Opinion | Opinion

Jewish millennials are showing increased attachments

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The older generation always thinks of the younger generation as losing its traditional values, wondering “Why can’t they be just like us?”

But in a time of expanding globalism, open social networking and greater geographical disbursement, a surprising finding of a recent poll we conducted shows that Jewish consciousness among millennials — young adults in college and graduate school — is rising, not falling. As perhaps part of a global trend toward religion in general, we believe the survey indicates that the next generation of Jews may be increasingly into being Jewish and following Jewish traditions.

Here are the surprising truths. According to a just-released survey of 600 U.S. Jewish undergraduates and graduate students conducted by Penn Schoen & Berland, nearly half of all Jewish college students today participate in Hillel events — a 36 percent increase from the last time PSB did this poll in 2005. More than half of students said they would participate in a Hillel event in the next month — up from only 36 percent seven years ago. And nearly 75 percent of students said they viewed Hillel and “Hillel people” favorably, an increase of more than 20 percent since 2005. The next most important Jewish institution on campus was Chabad, which is also growing in popularity with college students.

The rise in Jewish activism also is tied to strong support for Israel. Fully 78 percent of Jewish students today say that support for Israel is important to them – virtually the same percentage that says social justice (and having a sense of responsibility for the Jewish people) is important.

The success of Hillel is based on a six-year effort that started with the sophisticated deployment of early social networking techniques. The idea was simple – to use snowballing student connections as the path to bringing in more students. Hillel not only seized on this insight, but also took it backward from virtual to real — training and employing nearly 1,000 Jewish students to engage about 35,000 uninvolved Jewish peers on more than 70 campuses across the globe. In every case, the goal was to help the unengaged students meet, explore and connect to Jewish life on their own terms. It turns out that peers not only can reach students in ways that institutions can’t, but they also can do it creatively, imaginatively and with lasting effect.

Second, Hillel hypothesized that in addition to going broader, it also could go deeper. On 10 pilot campuses, it placed Jewish educators and rabbis trained to engage students in study and conversation, encouraging students to ask the big questions that make college such a potent place for development and growth.

As students progress in their education, they are more likely to participate in Jewish events on campuses, and such participation reaches its zenith among graduate students. And this increase in interest is across Reform, Conservative and Orthodox students, as well as those self-defined as “just Jewish.”

The greater success of Jewish-based organizations on campus is no doubt the result of innovative work by those organizations, but it also signals some real changes going on underneath. Universalism may have reached its limits, with the reassertion of a greater sense of ethnic and religious identity growing in its place. Social networking makes it easier for groups to come together and find their commonality; threats to Israel and the potential growth of nuclear weapons in the region give an urgency to that connection. Birthright Israel is also giving many an up-close and personal experience.

So just when we all thought young people were most likely to blend in even further and abandon purely Jewish institutions, instead we are seeing them reassert their Jewish identity, their support for Israel and, perhaps most important, seek out connections with one another to feel part of a larger community they can call their own.

(Wayne Firestone is president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Mark J. Penn is corporate vice president for strategic and special projects at Microsoft. He was formerly CEO of the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, which conducted the survey.)