Young US Jews find offbeat ways to express identity

New poll finds many have strongly defined Jewish identity formed oustide synagogues and JCCs.

A new study of Jews in their 20s and 30s reveals that, though these young Jews are under-affiliated with traditional institutions, many have a strongly defined Jewish identity that they express in creative new ways outside synagogues, JCCs and the federation system. "There's indirect evidence that young Jews care about being Jewish, but they are expressing it in ways that are not institutional," Hebrew University sociology professor Steven Cohen said. Cohen had been conducting research on Jewish identity and culture, commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York, with Hebrew Union College research fellow Ari Kelman for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. The final reports won't be released for several months, but the two men discussed with JTA preliminary findings from one of the studies, dealing specifically with younger Jews. "If younger Jews are not institutionally engaged, where are they engaged?" Cohen asked. One place is with friends and family. Another is through cultural events such as Jewish concerts and film festivals, and a third is through Jewish social service opportunities that are "oversubscribed, with many more young Jews willing to serve than there are places to accommodate them," he said. Above all, Cohen and Kelman said, the younger generation is expressing its Jewish identity through culture a vibrant, socially inclusive, hybrid culture centered in New York and a handful of other cities that draws upon popular youth culture with a distinct Jewish aesthetic. Noting the emergence of such things as klezmer-hip-hop bands, Heeb magazine, the Hebrew Hammer film and alternative holiday "happenings" in downtown clubs, Cohen and Kelman took the explosion of new Jewish culture as a given, and set out to determine what it means for Jewish continuity as well as the young Jews involved. Is it just fun, they wondered, or does it have implications for American Jewry's future? "There are a lot of anecdotal impressions people have, but nothing has been done to date to show how prevalent these programs are or what impact they have on the participants," said Jennifer Rosenberg, research director of the UJA-Federation of New York, explaining why the federation commissioned the research. She expected the final reports to help the UJA and other Jewish organizations with their strategic planning. Kelman and Cohen conducted their research at 13 Jewish events in New York City between December 2004 and June 2005, ranging from "Slivovitz and Soul," a party held at a Lower East Side bar featuring rapping in Yiddish, hora dancing and a disk jockey who sampled hip hop and cantorial music, to "Golem Gets Married," a mock wedding at the Knitting Factory club starring a cross-dressing bride and groom and a band that played klezmer music along with mid-century American dance favorites. Several themes emerged from the interviews, said the researchers. First, the events were inclusive and pluralistic, open to non-Jews as well as Jews. Jewish literacy may help one understand the goings-on, but it's not needed to enjoy the events. The events are held in clubs, parks and other mainstream venues to make access less threatening or ethnically specific. That removes a lot of the subtle guilt or sense of obligation that may be associated with attending events at synagogues or other Jewish institutions. "The organizers would like you to come because they think they have a good product and you'll have fun, but no one's taking attendance," Kelman said. "There's no sense that you 'ought' to be there, or that you're a bad Jew if you don't come. It's not like synagogue in that way." Second, the events mix music, dance and other entertainment with Jewish rituals, such as Megilla readings or Hanukka candle-lightings. Entertainment and ritual are interwoven and both are presented as equally valid, adding to the nonjudgmental, inclusive atmosphere. Third, organizers and participants use irony and irreverence to distance themselves from Jewish tradition and community, thereby creating a safe zone to explore their relationship to tradition and community, the researchers said. "One of the hallmarks of modern culture is self-referentialism and playing with stereotypes, like Heeb magazine, but there ought to be substance behind it," Kelman said. "Having the ability to laugh" at Jewish tradition "opens up a critical space" for Jews in their 20s and 30s to try on different aspects of Judaism and see where they're comfortable. That creative play often contains a serious search for meaning, he said. He pointed to one event where participants started dancing a hora while laughing at themselves, but continued dancing. "Really, dancing a hora and playing at it look really similar," Kelman noted. "So the irony opens up a window to engagement." So what's the message to the organized Jewish world? Though the final reports aren't yet in, Cohen and Kelman suggested certain guidelines. First, they said, it's time to pay attention to what's going on and stop griping about how young Jews aren't joining synagogues or showing up at singles events. "There is an opportunity for organized Jewry to be more active in engaging younger Jews," Cohen said. "Provide more frequent opportunities for cultural life, support for young artists, more social service opportunities, give them more opportunities to travel to Israel there's a segment that wants to spend significant time in Israel but doesn't know how." That means money. "A judicious use of money to support the cultural and social entrepreneurs" putting on these events would help them focus on their creative endeavors instead of "burning out doing fund-raising and administrative work," said Cohen. It's wrong to think young Jews involved in such events are alienated from Jewish communal life, said Kelman. "There's this myth of the 'great unaffiliated masses,' but those people are much less likely to come to these events," he said. Many of the participants Kelman interviewed had gone to Jewish summer camps and Israel programs and still go to synagogue on the High Holy Days. "These people are not rejecting synagogue; some just haven't found one where they feel comfortable," he suggested. "Even those who told me, 'I'm not involved,' as we talked they said, 'It's important for me to marry Jewish.'" But the researchers say this cultural renaissance is important on its own terms, and shouldn't be viewed merely as a way to funnel young Jews into establishment institutions. "If our research makes one impact, I hope it's this," Kelman said. "This is not a gateway drug. It's not intended as, 'Come to this, and now go to synagogue, or, now give money to federation.'"