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How Jewish are American Jewish college students?

By Cindy Mindell

ct cover 12-2-11HARTFORD – Trinity College professors Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar have just announced findings of their new Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, a survey of 1,157 self-identified Jewish college undergraduates throughout the U.S.

Kosmin and Keysar, respectively, are director and associate director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. Kosmin is also research professor in the Public Policy and Law program, where Keysar is associate research professor.

The duo designed and conducted an online study focused on American Jewish college students, who were missing from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 household survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”

Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students is a follow-up to Kosmin and Keysar’s 2013 online national survey of the worldviews and opinions of 2,000 American college students, which had 100 Jewish respondents. In the new survey, students were asked about their Jewish identity, college experiences, family background, and opinions on social, religious, and political issues. The findings, says Kosmin, enriched their understanding of trends and patterns identified by the Pew survey and will help the scholars assess how globalization, social media and inter-group mixing reshape the identity and connections of young people today. The topics explored allow for comparison with other ethnic and religious groups in the U.S. and with Jewish students in the United Kingdom.

Kosmin and Keysar will present their findings in a community forum at Trinity College on Nov. 13.

Kosmin explained to the Ledger what the new study reveals about the next generation of American Jewish adults and how the findings can help shape and strengthen the Jewish community.


Q: You had input from Jewish organizations and colleagues. Who were they and what did they want to learn?

A: Three outside organizations were consulted: Jewish Federations of North America asked us to include questions about volunteering for Jewish and general organizations. We included questions to compare with a 2012 survey of Jewish students in the UK, conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London and we’ll publish a joint report on the comparison. The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. consulted on the questions that report on anti-Semitism.

The academics asked us to replicate many of the 2013 Pew survey’s questions on Jewish identity to see how students compared to the adult population. The 500 members on the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry [ASSSJ] listserv spent a lot of time discussing the implications and findings of Pew and comparing that survey to the 1990 National Jewish population study, which I also directed.

Because Pew was doing the 2013 survey and not a Jewish organization, the ASSSJ members were wondering whether there was a methodological change, that maybe the method was affecting the findings. One finding was a rise in secularism and some ASSSJ members thought that maybe Pew didn’t give enough Orthodox Jews a chance to reply.

We’re finding a growth of secular identity, and for a long time people were saying that that was over. Part of it is not only secular Jewish identity coming out. There are two reasons: for Jews of mixed backgrounds – let’s say, one Jewish parent and one Catholic parent – the kids become Jewish but secular Jewish, because it’s easier than becoming Catholic. And there is a secular trend among those from a completely Jewish background – Conservative with four Jewish grandparents, or modern Orthodox – who have become much more skeptical.

That is a general trend that validates the Pew finding, that Jews are becoming less religious. But we also have a percentage of students who are attending weekly religious services that is higher than the general Jewish population. We’re getting more polarization, which is also what Pew found.

That’s exactly what happened in America: the rise of both the religious right and the free-thinking secular population. The bell curve has flattened a bit; there are more people on the left and on the right, which we know has happened because the Conservative movement has lost the most members and the Orthodox and Reform movements have maintained their levels or grown. The Jews are more secular than the general population but they are following the same trend: there are more pious and more believing Jews, and that’s what Pew found.


Q: How do you interpret this growing secularization? Are we losing young Jews?

A: The young people are not alienated, but rather, they’re a quite socially-integrated population, Jewish-wise. The response to that would be, “What about the Jews who become Mormons or Hare Krishna?” And we can’t know about Jews who left the religion because the people we interviewed and who volunteered to be interviewed self-identify as Jews. As such, they are the population the Jewish community has to deal with.

We don’t lose everybody who’s from a mixed background, and we also get some back. In the 1990 study, we heard that 28 percent of Jews in intermarried couples were raising their children Jewish, and this new survey finds 36 percent of those from mixed backgrounds identify as Jewish. That means that, since 1990, there hasn’t been much of a change.

We don’t have the whole Jewish population represented; the very Orthodox probably aren’t included, and the findings would look more religious if they were. Also, people in jail or in the military aren’t included. Rather, this is the mainstream; 70 to 80 percent of this generation is covered by the survey. I can’t tell you who has been alienated and left – we’re not dealing with real population statistics on the basis of that – but this is a look into the world views and attitudes of current university students.


Dr. Barry Kosmin

Dr. Barry Kosmin

Q: What is the strongest marker of Jewish identity among this population?

A: What is interesting is how diverse they are. Compared to the national population, Jews are more likely to say that they’re secular – 39 percent vs. 28 percent – and the number of those who consider themselves “spiritual” is roughly the same – 31 percent vs. 32 percent. (In both surveys, it’s more of a woman’s answer.) But there’s nothing Jewish about that; it’s an American phenomenon.

And that’s part of the fun of doing this work: where are the Jews like everybody else and where are they different? The general consensus is that Jews fall in with their generation and America in general.

And then some things are surprisingly different. A lot is from their backgrounds: where young Jews are different from other young Americans, it’s where their parents are different to other American adults. In this area, there are several findings that are validated between the Pew survey and ours. For example, the Holocaust is important to both generations. God and halacha seem to be pretty far down the list of both the young and adult populations.

Then you have to make the interpretations. At the bottom of the list is the importance of being Jewish and belief in God. Not many believe in God, which is probably true, but belief in God is not unique to Jews. Their parents said that belief in God is not unique to being Jewish but the Holocaust is. It’s not that all of the respondents are atheist, but they don’t think that belief in God makes them Jewish; [it’s not] what makes them different from others in the dorm.

