By Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath
Special to WJW
For Jewish teens coming of age in 2020, this is an unprecedented time. They are dealing with a global pandemic, the sharp rise in anti-Semitism, racial unrest and an overall uncertain future. At the same time, the classic concerns of Jewish educators, parents and the community at large remain. Will our children remain involved? Will they find meaning and added value in their Jewish identities?
In 2017, the Washington area reported that more than half of children with at least one Jewish-identifying parent participated in some form of Jewish education through eighth grade. However, immediately after, that number dropped to 17 percent.
Instead of merely speculating about why, I decided to ask them directly. By interviewing unengaged Jewish high school students from Greater Washington, I sought to uncover what, if any, added value they saw Judaism as bringing to their lives, and how they understood their Jewish identities in a world that transcends institutions, preconceived notions and the status quo.
The teens, without exception, impressed and challenged me. Our conversations were wide reaching, and as an educator I was inspired by the thoughtful and mature attitude that a demographic often portrayed as uncaring and out of touch showed toward their evolving and emerging Jewish selves.
“What would your ideal Jewish community look like?”
For anyone interested in seeing adolescents squirm, this question was highly effective. Largely, the teens were hesitant to even broach the topic, which was so antithetical to their universalist principles. Genna (all names have been changed), a high school sophomore from Rockville, said, “I wouldn’t say Jewish community, like only Jews living in a city. I’m thinking diversity, and maybe a few synagogues, but it’s better to have diversity and to learn from other people and their cultures. I think that would be my ideal community.”
The hesitancy to account for even the slightest hint of particularism also came from Jessica, a freshman from Northern Virginia. “My ideal community wouldn’t be just Jewish…we’d be part of society, more intermixed with all other religious groups.”
In the world of COVID-19, the parameters and boundaries of what it means to be in community with others have changed, perhaps irrevocably. Generation Z-ers, who are coming of age in a world that is closer and more interconnected than ever before, are more likely to fully embrace complex identities, and to wish to transcend labels. Understanding this puts into context the discomfort that many of them have with the perceived exclusionary nature of being asked about a specifically Jewish community. However, while recognizing the universalist principles that have been instilled in Generation Z, the discomfort with describing a uniquely Jewish space or community begs further contemplation.
The same teens who were reluctant to describe a Jewish community were also asked about how they envision their own Jewish futures. When it came to their personal lives, the teens were much more candid. Despite the broad strokes of universalism that marked their communal thoughts, when asked about their personal Jewish futures, the consensus fell along the lines of largely replicating the experiences the teens themselves had growing up.
Lila, a junior from Northern Virginia, said, “If I have kids, I’d want them to do the same thing I did. I’ll raise my kids Jewish because it’s so important to me, even though I haven’t been super involved. And I think when I grow up, it’ll be important for me to find a community, because until now it’s just kind of been there, but depending on where I move I might have to find it for myself.”
Scott, a senior from the District, was even more specific. “I think that later on down the line once I’m married and I buy a house, I will want to keep kosher. And I’ll never say that to my mother’s face, because she’ll say she was right. But I think that it was something I used to be embarrassed of, but now I realize what a cool thing it is that my family has upheld this tradition, and I’d want my future family to carry that on.”
If we recognize that teens are interested in replicating the Jewish experiences that have been normalized to them through their families, it begs the question: In addition to the universal values that teens have internalized, what are the particularly Jewish priorities they’re absorbing through the education and socialization opportunities offered by the community?
For Jewish teens coming of age today, there is a sense of their inherently intersectional identities. They are minorities, and are aware of and concerned about the rise in anti-Semitism nationwide. At the same time, with the majority of Jewish teens identifying as white, there is a strong sense of the need to be allies, and to use their own privileges, as well as the inherited experience of discrimination, to support those in need.
For those of us who are committed to the Jewish identity development of this next generation, and to ensuring that they find value in this identity, we would do well to listen to Scott, the D.C.-area senior: “To me, being Jewish means having an instant community and connection. It means I have this whole history that I can take pride in. It instantly gives me something I can turn to, and realize that my ancestors have gone through so much to get me to where I am, and now it’s my turn.”
Dr. Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is a Jewish educator and professional specializing in identity development and engagement among Generation Z teens. Her writing can be found at samanthavinokormeinrath.com