Mixed Message

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.

  • Gender Differences

    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.”

Jewish Earning Power

Jews are more likely than members of any other American ethnic group to purchase a hardcover book or attend a live musical performance in the coming year, but they’re much less likely to buy a car, truck, recreational vehicle or major home appliance.

Their earning power outstrips any other ethnic group, yet they continue to vote very much the way Blacks and Hispanics do.

These statistics may sound like the setup to some tired ethnic joke or chicken soup homily, but they’re actually the latest in social-science research.

They are part of an intriguing new portrait of American Jews that has emerged from a groundbreaking study of ethnic America. Conducted last winter by Zogby International in cooperation with the New Jersey Jewish News, the studies, the Zogby Culture Polls, attempt to shed new light on a variety of American ethnic groups by examining them side by side.

The study consists of a series of identical surveys administered simultaneously to six different ethnic groups: Jews, Hispanics, and Asian, African, Arab and Italian Americans. The result is perhaps the first fully rounded statistical snapshot of America’s ethnic mosaic, or an important chunk of it.

By mapping the contours of individual ethnic subcultures alongside one another, the researchers hoped to produce a sort of relief map of the broader society, as well as a more rounded profile of each individual group.

The surveys were conducted between Dec. 14, 1999 and Feb. 7, 2000. Sample sizes varied, as did margins of error. The Jewish sample numbered 589 people, with a 4.1 percent margin of error.

The portrait of American Jews that emerges from the poll is at once familiar and surprising. Jews are increasingly rooted in America, the survey confirms. Fewer than one-third are immigrants or children of immigrants, a percentage similar to that of Italian Americans, but far less than the numbers for newer arrivals such as Hispanic, Asian or Arab Americans.

Moreover, Jews have achieved an extraordinary measure of success. Six out of 10 Jewish adults have a college degree, more than any group except Asians.

More than 41 percent report a household income of $75,000 or more, far above any other group surveyed. Fewer Jews than members of any other group reported worrying about losing their jobs or going without a meal. Far more reported investing in the stock market and shopping via the Internet.

And yet Jews still view themselves as a minority, and that self-image clearly shapes their view of their world.

Close to 90 percent say their ethnic heritage is “very” or “somewhat” important to them, comparable to Blacks, Hispanics or Arab Americans but far beyond Italian Americans. And nearly 60 percent report having experienced discrimination because of their ethnic heritage, more than any other group except Blacks.

Fully half of Jews report having a “strong emotional tie” to their “country of ethnic heritage” — less than Hispanics, at 62 percent, or Arab Americans, at 56 percent, but much more than Asian Americans, at 43 percent, or Italian Americans, at 37.5 percent.

What is particularly striking is that unlike the other groups, the country to which Jews are attached is not one their grandparents came from, but Israel, one which for the most part they have only read of in newspapers or learned about in religious school.

The researchers pointed to the very distinctiveness of the Jews as an identifiable community, with its own patterns of behavior and values, as the most striking finding of the poll of Jews.

“Jews have retained their own identity,” said John Zogby, president of Zogby International.

“I’m not an expert in Judaism, and as an Arab American I wouldn’t claim to be, but the findings suggest that there’s plenty within the context of Judaism as a spiritual force that generates a commitment to community spirit and communal values.”

Zogby, who is of Lebanese Christian descent, is best known as a New York-based Republican pollster. He is the brother of Arab American lobbyist James Zogby.

“You have to look at what appear to be subtleties,” added Belio Martinez Jr., Zogby’s director of international marketing and research. “When you look at issues of persecution, or at their involvement in international affairs, it’s clear that they really don’t view themselves as part of the traditional Anglo American majority culture.”

That minority self-image may help explain why Jews remain more liberal than any of their neighbors, despite their material success and the fading of the immigrant experience.

Both Zogby and Martinez cited that liberalism as the most important finding in the Jewish survey.

“They’re more conservative than they were in the 1920s and 1930s,” said Zogby, “but within the larger context, they remain more liberal than others.”

This liberalism shows up in a variety of contexts: party identification, voting patterns and positions on issues.

Nowhere, though, is it clearer than in the simple fact that Jews are more likely to identify themselves as liberals than any other group. Some 49 percent of Jews called themselves “liberal” or “very liberal,” compared to 42 percent of Blacks and about one-third of every other group.

By contrast, about 19 percent of Jews called themselves “conservative” or “very conservative,” compared to 25 percent of Blacks and about one-third of every other group.

The lopsided liberalism is reflected in party identification: About two-thirds of Jews are registered as Democrats and 15 percent as Republicans. That makes Jews less partisan than only Blacks, who are 78 percent Democratic and 6.5 percent Republican.

Among Hispanics, 57 percent are registered Democratic and 21 percent Republican. Italian and Arab Americans, like the nation as a whole, are about 37 percent Democrat and 34 percent Republican. All the groups’ presidential votes in 1996 closely matched their party registration.

The lopsided liberalism of the Jews shows up in their responses to issues on the public agenda, particularly on abortion.

Jews are overwhelmingly pro-choice, with 61 percent saying the decision should always be left to the mother. Among other groups, the figure ranged from 40 percent of Blacks and Asian Americans to 29 percent among Italian and Arab Americans and 24 percent of Hispanics who were fully pro-choice.

Similarly, fewer than 50 percent of Jews believe in notifying parents when a minor seeks an abortion, compared with nearly 80 percent in every other group.

Jews are also the most supportive of letting the federal government set education policy, the most supportive of campaign donation limits and the least supportive of increasing the military budget. In general, Jews showed a greater faith in the power of the federal government to do good than any other group.

That good will does not spill over to the United Nations, which received lower marks from Jews than from any other group surveyed.

Given a choice between “effective peacekeeping/human rights agency” and “bloated bureaucracy that weakens U.S. sovereignty,” most groups tilted about three-to-one toward “effective peacekeeping.” Only 55.8 percent of Jews chose “effective peacekeeping,” while 18.2 percent chose neither.

For Zogby, the specific characteristics marking American Jews — attachment to Israel, distinctive political values, mistrust of the United Nations — all point to the enduring influence of Judaism on the Jews’ inner lives.

Others might dispute that conclusion. But one thing is certain — wherever it comes from, they’re not getting it in synagogue.

Jews attend worship services less regularly than any other group surveyed. That, in fact, was one of the most striking differences the survey found between Jews and the others.

Just under one-quarter of the Jews polled said they attend services at least once a week, while more than half said they attend on “special occasions only.”

In every other group those numbers were precisely reversed, with about half saying they attend services at least weekly and 25 to 30 percent saying they attend only on special occasions. (Between 9 and 20 percent of each group said they “never” attend services, with Asian Americans scoring highest.)

At the same time, Jews had the highest proportion — 5.2 percent — who attend services daily, suggesting the continuing influence of Orthodoxy. Combined with 18 percent who attend weekly and more than 6 percent who attend “once or twice a month,” a total of nearly 30 percent attend synagogue with some regularity. This matches other surveys showing that 25 to 30 percent of American Jews maintain a deep, ongoing involvement in communal Jewish practice.

What keeps the others identifiably Jewish? The Zogby Culture Poll doesn’t say. All it does is state the facts: One way or another, something is keeping them Jewish.