The older generation has vague memories of the Holocaust and a lot of the younger respondents come from states where the Holocaust is on the high school curriculum. Maybe non-Jews don’t pay attention to the Holocaust curriculum, but the Jewish kids did. We’ve institutionalized and reinforced the Holocaust.

More students than the older generation have gone to Israel – 28 percent of respondents with Birthright – which to some extent emphasizes the Holocaust, so participants have been to a Jewish museum or memorial, which one of the questions addresses. That’s in the design of the program so it’s not surprising to me. So the younger population has been told over and over that the Holocaust is unique to Jews.


Q: Are there global events – e.g. the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, growing anti-Semitism in much of the world – that seem to change or challenge students’ Jewish identity and private and public expression of same?

A: The survey took place in March and April 2014, before Operation Protective Edge. However, a surprisingly high proportion of students – 55 percent – reported being victims of, or observing, anti-Semitism on their campuses, mostly in interpersonal stuff with other students. For this issue, we replicated the questions from the 2012 UK survey to find out where they experienced anti-Semitism – in the student union or the classroom, from other students or the administration, etc. While anti-Semitism is more institutional in Britain and more interpersonal in the U.S., the general levels are similar.

Israel is on the forefront of their Jewish concerns and connections, regardless of a particular crisis. There is quite a lot of polarization of views on Israel, from “super-Zionist” to the other way. Here, you have to be a little bit subtle: the overall level is of concern for Israel and the point is that they’ve been there. The fact is that, politically, when it comes to Israel, there’s a difference here, though most Israelis would be happy with the general level of concern and support for Israel.

But the respondents are divided on the solution to the problem, just like Israelis are. There is a lot of support for the current government, and a lot of people who are very, very critical of the government and sympathetic to the Palestinians. There’s a kind of AIPAC vs. J Street position, which you’d expect, but no one is so extreme that they’re members of Hamas.


kosmin graphic

The Wordle illustration above presents the top 25 responses named by students when asked in an open-ended question to specify the concerns of young Jews like themselves. American college students named Israel as their top concern. “The strength of their concern is all the more impressive as the interviews occurred well before this summer’s conflict in Gaza,” says Kosmin.

Q: What were among the most and least anticipated findings?

A: The surprising thing is that it wasn’t so hard to get Jewish students to answer questions about Jewishness. They are a constituency who take being Jewish relatively seriously. You have that whole thing about being proud of being Jewish – Pew found that – and nobody in this generation is terribly embarrassed about being Jewish, or in denial, or very angry.

In the 1920s, there was a lot of Jewish alienation, a lot of upheaval – the socialist movement, Zionism, etc. – but you don’t see a lot of rebellion here, maybe because we’ve offered this generation a lot of outlets and ways of being Jewish. The Jewish community has a “Chinese menu” now and, I believe, is picking up many more people than they’re aware of.

I’ve done other population surveys. If someone says, “I’m not any longer Catholic,” that’s not the same as here, when someone says, “I’m not religious but I’m very Jewish.””

More than 70 percent of the students say that the Jewish community is a cultural group, which means that everybody belongs – religious, secular, spiritual, right wing, left wing, et al. In the 1990 survey, the Jewish community also put itself forward as a cultural group.

To me, that’s a very important finding but it’s not new; it’s just that the Jewish community tends not to apply it because each organization has its particularities and segments, but this shows that the overarching unity of Jews is as a cultural group.

One of the things we found out concerns the relationship with grandparents. What you don’t have, which is a surprise, is intergenerational conflict because you have people in all three generations who are similar to one another: relatively comfortable and well-educated. Ninety-four percent of respondents have a parent who went to college; 75 percent have a grandparent who did. Only six percent are first-generation college kids, which is amazing when compared to the American population as a whole.

On many important topics, the students are co-ed – i.e. there is no statistical difference in men’s and women’s responses. This is because they have very similar upbringings. Many cited the close ties with and importance of the role of grandparents.


Q: What are the policy implications of your survey?

A: The Jewish community has to find ways to engage and listen to the voices of young people. Over 800 students want to continue talking to us about the Jewish issues and volunteered to be re-interviewed. Online surveys and social media are the way to do this for the millennial generation.

We asked how many are open about being Jewish, a question that came from the UK study, and that was pretty high – higher than in the UK. American kids are more open about being Jewish, but some keep quiet and we have to find out why. If you’ve got a group of people who are not Jewish by religion and have a lot of gentile relatives, they’re Jewish sometimes but not Jewish at others. For example, an adoptee from China with no Jewish grandparents, for some circumstances they’re Chinese and for others they’re Jewish.

Part of the job is telling policy and education people that this generation is slightly different from theirs. There are many more mixed ancestries, so it’s not the North End of Hartford in the 1920s. We’re measuring what’s changed and what’s fixed. Knowing what’s changing rapidly and what’s fixed is relevant to policy-making. It’s like mining for precious metal. We got a tremendous amount of data on, for example, the interrelationship of going to synagogue and joining a Jewish fraternity and going to Israel, or the interrelationship of a good relationship with grandparents and going to synagogue, or the interrelationship of women who went to synagogue who are willing to date Jews.

The gold standard of surveys today is a longitudinal panel study – following up with the same people over time. We have willing participants but we need more funders. We need to look more in-depth into some of the issues and concerns the students have articulated in order to understand future trends.

For information on the Nov. 13 presentation: Ariela.Keysar@trincoll.edu / (860) 297-2388.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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