The dramatic shift in religious identity among educated Jews

The dramatic shift in religious identity among educated Jews

Stats from more than two decades of academic research shows that 'well educated' members of the community have a weaker attachment to their Jewish identity

United Synagogue Ski trip
United Synagogue Ski trip

Data from 20-plus years of institute for Jewish Policy Research surveys shows the “very well educated”, defined as those in the Anglo-Jewish community with at least an MA, have weaker attachment to Jewish identity, religious behaviour, marriage choices and perceptions of Israel than the less well educated, defined as those without a degree. That was the conclusion drawn from the recent piece of research by Jewish community sociologist Prof. Stephen Miller, of City University

Only 35 percent of Masters graduates think a Jew should marry another Jew, versus 65 percent of those without a degree, while support for left-wing statements on Israel is much higher (20-30 percent) among the highest achievers.

Miller says the study underlines the challenge to adapt to a more splintered community, where religiosity and world views are increasingly bifocal, begging the question where does this leave the organised Jewish community today in trying to stem the ‘Brain Drain’?

United Synagogue Director of Communications Richard Verber says: “Young people increasingly want ‘experiences’, so programming has to provide them with something they can’t get elsewhere. We need to think very carefully about communal planning and financing.

“Surveys show that younger people are increasingly ‘universal’ rather than ‘particular’, meaning that while they may still have a strong Jewish identity, they are choosing to spend their time and donate their charity to causes beyond the Jewish community as well.”

US initiatives include ensuring young people are increasingly involved with volunteering programmes and harnessing these interests is  key to maintaining the most outward looking of our community’s ranks, Verber adds.

Ben Crowne, also a former chair of Limmud, believes Miller’s paper is partly a reflection of the growth of Jewish community investment in its young people: “Youth groups and education charities are under pressure, but there are more people in Jewish schools than ever before,” he says – in other words, the grassroots organisations are a symptom of the investment by central bodies.

United Synagogue Mitzvah Day clean up

Crowne, a forensic accountant, advises community leaders: “Take a business-focused mindset: you invest in organisations which are doing well, or encourage existing organisations to absorb or imitate them. This is what the United Synagogue is doing well, looking at new models of communities, new ways of affiliation.”

What is harder to anticipate, he says, is the impact of the universalist set of values the main organisations “cannot and should not fight”.

 He adds: “The key shift we are seeing – from large central parochial institutions and ethnic identities towards individualist and  universalist ones – is a global one.

It may not be permanent or irreversible, but it is not going to be turned around by a handful of communal bodies.”

And a further thought: “There is a need to adapt and embrace new models and patterns of behaviour.”

But with Prof Miller warning that there is a negative correlation between being well educated and synagogue membership in the UK, the battle may not be fully won. As Miller himself insightfully states in his concluding chapter, “Judaism, traditionally was grounded in Jewish textual learning. Such Jews could also use their intellectual skills to train as lawyers, physicians, financiers and scholars, thereby entering a professional, urban elite. But the essential dynamic was that the desire to maintain one’s Jewish identity caused people to acquire the necessary academic skills, while a lack of education prevented Jewish identification and effectively propelled uneducated Jews into the prevailing, non-Jewish, agrarian economy. On this view, a survey of Jewish engagement and academic achievement in the year 1000 CE would have revealed a strong positive association between Jewish engagement and education, with the desire for engagement driving the pursuit of education.”

Fast forward a further thousand years to the twenty-first century and the link between economics and Jewish life choices seems to operate in the reverse direction. “Some economists argue that Jews choose between competing lifestyle options in such a way as to maximise the social and economic benefit of their choices. For highly educated middle class Jews, the utility derived from participation in secular, non-Jewish activities may be greater in terms of social networking, professional challenge and financial opportunities than the investment of similar amounts of time in Jewish endeavours”. If this trend continues – in essence secularization – then there might indeed be a larger communal ‘brain drain’ coming up than any one anticipated.

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