This is the Year of the Teen. As Cindy Mindell reports, in Connecticut and throughout the American Jewish world, the focus is on engaging our teenagers in Jewish communal life, especially after their b’nai mitzvah, when they tend to drop away. In fact, we’ve been doing a pretty good job of this here in the Land of Steady Habits, but the challenges should not be underestimated.
According to the 2013 Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, fully one-third of Jewish millennials (those born after 1980) consider themselves Jews by religion. That compares with one-quarter of Jewish Gen-Xers and one-fifth of Jewish Boomers. There’s no question that Jewish self-identification has grown weaker with every passing generation.
In fact, the challenge of holding on to millennials is being felt across the spectrum of American religion. Just ask the Southern Baptists if you think the Jewish community is having trouble hanging on to its young. The rise of the Nones – those who say “none” when asked “What is your religion, if any?” – is particularly acute in the younger generation. Fully 25 percent of adults under 30 now say they have no religion, and there’s good reason to think that number is on the rise.
How come? In part it’s because of disaffection from organized religion, but there’s also been a shift over the past several decades in the way Americans have come to understand religious identity. Where, once upon a time, most of us considered religion as something stamped on us at an early age, now we increasingly identify ourselves in terms of our current religious practice. If we don’t happen to belong to a church or synagogue or mosque, we are more likely to say we have no religion. Religious identity is more and more a choice we make, in real time.
This new reality poses a particular challenge for Jews, who by tradition and halacha are identified by descent. That’s why the program of sending young people to Israel is called Birthright. It’s why converts are Jews by Choice.
But in American society today, all Jews have to be considered Jews by choice. Teen programs are good but there are no permanent fixes to the challenge of Jewish continuity. Jews, whether teenagers or adults, all need to be given good reasons to choose Jewish identity. And to keep choosing it.