community members.
  2. Partner with academic and research institutions beyond the traditional catchment of the Jewish community. Work with others from outside our community who are looking at identity development in a variety of contexts in order to shift our gaze a bit through different eyes as we ask questions about our community. At the same time, it will help those who conduct research involving our community better understand our community by working with them to conduct better research on our community.
  3. Bridge the gap between data and practice with our front-line Jewish communal professionals and policy makers. Concentrate on bringing the important findings of research to those who work with, think about and invest in Jewish Emerging Adults in a way that constructively informs their work and gives them tools to do their already good work better.

Like I said, it isn’t rocket science. When you consider the amount of time, energy and resources being invested now to insure a vibrant next generation of American Jews, spending a little bit more effort to insure that we really understand that generation and its reality seems only prudent for hedging our bets on the future.

Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D, is the Community Scholar of the Agency for Jewish Learning of Greater Pittsburgh.