Under-40s reshape Jewish engagement, report finds

Close to 3,500 people showed up the evening of Dawn, an all-night Shavuot celebration at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum on June 7. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, they’d come ready to spend the night marking a Jewish holiday with performance art, dancing to live bands, listening to cutting-edge authors and even studying Jewish texts.

Between 500 and 1,000 didn’t get in.

“Many, if not most of the people there had never celebrated Shavuot before,” said David Katznelson, 39, who has run this dusk-to-dawn re-imagining of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot four out of the past five years. “And people weren’t just filling the rooms with the fun stuff. They were filling the rooms where the serious conversations were going on as well.”

The tidal wave of Jewish cultural creativity in the under-40 crowd, and their willingness to show up for these Jewish-themed art, music, dance and literary events, has been noted for some years by Jewish communal leaders, sociologists and writers.

A new report lends muscle to certain aspects of the phenomenon, hinted at by Katznelson: Young Jews’ desire to be with other young Jews and their interest in creating their own Jewish experiences rather than signing up for long-standing programs.

Uncoupled: How Our Singles Are Reshaping Jewish Engagement” is the third in a series of reports on Jews under 40 by sociologists Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and Ari Kelman from UC Davis. Its main findings show that young, single, non-Orthodox Jews are just as proud of being Jewish and just as interested in exploring their Jewish identities as their married peers. Their Jewish behaviors might differ, but not their attitudes.

Like the two reports that preceded it, this study uses data from the 2007 National Survey of American Jews, a mail-back and Web-administered survey of self-identified Jews. Cohen and Kelman focused on the 1,704 non-Orthodox respondents between the ages of 25 and 39, and compared singles to in-married couples.

Their findings showed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Jewish engagement does not kick in for young, non-Orthodox Jews only when they get married and have kids.

While married Jews do show higher levels of institutional affiliation their single counterparts, those changes occur whether or not the couples have children — another surprise for the researchers.

“The biggest behavior changes come with getting married, not with having children,” Kelman said. “Neither of us expected that.”

And Jewish singles are just as interested in being engaged Jewishly as their married peers, just not along institutional lines. They’re just as pro-Israel, just as proud to be Jewish and just as likely to have many Jewish friends.

But because the singles are not seeking out Jewish involvement along traditional institutional lines nearly as often as their married counterparts, that presents a programmatic challenge to the Jewish community, Cohen says.

“Instead of thinking how to bring young Jews to our institutions, we should be thinking how to support young Jews in creating their Jewish lives,” he said.