Identity In, ‘Spirituality’ Out For Jewish Teens
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Identity In, ‘Spirituality’ Out For Jewish Teens

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

What do the Jewish members of Generation Z — the one right behind the millennials — want?

Not conventional “spiritual” practices, including synagogue attendance, it turns out. What they do want, according to a major report released last week by the New York-based Jewish Education Project, is to be better human beings.

The study, based on the views of 139 teens between the ages of 12 ½ and 17 and from four cities — Atlanta, Boston, Denver and Los Angeles — found that while Jewish teenagers take deep pride in their tribal Jewish identity, they are largely checking out of traditional kinds of Jewish engagement.

“The report sets out a new way of looking at success when it comes to Jewish teen engagement today,” said David Bryfman, chief innovation officer at JEP, a nonprofit that works with Jewish educators and clergy. “We can’t keep asking the questions we used to ask, like ‘How can we get more members?’ or ‘How can our programs make kids more Jewish?’ If we want to reach Jewish teens today the question has to be ‘how can this program make teens more successful as human beings?’” he said, in a phone interview.

According to Bryfman, the study outlines a different metric for measuring success than those previously used by organizations like Taglit-Birthright Israel, largely considered the most successful effort to engage young Jewish adults in recent history. While Birthright calculates success rates by the likelihood that participants will engage in Jewish activities or embrace Jewish attitudes after the trip — lighting Shabbat candles, attending High Holiday services, supporting Israel or marrying someone Jewish — he said the study’s “groundbreaking” contribution was a different message to reach teens.

“For most Jewish teens, these classic measurements of Jewish identity are so far from their reality that they’re not really measuring anything of value,” he said. “Teens want to know how will this program help me flourish and become a more successful human being, not will I go to Rosh HaShanah services afterwards.”

Tess Korn, 17, a Jewish teen from Forest Hills, said her experience at Sababa Surf Camp, a new immersive teen summer program that teaches teens how to surf while blending in Jewish themes and learning, did more to bolster her Jewish identity than going to synagogue with her family. (The camp, and other similar immersive summer programs aimed at teens, is funded in part by the JEP.) Though she grew up in an active Conservative household, “singing ‘MaTovu’ and then running into the ocean” did more to enforce her connection to Judaism than the Hebrew school classes she attended weekly since kindergarten, she said.

“Praying through meditation every morning reminded me of the Jewish aspect,” she said, adding that the surf instructors taught them to repeat the famous maxim from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, as they rode the waves: “For a righteous man can fall seven times and rise.”

The study also found that teens think of their Jewish identity as “cool,” thanks in large part to messaging from pop culture, said Bryfman.

“Being Jewish is no longer being the ‘nebby’ Woody Allen character or even the nerdy Jerry Seinfeld — today, Jews are the pop culture heroes, like Seth Rogan, Drake or Adam Sandler,” he said.

The national conversation about race and identity, fueled by movements like Black Lives Matter, is also helping this perception germinate, he said.

“Jewish teens are living in an increasingly tribal society — they feel pride about being Jewish the same way black, Hispanic, or Asian kids relate to their cultural and ethnic identity.”

Trying to judge the success of programs by looking at fixed rituals, Bryfman argued, is flawed to begin with.

“If ritualized synagogue life can’t adapt to that new reality, our community is going to be very challenged as these young people grow up.”

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