Teens gather at BBYO’s annual international convention. (Photo/Courtesy The Jewish Education Project)
Jewish teens gather at BBYO’s annual international convention, July 2019. (Photo/Courtesy The Jewish Education Project)

Here comes Gen Z: the next generation of Jews, by the numbers

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A landmark new study of Jewish American teenagers between ages 13 and 19 shows that many feel positive vibes toward Jewish heritage and culture but less so toward religion, and that a sizable minority are uncertain about God.

The study also shows that Jewish teens feel strong ties with their parents and grandparents, and that they are part of a generation that experiences a lot of emotional strife.

GenZ Now, one of the largest contemporary studies of Jewish American teenagers, surveyed 17,576 young people. Significantly, the vast majority of respondents were affiliated in some way with a Jewish youth group.

The resultant 44-page report represents a collaborative effort championed by the New York-based Jewish Education Project and funded in part by the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation. It was coauthored by social scientist Arielle Levites of the Jewish Theological Seminary and data scientist Liat Sayfan of Rosov Consulting.

The report and some of its findings were unveiled at the Jewish Funders Network conference, held in San Francisco in March, and released in full on May 30 in New York City.

By design, respondents were culled from databases belonging to 14 national youth-serving organizations, such as BBYO, NCSY, Young Judaea and Habonim Dror.

Thus, according to its authors, the study “is better suited not to make claims about every U.S. teen today with some Jewish ancestry.” Rather, its aim is to understand “American Jewish teens who have had a connection to, or interaction with, a Jewish institution or program,” even if just by joining a mailing list.

A healthy 82 percent of teens surveyed said they feel a strong connection with their Jewish heritage.

“Of all the attitudes we measured in our survey, this was one of the items on which teens rated themselves highest,” the report says.

Many said the connection comes from their sense of pride about Jewish success, survival and cultural contributions.

The “resilience of the Jewish people is always inspiring,” reported a teen named Ben. “When you’re just a part of this very tiny group that has accomplished so much, you can just look back and say, I’m part of that.”

82 percent of teens surveyed said they feel a strong connection with their Jewish heritage.

This “generally positive attitude to being Jewish” corresponds with a 2013 Pew study finding that 94 percent of American Jewish adults felt “proud to be Jewish,” the report says. Similarly, 94 percent of teens in the new survey said that being Jewish is either “somewhat important” or “very important” to them.

There was less certainty around religion. When asked how they “thought of themselves Jewishly,” 75 percent of teens chose “I’m Jewish” among six options. The next most popular answer was “I’m Jewish culturally but not religiously,” which 16 percent of the teens selected. The other answers were “Sometimes I think of myself as Jewish, sometimes not” (3 percent), “It’s complicated” (3 percent), “I’m Jewish and something else” (2 percent) and “I’m not Jewish” (1 percent).

Sixty-four percent of respondents said they “believe in God or a universal spirit,” but 22 percent said they were unsure and 14 percent said they did not believe.

As to what connects teens to Judaism, many look to family. While previous generations may have been inclined toward spiritual searching or charting their own spiritual path, many teens today take their religious cues from their parents, the report finds. Respondents rarely used the word “spiritual” to describe themselves.

“Most teens describe their own religious commitments as being stable and in sync with their parents’ own beliefs and practices,” the report says.

Ninety percent of the teens surveyed said they “like spending time with family” around the Jewish holidays. In interviews, many stressed the role of grandparents in observing and celebrating Jewish holidays.

The teens’ answers reveal that “items related to religious beliefs and practices are most closely tied to those related to family,” a finding that aligns with other studies showing that religious practice is often “rooted in how we feel about our parents and how closely we feel tied to them.”

“Definitely family is the first big word,” survey participant Noah said. “We never miss a Jewish holiday and we never neglect one or skip it. We always celebrate a Jewish holiday, and we never celebrate it by ourselves.”

Notably, the markers of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox were cut from the study after an early testing phase showed “many teens did not relate to this question” or that it “did not make sense,” the report says.

“It was a confusing question to teens,” study coauthor Levites said in an interview. “They didn’t necessarily know what the correct answer was. And if a question is confusing, it’s not a good question.”

The study also took up issues of mental health, with 69 percent of respondents saying they know people in their school or community who need help with managing anxiety and depression. Sixty-four percent said their peer group needs support coping with academic pressure, and 61 percent said they know fellow students who have self-esteem issues. Eating disorders, drug and alcohol problems and bullying issues all factored into the teens’ responses.

Some of the teens interviewed for the report highlighted academic stress. “People have told me that high school, these four years, are the most important time to work your hardest because they kind of affect the rest of your life,” said Ashley. “All the students always strive for A’s, everybody needs to be the best with honors. It can just be very demoralizing sometimes,” said Adam.

“Feeling stress is now part of growing up for teens,” the report says, “and, while felt as individuals, may reflect anxieties in the larger American society.”

The full name of the study is “GenZ Now: Understanding and Connecting with Jewish Teens Today.” The project, begun in 2017, was funded by the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York, as well as the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.