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Youth Engagement: Short Experience, Staggering Impact

How do social scientists define Jewish identity today?

The answer depends on what questions social scientists are trying to answer. If our goal is to count Jews, then anyone who identifies him or herself as a Jew is considered Jewish. But identity is complex, and often we try to understand the place of Jewish identity within the context of people’s lives and how they think about themselves. To understand the complexity, we need to understand how one’s Jewishness is reflected in behavior and how it has evolved over the course of a life.

Has the definition changed over the years?

Decades ago, identity and behavior—particularly affiliation—were more closely connected. Thus, we might simply have asked whether a person lit Shabbat candles or was a synagogue member. Today we need to know how a person thinks and feels about his or her Jewishness. Ritual practice is a part of Jewish identity, but not the only indicator. An increasing number of individuals identify as “just Jewish.” For some, “just Jewish” is a post-denominational label and a synthesis of practices and beliefs; for others, it signals identification with the Jewish people, not Judaism per se.

Changing attitudes to marriage between Jews and non-Jews illustrate the new complexity. Many Jews who have non-Jewish spouses retain strong Jewish identities, while many Jews who married Jews do not. So, it is an oversimplification to measure Jewish identity or predict whether one’s children will be raised as Jews solely on the basis of who one chooses as a partner. Raising Jewish children is mostly a function of a person’s Jewish education. Particularly for Jewish women, the research shows that those who have had both formal and informal Jewish education as well as some experience of celebrating Jewish holidays at home will raise their children as Jews.

We live in an era of choice and multiple identities. Whether and how we choose to be Jewish is not simply a label or a set of practices; it is about how we prioritize Jewish identity. That, in turn, is a function of education and experience. Many Jews, unfortunately, do not have enough knowledge of their tradition to be able to engage meaningfully.

Is there a time-tested formula, a continuum of experiences that, when followed, leads to strong Jewish identity in adulthood?

It is more complicated than that. The trajectory of Jewish identity does not follow a straight line or represent the sum total of hours of Jewish education, worship, or other activities clocked.

Life experiences are disrupted by inflection points—transformative moments that can have a powerful impact on the nature of emerging identity. For example, whatever one’s Jewish educational background, the experience of attending or being a counselor at a Jewish summer camp can have a particularly strong impact on Jewish identity. The intensity of relationships formed at camp, experienced in the context of living Jewishly, has a much larger influence on adult Jewish identity than might at first seem probable for a limited summer experience.

What makes the summer camp experience so impactful?

Camp incorporates the three essential components of effective education, and it does so in a particularly Jewish way. It is a positive emotional experience—young people feel good about being part of a Jewish community; it has a cognitive component—young people learn about Jewish rituals and Jewish life; and, perhaps most importantly, it has a behavioral aspect—campers experience living Jewishly in a communal setting.

Judaism is not simply a religion of faith, but an approach to life. We can’t effectively socialize young people without engaging their hearts, minds, and bodies. Camping is particularly effective for those who later become counselors-in-training and then counselors, because they gain an expanded and more sophisticated set of understandings about Jewish life. And, having had the opportunity to be Jewish role models and teachers, some counselors go on to become rabbis, cantors, educators, Jewish communal workers, and lay leaders in their Jewish communities.

If a college-aged Jew didn’t go to a camp, is it too late to have a life-altering Jewish experience?

Although I would like to see summer camp become a universal experience, it is never too late. One of the Jewish community’s most successful educational initiatives is Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day experience in Israel for Jews 18-26. Many participants have not been well-educated Jewishly; they come to Israel wearing their Jewishness as an external identity, like a “shell.” The program fills the shell with some content, but its key function is to raise the salience of Jewish identity by igniting a “Jewish spark” within each participant’s soul. These Jews learn abouttheir history while living Jewishly in an intensive experience that, like camping, engages heart, mind, and body.

Long-term studies demonstrate that the program serves as an accelerant that changes the trajectories of participants’ Jewish engagement. My colleagues and I at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University have been following thousands of young adults who applied to Birthright Israel between 2001 and 2006—some of whom participated in the program and others who were similar but did not take part. Interviewing these individuals in 2012, we found that participants are nearly 50% more likely than nonparticipants to be married to a Jew, and over 40% more likely to report feeling “very much” connected to Israel.The vast majority of married participants had a Jewish partner and a Jewish wedding. Participants, particularly those with children, were also much more likely than non-participants to be members of a congregation.

Still, it is hard to believe that a 10-day exposure to Israel can have such a powerful impact on Jewish identity.

It is, perhaps, counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t be surprising. We have long known about the power of intensive, 24/7 experiences and have accumulated substantial data about the impact of Israel experience programs, even for young Jews with little prior education and communal involvement. In Hebrew, Birthright is called “Taglit,” which means “discovery.” Ten days seem sufficient to allow participants to discover and rediscover their Jewish identities. They do not necessarily build a Jewish identity in 10 days, but they return home feeling a part of the Jewish people and being a member of a new social network of young Jews throughout the Diaspora and Israel.

Elie Wiesel once said, “Life is not made of years, but of moments.” My takeaway from 15 years of studying American Jews is that Jewishness is built from intense moments of engagement with others. Jewish education can take place with one’s family, at summer camp, or in Israel. To be educated Jewishly is to be immersed in a community where knowledge and feeling are married and where values are not simply espoused, but are lived.