Highly Engaged Young American Jews: Contrasts in Generational Ethos

Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewry, has for over forty years undertaken studies of changing Jewish identities and communities and how they are shaped. Although most of his work has focused on Jews in the United States, his research has also ventured into other countries such as Israel, the former Soviet Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Cohen is a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

from an interview with Steven M. Cohen:

“In the year 2000, together with Arnold Eisen, now chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS], I had written The Jew Within. It explained how our generation, the Baby Boomers, differed from that of our parents who came of age during the Depression. After finishing the book, I honestly thought that American Judaism had taken individualism to the most extreme form possible. I couldn’t imagine that there could be even further growth of this version of American Jewish individualism, with its emphasis on autonomy, or control of one’s Jewish life; voluntarism, or freedom to make Jewish choices; ‘personalism,’ or the emphasis on the authority of personal meaning; antijudgmentalism, or an inclusive, welcoming attitude; and ‘journeyism,’ or the idea that we are all on Jewish journeys that deserve to be respected and supported.

But just a few years later I realized that the most creative and productive Jewish young adults today, basically the age of my children’s generation, were taking the Jewish ‘sovereign self’ even further. Since 2005, my scholarly work has focused on trying to understand this generation and, in effect, to explore how it differs from mine. One small difference is that my generation – the one that pioneered radical Zionism, havurot [small religious fellowships], Jewish feminism, and Jewish student activism – got its start in our undergraduate years, and we continued mainly in our twenties. Many of the finest innovators in this current generation have been active during their middle twenties to middle thirties.”

Here’s more:

  • Many engaged Jews under the age of forty emphasize, more than their elders and predecessors, Jewish purpose. They have created new minyanim, expanded social justice activities, engaged in various cultural endeavors, undertaken Judaic learning singly and in groups, and established a powerful and significant presence on the Internet and other new media.
  • Alongside these areas of new and sustained emphasis, even the most Jewishly engaged younger adults – not just the unengaged ones – in the United States express much-diminished sensitivity to matters of external threats to Jews, Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people. Intermarriage, anti-Semitism, Israel’s security, and campaigns to delegitimize Israel may strongly motivate older engaged American Jews. But such issues excite relatively little resonance among their younger counterparts, particularly those involved in innovative activities largely outside (or alongside) the longstanding established organizations.
  • Affiliation with a particular movement – denominational, ideological, or otherwise – is less prevalent for the younger generation of engaged American Jews. Conventional belonging to anything, not just things Jewish, is neither automatic nor self-justifying. Many young Jews have shifted their identity’s locus from people and organizations to purpose and principles. The larger society is characterized by customization, niche marketing, as well as a wider diversity of options. Not only is the menu of cultural elements longer, the ways in which options are assembled are more diverse and idiosyncratic.
  • Engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards – such as in-marriage and support of Israel – as optional, tentative, and, at best, a means to expressing higher Jewish purpose. In this and other ways, they extend the notion of the “sovereign self,” which was advanced and propounded as characterizing Baby Boomers, the parents of the current generation of highly engaged Jewish young adults, in The Jew Within a decade ago.

You can read the complete interview here.