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Jewish College Student Survey: Israel is Most “Crucial Issue” For Young Jews Today

In case you were wondering what to discuss with your family when you’re home from school for Rosh Hashanah, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar at the Trinity College Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture have released the preliminary findings of a survey of Jewish students on college campuses, New Voices reports.

Not surprisingly, the results point to similar trends as the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans, but there are some significant differences that show how Jewish life in America is slowly changing, particularly among Millennials.

There are two fundamental events that defined world Jewry in the 20th century: the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel. The college-aged Jews surveyed by Kosmin and Keysar believe these events to be less important in their definition of “being Jewish” than the Pew survey respondents.

60 percent of college-aged students said that “remembering the Holocaust” was “very important” to being Jewish, whereas 73 percent of Pew respondents said it was “essential.” That the Holocaust is losing its prominence as an important part of American Jewish identity may be surprising to older generations, but it is not shocking. As we move further away from the events of World War II, and survivors are no longer alive to personally relate their stories, the Holocaust becomes more of a historical event than a communal or familial one.

35 percent of the students surveyed by Kosmin and Keysar felt the Jewish state was “very important” to being Jewish, while 43 percent of Pew respondents said supporting Israel was an “essential” part of being Jewish. Yet, 62 percent of the college students had visited Israel (21 percent on a Birthright trip)—significantly higher that the 43 percent of Pew respondents who had been to Israel.

Also noteworthy: the students named Israel as a “top concern” when asked to identify the “crucial issues” concerning young Jews today. Given that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a hot-button issue on campuses across America—New Voices editor Derek M. Kwait refers to its “amoeba-like takeover of all Jewish life on campus”—it’s not surprising that some Jewish college students consider their religious and cultural identity to be separate from Israel. But the high percentage of students who have visited—and their degree of concern—indicates that they are still vitally engaged with Israel, although perhaps more critically than their parents.

The survey also shows an interesting balance between religious identity and the level of participation at religious services. 39 percent of Jews on campus considered themselves “secular” and just 23 percent identified as “religious” (quite different from the American college student population as a whole, where 32 percent identify as “religious” and 28 percent as “secular”). Yet, the survey also highlights that young Jews participate in religious services in higher numbers on a weekly and monthly basis than the American Jewish population as a whole. Fewer identify as “High Holiday Jews” than in the general Jewish population, but—puzzlingly—a greater number never attend services at all. “This seems to speak to the larger trend of our generation’s loathing of lip-service,” writes Kwait. “If we believe, we take it seriously (even if we take it seriously in a non-traditional way) and if we don’t believe, why bother with it at all.”

Some other fun facts to take away (approximate numbers):

1. 20% see “having a good sense of humor” as necessary to the Jewish identity.

2. 80% had a bar/bat mitzvah.

3. 40% say having Jewish children is a very important part of being Jewish.

4. 13% exclusively date Jews on campus.

5. 80% identify Judaism as a culture; 60% as a religious group; 40% as an ethnic group.

6. 64% were descendants of four Jewish grandparents.

As with any preliminary survey results, the findings are not 100% conclusive, but it’s still fascinating to look at the statistics and see what they point to. We’ll keep you posted on the final survey results, which will no doubt provide more clarity and provoke more questions.

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