The “report card” for non-Orthodox American Jewish teens should feature either an A or a D, depending on which of two new studies you read.
With teen outreach a growing concern in the American Jewish community, a number of communities and agencies, including the Reform movement, have launched special teen initiatives and task forces in recent years. The Conservative movement has set itself a goal of doubling youth group membership.
But results of the two new studies are mixed enough that translating them into policy recommendations will not be easy.
The two research projects on affiliated Jewish teens — a national study of Conservative teens commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and a survey of Boston-area teens conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies — are the most comprehensive surveys yet of Jewish teen involvement.
Both studies consisted of interviews with approximately 1,300 teens who have celebrated bar or bat mitzvahs.
The Conservative study interviewed its participants twice, shortly after their bar or bat mitzvahs and then again four years later.
The Brandeis study surveyed teens aged 13 to 17 once in 1998-99.
Like most American Jewish youth, the majority of respondents in both studies had attended congregational Hebrew schools, rather than day schools.
The Conservative study was the more upbeat. The two studies’ findings differ in several key areas:
Feelings About Pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Jewish Education
In the Conservative study, 97 percent of respondents described their bar/bat mitzvah training as positive, with 44 percent of them describing it as “very positive.” In contrast, more than half of the Brandeis respondents said they seldom or never enjoyed Hebrew school, with two-thirds reporting they always or often felt bored there.
The Conservative study concluded that gender explains “very little about individual variations among the sample population.” In contrast, the Brandeis study reported that girls are more likely to participate in formal Jewish education as teens, feel positively about their Jewish education and find Israel experiences personally meaningful.
Attitudes Toward Intermarriage
Fifty-five percent of the Conservative study teens said they think it is very important to marry someone Jewish, while only 32 percent of the Brandeis respondents agreed.
Some of the differences may stem from the fact that the JTS study focused on Conservative teens, while the Brandeis study included teens in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and independent congregations.
For example, the Conservative teens differed from Reform and Reconstructionist peers in their strong opposition to intermarriage, the Brandeis researchers said.
That’s not surprising, since the Conservative movement forbids rabbis from officiating at intermarriages and does not allow non-Jewish spouses to become congregation members.
But on other issues, the Brandeis researchers said, the Conservative teens — approximately one-third of the total — had attitudes similar to those of other respondents.
It’s also possible that no single metropolitan area, like Boston, is representative of the national scene.
Some commentators said the phrasing of the questions could explain the divergent findings.
Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has authored a number of key studies on American Jewish identity, pointed out that Hebrew school and bar or bat mitzvah training are “not at all the same.”
For example, bar or bat mitzvah training might include tutoring and experiences at day school, and a small percentage of the respondents in the Conservative study went to day school.
Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center, agreed.
“The personal attention kids get in direct preparation for the bar/bat mitzvah is seen more positively” than Hebrew school, Saxe said.
Other differences may be due to spin.
Saxe described the divergences between the two studies as the difference between seeing the cup as “half empty” or “half full.”
“Do we celebrate the involvement and the knowledge of a substantial group of our B’nai Mitzvah,” Saxe asked, “or do we worry about the people who didn’t get to the bimah in the first place and who didn’t end up continuing to be involved?”
Neither study found particularly high rates of post bar/bat mitzvah Jewish education, such as part-time Hebrew high school.
Twenty-seven percent of the Conservative teens graduated from a Hebrew high school program. Only 22 percent of the 11th -graders in the Brandeis study were enrolled in formal Jewish education.
Other key findings of the Brandeis study include:
Parents have a strong influence on teens’ attitudes and behavior when it comes to issues such as continuing Jewish education, intermarriage and the importance of raising children as Jews. For example, teens whose parents strongly oppose intermarriage are more likely to oppose intermarriage than peers whose parents are less concerned about the issue.
Secular schools exert a “powerful, even dominating influence” on teens. More than a lack of interest in things Jewish, academic demands help explain the decline in Jewish involvement.
Key findings of the Conservative study include:
The overwhelming majority of teens said they want to maintain or increase their level of Jewish observance.
Ninety percent of teens attend synagogue on the high holidays, 75 percent have “some connection with organized Jewish activities” after their bar or bat mitzvahs and half have been to Israel.
The intensity of the teens’ Jewish involvement dropped significantly between their bar or bat mitzvahs and senior year of high school. The exception is opposition to intermarriage, which increased as the teens matured.
The decline in intensity was most marked in the teens’ feeling that Jewish education is “very important to their sense of Jewishness.” Two-thirds of respondents felt this after their bar or bat mitzvahs, but only half did four years later.
Synagogue attendance also fell, from 65 percent who attended services at least once a month at age 13 to just 40 percent four years later.
Yet the authors of the Conservative study take heart that patterns of Jewish identity set in the early teen years persist through high school. The feeling that being Jewish is very or somewhat important, for example, decreased little in the four years after their bar or bat mitzvahs — from 98 percent to 90 percent.
The Conservative study shows that “early educational experiences play a crucial role in shaping the Jewish identity of the younger generation,” said Barry Kosmin, executive director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research and one of the study’s authors.
In the study’s conclusion, Kosmin writes that “the myth of the bar/bat mitzvah as an exit from Jewish life, at least in today’s Conservative synagogues” has been “debunked.”
The conclusions of the Brandeis study are more nuanced. Judaism is “important” to today’s teens, the authors write, but “only as it fits into their lives and their goals in a secular, pluralistic society.”