Study finds young Conservative Jews both well-connected and less observant

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new york | College-age Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement identify more with Israel since the start of the Palestinian uprising and voice pride in their heritage, yet observe fewer religious rituals as they go out on their own and often date non-Jews. Those disparate findings surfaced in the third phase of a rare, decade-long longitudinal study that tracked the Jewish engagement of 1,006 young Jews who have grown up in the Conservative movement.

Called "Eight Up: The College Years," the study began tracking the students in the Bar and Bat Mitzvah class of 1994-1995, continued through high school in 1999, and then surveyed them in their junior or senior year of college.

The project, by the Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is modeled after the British documentary film series "42 Up" that followed a group of children from age 7 into adulthood.

It surfaces as the centrist movement that once dominated the American Jewish scene is navigating its way through a period marked by declining membership and debate over such issues as the status of homosexuals, driving on Shabbat and criticism that leaders have failed to shape a clear vision for the rank and file.

"They’re reflecting the community they’re coming from, and it presents a challenge for us," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm.

Led by researchers Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin and funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, the study offers both good and bad news for the movement, said Jack Wertheimer, director of the Ratner Center.

"On measures of feelings about being Jewish, attitudes toward the Jewish community and attitudes toward Israel, these students are quite positive and if anything became more positive" over time, Wertheimer said.

"But when it comes to religious observance, attending synagogue services and ritual observance, they have been in decline" starting in the high school years, he added. "We didn’t sugarcoat this."

The young Jews surveyed are increasingly open to dating or marrying outside the faith, though the majority still say they want to marry another Jew.

Asked how important it was to marry a Jew, the study found:

o 51 percent said it was very important, down from 58 percent in 1999;

o 36 percent said it was somewhat important, up from 31 percent in 1999;

o 13 percent said it was not important, up from 11 percent in 1999.

Meanwhile, 41 percent said they prefer to date Jews but also date non-Jews, while 35 percent said they did not care whether they date Jews. Only 18 percent dated only Jews.

Their plans in high school and their actual behavior in college are not consistent, said Keysar, one of the researchers. "They’re still not ready to make commitments."

Among the most significant positive trends, according to the study, was the students’ growing attachment to Israel at a time of rising anti-Israel activity on college campuses.

Conducted in 2003, three years after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada and two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the study found 66 percent of students said Israel was "very important" to them, up from 54 percent in 1999 and 56 percent in 1995.

A majority of these students, 60 percent, reported having visited Israel since the study began, with 14 percent of them having gone since entering college. In contrast, only 54 percent of their parents went during the same period.

Meanwhile, 68 percent reported joining a Hillel chapter or another Jewish student group, in college, 8 percent a Chabad organization, 7 percent the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and 6 percent the United Jewish Appeal, which raises money for Jewish causes.

Asked what being a Jew involves, 79 percent said "remembering the Holocaust;" 74 percent said "leading an ethical and moral life;" 72 percent said "caring about Israel," and 68 percent said "countering anti-Semitism."

During college, 48 percent of the students said they had experienced anti-Semitism, up from 42 percent during high school and 29 percent previously.

Reacting to the statement "I am proud to be a Jew," 66 percent agreed "strongly," while 32 percent agreed. That reflected little change from 1999, when 67 percent agreed strongly and 31 percent agreed.

"Some of the dire views as to what college campuses mean for the Jewish future really are exaggerated," Wertheimer said. "This group, on some very important measures, continues to identify very strongly as Jews."

Though 92 percent also felt some connection to "the Jewish people," a minority felt such ties included religious observance. The survey found that among the college students in 2003:

o 34 percent attended synagogue only on the High Holidays, up from 22 percent in high school and 14 percent in 1995;

o 28 percent avoided mixing meat and dairy while eating in restaurants, compared to 31 percent in 1999 and 39 percent in 1995;

o 78 percent said they intended to fast on Yom Kippur, down from 86 percent in 1999 and 90 percent in 1995.

o 25 percent said they never marked Shabbat, while 49 sometimes did. In 1999, 26 percent of high school students said their family did something "special" on Friday night or Shabbat, and 34 percent said their families "sometimes" did so.

A minority also engaged in formal Jewish education. Of the college students, 37 percent said they’d taken a Jewish studies course. Of those who had taken a course, 40 percent said they took a Hebrew language course and 23 percent a course in Holocaust studies.

The study also found young Jews more plugged in than ever before. Among the college students, 58 percent said they had surfed a Jewish Web site and 41 percent read a Jewish newspaper or periodical online. Only 12 percent said they had read a Jewish-themed book. Keysar, one of the researchers, found that troubling.

"We are the people of the book; for this generation, reading Jewish books is at the lowest point."

At the same time, Keysar found it "amazing" how comfortable these students were in discussing their Jewish identity. "Their connectedness with the community is something we have to bear in mind," she said.

Wertheimer said it was not clear whether or not there would be sufficient funding to continue the longitudinal study.