As teens across the country prepare to leave home for the start of college next month, a new nationwide study of freshmen reveals that Jewish students, more than their non-Jewish peers, would rather paint than pray.
The study, "America’s Jewish Freshmen: Current Characteristics and Recent Trends Among Students Entering College," showed significant differences in the attitudes and goals of Jews and non-Jews when it comes to spirituality, interest in the arts and culture, self-image: and time spent partying.
But the most striking differences are between Jews and students with one Jewish parent who don’t identify themselves as Jewish. The study for the first time breaks out the latter group separately and compares them to the Jews and gentiles.
It is the first in-depth look at this population of young adults in nearly a quarter-century, and among the earliest to gauge differences between those with at least one Jewish parent who identify as Jews and those who don’t, says its author, Linda Sax, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA.
The study reveals that:
The overwhelming majority of students (93 percent) with two Jewish parents identify themselves as Jewish. This figure drops to 38 percent when only their mother is Jewish, and to 15 percent when only their father is Jewish.
Entering Jewish freshmen report a higher interest in discussing rather than practicing religion. Just 13 percent of incoming Jewish freshmen report frequent attendance at religious services, compared with 47 percent of non-Jews.
Even so, 83 percent of Jewish students report attending religious services occasionally or frequently, while just 38 percent of non-Jewish students with a Jewish parent do. Sixty-two percent of that population reported never attending religious services, compared with 17 percent of Jewish students.
The term "spirituality" fails to resonate with the Jews surveyed, according to Sax.
Far fewer Jews, 29 percent, express interest in integrating spirituality into their lives than non-Jews, 46 percent. Still fewer, 18 percent, of those with one Jewish parent express the same interest.
The arts and culture hold great interest for Jewish freshmen, and even more for those who don’t identify as Jewish though they have a Jewish parent, compared to non-Jews.
Fifty-four percent of Jews said they were interested in "becoming accomplished" in these fields by either writing original works, creating artistic work or excelling in the performing arts. That figure was several points higher for the students with one Jewish parent and no religion and 42 percent for non-Jews.
Roughly 17 percent of Jewish students expressed interest in someday creating original written or artistic works, compared to 14 percent of non-Jewish students and 22 percent of those with one Jewish parent but no religion.
"Jewish students come with a lot of different interests and backgrounds, said Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel, which sponsored the study. "Arts and culture is particularly resonant with this group."
The Jewish campus student group is currently in discussion with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture about ways to increase the focus on the arts, Rubin said.
"We’ve been moving in the right direction but Hillel certainly has much more to do. We’ve only scratched the surface of what can be done," he said.
The data were drawn in 1999 from a large, nationwide survey of college freshmen at more than 400 colleges. The survey has been done every year since 1966.
The new study is the first time in a generation, though, that the information about Jewish students has been separated out. It is the first time also that the sub-population of those with one Jewish parent who have no religion themselves has been examined, said Sax.
Statistics about the 1980 Jewish freshman population against the non-Jewish were compared in an American Jewish Committee study then, said Sax, which gave her an opportunity to look at trends among Jewish freshmen over time.
Over two decades, more Jews have begun to go far away from home to attend college than non-Jews, said Sax. The percentage of gentiles traveling more than 500 miles to college has remained flat, while among Jews it has increased from about 15 to more than 25 percent.
It reflects the growing mobility of Jews throughout their adulthood, said Sax. It is also related to a greater concern among Jews than non-Jews about the institutional prestige and reputation of the college they attend: Jews seem willing to go farther to get to the colleges they view as "the best."
Raising a family has become a top personal goal of both Jewish and non-Jewish freshmen over the past three decades, the study reports. Among the 1999 freshmen, 79 percent of Jews, 74 percent of non-Jews and 63 percent of non-Jews with one Jewish parent deemed it one of their major goals.
The study also shows that 73 percent of Jews, 71 percent of non-Jews and 63 percent of those with one Jewish parent stated that they hope to be "very well off financially."
Thirty five percent of Jews, 31 percent of non-Jews and 26 percent of non-Jews with one Jewish parent reported a desire to become a community leader. And 63 percent of Jews, compared with 59 percent of gentiles and those with one Jewish parent said they want to become an authority in their field.
Today’s Jewish and non-Jewish students enter college with higher levels of stress and lower levels of emotional health than did students in the past, according to the study. Rates of stress, depression and emotional insecurity remain fairly comparable between the two groups, though slightly higher among the Jews. Nine percent said they felt depressed, compared to 8 percent of non-Jews. Seven percent said they took a prescribed anti-depressant, compared to 5 percent of non-Jews.
At the same time, the Jewish freshmen are more confident of their abilities than their non-Jewish peers. Sixty-seven percent of Jews rated themselves highly on intellectual self-confidence compared to 60 percent of non-Jews. Sixty-nine percent gave themselves high marks on leadership ability, compared to 61 percent of non-Jews.
On the other hand, Jews also report being heartier partiers than their gentile peers. Thirty-six percent of Jewish freshmen said that they party six or more hours each week, compared to 29 percent of non-Jews. Slightly more Jews than non-Jews also report frequent cigarette smoking (12 vs. 11 percent) and consumption of beer (65 vs. 50 percent), wine and other liquor (72 vs. 54 percent).