|Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today: Harbingers of the American Jewish Community of Tomorrow?|
The American Jewish Committee
Jacob B. Ukeles, Ph.D.,
Ron Miller, Ph.D.,
Pearl Beck, Ph.D.,
Senior Research Associate
Ukeles Associates, Inc.
The 100th anniversary of the American Jewish Committee provides an excellent opportunity to assess the shape and texture of the American Jewish community today, and to reflect on the implications of today’s patterns and trends for the Jewish community of the future. This report summarizes current knowledge about the 1.5 million young Jewish adults in the United States who are likely to have a profound impact on the future of Judaism and Jewish life in America.
The purpose of this research report is to cast as much light as possible on the following seemingly straightforward question:
How is today’s generation of young American Jews distinctive, if at all?
America’s Jewish household population of 5.1 million includes almost 1.5 million young Jewish adults ages 18-39 — almost 850,000 between the ages of 18-29, and just over 600,000 in their thirties. These young American Jews represent 36% of America’s 4.1 million adult Jews.
There are three important areas in which these young American Jews, aged 18 to 39, appear to constitute a distinctive generation, significantly different from those who have gone before: their “life-status” or their demographic characteristics, their Jewish connections and their attachment to Israel.
Young Jewish adults are clearly marrying later than their parents, and they are having children later. This is particularly striking for those in their twenties, especially men in their twenties, who are highly likely to be unmarried. More than half of all of young Jewish adults under 40 are unmarried, and if one excludes Orthodox young Jewish adults, the percentage is even higher.
Considerable anxiety about the Jewish identity of the current generation of young Jewish adults has emerged in recent conversations among American Jewish leaders, with many believing that young American Jews are abandoning the values, faith, and institutions of their parents and grandparents.
While this diagnosis has some validity, it appears to be much too pessimistic.
It does appear that overall, young Jewish adults in the United States are somewhat less likely to be strongly Jewishly identified than older American Jews. For example, the
2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that 44% of Jews under 40 view being Jewish as “very important,” compared with 55% of those 40 and over.
Even more striking than the finding that the generation is less Jewish, is the growing body of research suggesting that substantial numbers of young Jewish adults are being Jewish in ways that are quite different from the ways of connecting of their predecessors. Jewish ties for a significant portion of the younger Jewish generation are:
- More personal
- More informal
- More episodic
To a significant extent, these differences appear to be a function of the general culture — what Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett has called “open source” culture. Jewish culture, like the culture of young people in the general community, is increasingly bottoms-up, self-generated, and decentralized. To a significant extent, young people are creating their own identities and patterns of association leading to what we could call “quasi-communities” — built around common interests and shared experiences, rather than around institutions and organizations. Quasi-communities have porous boundaries, are fluid and dynamic.
Young Jewish people are not uncomfortable sharing Jewish events and space with non-Jews. Younger Jews, in fact, are likely to be much more comfortable with non-Jews and much less likely to have mostly Jewish friends. Parenthetically, it is not the first time that critical dimensions of Jewish culture in the Diaspora have been shaped by the general culture.
While these findings seem quite plausible, these generalizations, prevalent in the current literature about Gen-Y and Gen-X young Jews, obscure a powerful and important reality: young Jewish adults in the United States are an extremely diverse group of people, defined not only by generation, but by their position in terms of lifecycle and religious affiliation.
When one looks at patterns of Jewish beliefs and behaviors, there are at least four distinct young Jewish subgroups that vary dramatically in their patterns of Jewish beliefs and behaviors:
- Orthodox ;
- Non-Orthodox, inmarried couples with children;
- Non-Orthodox Jewish singles and married couples without children; and,
- Intermarried couples, with and without children.
Two hierarchies are important in understanding this diversity: (1) scale, and (2) Jewish connections.
Percentage of All Young Jews
Degree of Jewish Connections
- Non-Orthodox, in-married couples with children
- Non-Orthodox singles and married couples without children
- Intermarried couples (with and without children)
(1) Scale. From the perspective of scale, the most numerous young Jewish adults, by far, are the non-Orthodox singles and married couples without children; they represent over half of all young American Jewish adults. The least numerous are the Orthodox.
(2) Jewish Connections. By almost every measure of Jewish connection, the Orthodox are the most highly engaged, at times, much more Jewishly engaged than all other young Jews. The non-Orthodox, inmarried couples with children tend to be the next most likely to be Jewishly engaged.
Non-Orthodox singles and inmarried couples without children, and intermarried couples have the lowest levels of Jewish connections.
Thus, there is an inverse relationship between scale and strength of Jewish connections among young Jews. The intermarried and the non-orthodox Jewish singles/married-but-childless counterparts are the least engaged and the most numerous. The Orthodox and married couples with children who are not Orthodox are the most engaged, and the least numerous.
The research literature and data findings about the consistent and significant difference in the Jewish engagement of non-Orthodox Jews with and without children underlines a key finding of this research — generation does not exist in a vacuum — in this instance, people of the same age and same general religious orientation (non-Orthodox) are much more likely to be Jewishly engaged when they have children.
Interestingly, the general literature about young Jewish adults often tends to ignore Orthodox young Jewish adults, as the focus is placed on Jewish disengagement from Jewish communal life. The young Orthodox are somehow out of the picture, not an essential component of young Jewish America. However, not only are they in the picture, they are likely to be an increasingly important part of the picture. The percentage of young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who are Orthodox (16%) is nearly double the percentage of Orthodox among Jewish adults ages 30 to 39 (9%). Thus, while a small group today, young Orthodox Jewish adults are likely to be a much larger group in the future, especially in the context of earlier marriages, higher percentages of young Orthodox adults being married, and higher fertility.
While most measures of Jewish identification vary by the groups identified above, a few measures do not.
Attachment to Israel.
One of the most interesting findings is the across-the-board high-level of resonance of the Holocaust in shaping Jewish identification. For most American Jews born before 1965, the major Jewish shaping experiences were the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. While many scholars have argued that with increased time-distance from these two events, their impact on younger Jews should be attenuating, it appears that there is a divergent response — the Holocaust continues to be profoundly important to a broad spectrum of young Jews, yet Israel appears to much less important in positively affecting Jewish identity, except for those, like the Birthright participants who have actually traveled to Israel, or the Orthodox young adults, for whom Israel has powerful positive resonance.