With even highly affiliated Jewish teens — and their parents —ranking Judaism at the bottom of their priorities, communal institutions are seeking a “big idea” to reach out to this demographic.
At a Nov. 17 event, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Education Project announced the sobering findings from a new study they commissioned of teens, parents and teen-outreach professionals in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester and Long Island.
The study, conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, represents the first step in an effort to re-think Jewish teen outreach and programming, something growing numbers of Jewish communities around North America — including a “summit” that convened the previous week in Minneapolis — are exploring.
They have their work cut out for them.
While the sample of 344 New York teens Brandeis researchers surveyed — all of whom had celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah at a synagogue — was “skewed toward more Jewishly identified households” according to the study, the teens were not as highly involved as one might expect given their backgrounds.
Fifteen percent currently attend Jewish day schools, and 43 percent have attended a Jewish day school at one point or another, far more than most American Jewish teens. In addition, 94 percent hail from families in which both parents are Jewish.
Nonetheless, while two-thirds are currently involved in some Jewish activity (such as day school or youth group) during the school year, only 7 percent cited a specifically Jewish activity as the extracurricular in which they are “most involved.” Socially, about half of the teens have friendship circles that are primarily Jewish, even as 79 percent of their parents have mostly Jewish friendship circles. (Orthodox teens have the most Jewish friends, whereas Reform and secular ones have the fewest.) Instead, 55 percent of the teens surveyed say it is very important to have a diverse circle of friends.
While a Jewish activity was the top extracurricular for only 7 percent of teens, 42 percent cited sports, 20 percent the arts, 18 percent school-based activities like newspaper or debate, and 13 percent service/volunteer/advocacy activities as the activity in which they are most involved.
Meanwhile, when asked to identify things that are “very” or “extremely” important to them, having good friends, doing well academically and getting into a good college topped the list, whereas “have a strong Jewish identity,” “be involved in a Jewish community” and “lead a ritually observant life” were at the bottom, with only 30 percent identifying ritual observance as extremely or very important. Not surprisingly, more parents than teens ranked Jewish things high in terms of what they wanted for their children, with 86 percent citing the importance of Jewish identity (compared to 51 percent of teens) and 64 percent highly valuing Jewish community involvement (compared to 41 percent of teens). But even the parents ranked these things far lower than their other desires, such as having good friends, doing well academically and spending time with family.
“Is the glass two-thirds full or one-third empty?” Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center, asked rhetorically in presenting the findings to 180 Jewish lay leaders and professionals at the recent gathering.
“This is the population that should be with us,” she added, noting that if the organized Jewish community can’t engage kids who already have strong Jewish backgrounds, “we’re going to have a really difficult time” reaching populations that tend to be less involved, such as Russian speakers, children of Israelis and teens from interfaith families.
Citing the popularity and energizing power of “big ideas” like a guaranteed Israel trip for young adults and the bar/bat mitzvah for 13-year-olds, Sales urged the Jewish community to come up with “big hairy audacious goals” to “drive a social movement.”
However, she and the study offered few specific suggestions.
As David Bryfman, director of the Jewish Education Project’s Center for Collaborative Leadership, told last week’s summit, “This was not a marketing study. The intent is to open up a conversation.”
“It’s going to take a community working together to solve,” he said, noting that in addition to relying on existing Jewish youth institutions, “we need to be entrepreneurial.”
Toward that end, he encouraged participants at the summit to begin brainstorming and to come up with “headlines” of what might look different in three years if they are “wildly successful.”
Some preliminary suggestions: a post-bar/bat mitzvah milestone event; a communally funded educational experience, such as camp or an Israel trip, offered free to each Jewish teen.
However, one participant, who chairs the youth committee of a Manhattan synagogue, emphasized that engaging Jewish teens could be more complicated than just coming up with an idea.
“To reach kids, you need to reach their parents,” she said, noting that the Brandeis study reveals that Judaism is a relatively low priority for parents, as well as teens.
Noticeably absent at the event: actual teenagers.
Bryfman said teens were initially to be included, but after 120 adults RSVP’d within 48 hours, planners worried they would not have enough space at The Jewish Museum hall that had been rented for the event.
“This is purely an issue of fire safety,” he said.