Jewish Teenagers: How Jewish Identity Is Changing for Young People

Like many educators and Hebrew High administrators, I work with hundreds of Jewish teenagers and have seen how Jewish identity is changing. Parents often plant the seeds for Jewish Identity in early childhood and then have to keep watering, pruning and fertilizing them as they get grow. This has been going on since my Grandmother’s day. Yet, this generation of young people have embraced a new kind of Jewish identity—one parents often did not know was even a type of plant!

1. Culturally Jewish

First, many young people, including myself, seem more comfortable saying that they are ‘cultural Jews’ rather than ‘religious Jews.’ This is a new take on the older generation’s “Holiday Jews” who only attend services on Holidays. Of course, there is no one kind of cultural Jew. Some cultural Jews only celebrate the holidays in the home or out at dinner, with Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Some eat apples and honey, but don’t go to Rosh Hashanah services. Others attend a friend’s break fast, without actually fasting. And still others consider themselves Jewish because they often eat Rye sandwiches, get two helpings of Kugel and say kvetch instead of whine. Not only is this kind of Jewish identity popular amongst young people, it has become quite fashionable.

2. Digitally Jewish

At a recent Jewish young professionals mixer someone asked me “So, how Jewish are you?” I wasn’t sure how to answer the question and he clarified, “Like are you a member of the ‘I’m a Jew’ group on Facebook?” I laughed and wondered, “When did a Facebook group indicate how Jewish you are?” Many teenagers use digital means to gauge their own and each other’s Jewishness. Jewish identity statements now come in a variety of digital ways—do you watch Jewtube instead of Youtube? Do you have a pro-Israel badge on your wall? Do you post about Hebrew School in your newsfeed? These are subtle, but important indicators that young people are deciphering to decide and express the security and depth of their Jewish Identity.

3. Jew-ish

I’m starting to hear, “I’m Jew-ish” from teenagers more frequently. They say “Jew-ish” as if the ‘ish’ indicates only a small amount of Jewish blood, heritage or identity. There are a variety of reasons young people have given me as to why they consider themselves Jew-ish.

“I’m still not sure if G-d exists.”

“I don’t do anything Jewish, but my parents are.”

“My Dad is Jewish, but my Mom isn’t so I don’t really count.”

4. Equally Jewish!!!

Another strong change in young people’s Jewish identity is their emphatic beliefs about being ‘just as Jewish as Orthodox, traditional or Chabad Jews.’ Many teenagers are taking a stand with their Jewish Identity and making it a statement in equality. More than ever, young Jews are educated about the factions of Judaism, the divisions in Israel and the internal anti-Semitism amongst religious and non-religious Jews.

I think it is fascinating to look at how young people define their Judaism and grapple with how they express it to the outside world. It is important for Jewish parents and adults to also address these issues with the young people in their lives. Is there a right or wrong way to be Jewish? Is it risky to be Jew-ish? And most importantly, what does their Jewish identity mean to them?

Vanessa writes many articles for her Jewish readers. Please check out the Young and Jewish Series to see her articles. To see her speaking engagements, workshops and groups for Jewish Parents around the world, please contact her manager at manager@radicalincorporated.com. Coming soon: How to build your teen’s Jewish Identity, How to Encourage Hebrew School Without Compaint and What to Do When Your Teen Is Dating A Non-Jew

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