Millennials are likely to be less affiliated and less likely to identify religiously than older generations of Jews. The recent Pew study of Jewish Americans made that clear. But what about smaller, self-selected groups of Jews in their 20s? What can an individual institution find out about the young Jews in its midst?
Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, whose job is to serve millennial Jews, posed a number of Pew-like questions to its users (it has no members). About 1,000 took the online survey and on Dec. 10 the synagogue announced the results during a panel discussion on Pew and millennials.
The results were nonscientific, but still offered lessons for the synagogue, said Rabbi Shira Stutman, director of Jewish programming, who led the discussion.
Some findings between the two studies were similar. Thirty-two percent of Pew participants age 18-29 said that caring about Israel was “essential” to them, while 30.2 percent from Sixth & I answered the same way. Asked if they believed in God or a universal spirit, 58 percent in the Pew study said yes, while 59.3 percent in the Sixth & I survey agreed.
Respondents diverged widely in other respects. To the statement “I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” 69 percent of Pew respondents agreed, compared to 90.7 percent at Sixth & I.
Slightly fewer than half (48 percent) of Pew respondents age 18-29 said they had two Jewish parents. The number from Sixth & I was 77.5 percent, suggesting that millennials whose parents aren’t intermarried are more likely to affiliate.
In an interview, Stutman said those numbers also suggest something else. “It shows we’re not doing a good enough job engaging people with one Jewish parent.”
Pew asked whether a person’s Judaism was a matter of religion, ancestry or culture. Millennials answered this way:
Matter of religion: 13 percent; Matter of ancestry: 24 percent; Matter of culture: 34 percent.
Sixth & I allowed participants to have more than one choice, so the numbers were higher:
Religion: 57.3 percent; Ancestry: 70.3 percent; Culture: 89.9 percent
What is striking about the results, Stutman said, is “when given the opportunity to choose more than one, religion still came in third. Culture brings people in the door.”
She told the 130 people gathered for the panel discussion that there is more to these studies than numbers. “Our job as a Jewish community is to take these statistics and recognize that they are individuals, each with his own story.”
Panelists differed with those who see the Pew numbers as a crisis.
“A lot of the anxiety comes from people who are paid to be Jewish,” said Atlantic and Bloomberg writer Jeffrey Goldberg.
Added Julie Finkelstein, program director for Slingshot and the only millennial on the panel, “What we’re seeing is a vibrant, active community. To speak about ‘there is a problem with your generation’ is very disempowering.”
Turning to intermarriage, which the Pew study clocked at 58 percent, panelists viewed the phenomenon as the result of Jewish acceptance in America, and different from generations ago, when a Jew who intermarried was ostracized or chose to leave the Jewish community.
“As we become less Jewish, America is becoming more Jewish,” Goldberg said.
“We treat intermarriage as a marker of disappearance,” said Bethamie Horowitz, research assistant professor of Jewish education at NYU Steinhardt School of Education, who conducted a recent study of New York’s Jews. “It’s no longer the case. It’s a measure of integration and acceptance. Non-Jews want to marry Jews.”
If that’s the case and the stigma of being Jewish is gone, “and there’s millions of potential Jews out there, you might want to go out there and recruit,” Goldberg said.
Audience member Susanna Groves, 28, was interested in the Pew study because she was about to have an adult bat mitzvah. She said she was surprised Pew found that younger and older Jews had similar views on religion.
Her cousin Leah Greenglass, 28, liked the “idea that intermarriage doesn’t need to be a negative thing and can be an opportunity to bring more people in.”
Like nearly half of Pew respondents, Nooni Reatig, 33, said “a rich intellectual life is important to me. I identify as Jewish and it’s all about lifestyle, but it has to be updated to the way we live today,” she added. “You have to make it worth taking time from our busy schedules and make it worth coming back.”