The panel of four Jewish teenagers seemed distinctly out of place at the Jewish Funders Network conference in San Francisco. The kids assembled onstage weren’t philanthropists or foundation executives, and they didn’t come with stories about grantmaking gone wrong, or PowerPoints measuring charitable impact.
But for an American Jewish establishment increasingly anxious about keeping young Jews from leaving the fold, the insight these teenagers offered was valuable — even if it was communicated in typical teenage fashion.
“Feed us,” said Kai Levenson-Cupp, 16, who works with children at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont once a week and appreciates the free pizza offered there. “You gotta feed us to keep us coming back.”
The teens, all of whom are connected to Jewish communal life in some way, offered their opinions on Jewish identity, Israel, spirituality, and why they do or do not go to synagogue services.
Their experiences line up with the findings in a new study by the Jewish Education Project, “GenZ Now: Understanding and Connecting with Jewish Teens Today,” that surveyed 17,576 teenagers involved in 14 Jewish youth organizations across the country. It was previewed at the conference on March 17 and will be released to the public in June.
While it has been common knowledge that many young teens disconnect from organized Jewish life once they pass the age of bar or bat mitzvah, panel moderator David Bryfman, the incoming CEO of the Jewish Education Project, said the survey presents a more nuanced portrait of the rising generation of young Jews.
“I have my own Jewish identity that I’ve developed over the years,” said panelist Eli Ganz, a student at Lowell High School in San Francisco and a regional president of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth group.
“It’s my community, it’s my group of friends, it’s the traditions, it’s the holidays, it’s the food,” said Ganz, adding that he doesn’t attend synagogue often.
Three of the four panelists said that while they do not get much out of traditional synagogue services and attend rarely, they do enjoy services and prayers in other contexts.
Levenson-Cupp, who is active in Jewish Youth for Community Action, a social change organization, finds meaning in the Shabbat services held during JYCA retreats.
“Usually we sing the prayers on the beach or by water,” said Levenson-Cupp, who uses he/them pronouns. “It’s this really beautiful feeling, feet against the sand and with the ocean going, I know that my ancestors are there with me.”
Ganz said he likewise felt a sense of spirituality while in nature or singing with friends at Jewish summer camp.
Bryfman said nature and music were frequently cited by teenagers in the study as ways that make them feel “connectedness to something bigger than themselves, without being able to give it specific language.”
Caroline Hall Sherr said when she was younger, still at the Brandeis School in San Francisco, she did not enjoy attending services.
“Every time it’s the same thing, the same prayers,” she said. “The prayers didn’t have much meaning for me.”
Now a student at University High School in San Francisco, Hall Sherr said she can enjoy the melodies and appreciate the talents of Cantor Marsha Attie when she goes to High Holiday services at Congregation Emanu-El.
David Reback, the only regular synagogue-goer on the panel, is active in BBYO, a pluralistic Jewish youth group, and said he relates to the more traditional aspects of Jewish practice.
“I’ve had a pretty intense Jewish life,” said Reback, who attends weekly services at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. “Anybody who [meets] me will find out pretty fast I’m Jewish.”
Reback also said a connection to Israel and a desire to advocate for the Jewish state during college are parts of his Jewish identity.
That was a point of contrast with Levenson-Cupp, who understands the importance of a safe place where Jews can live free from persecution, but believes Israel currently impinges on the rights of others.
“I cannot support a homeland like that if it comes at the expense of another people,” they said. Levenson-Cupp has a Palestinian friend who they believe has more of a right to the land in some areas than many of the Jews do.
Hall Sherr and Ganz both said they do not feel knowledgeable enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to have strong opinions. That position matches findings in the “GenZ” study, that Jewish teens are largely “open to Israel” but want to ask “trusted adults” questions about the issues.
And while some teenagers in the study said they have been exposed to anti-Semitism, overall they “do not feel personally threatened or see it as a primary lens to understand their experience in the United States today.”
Other notable findings: Teens have more positive relationships with their parents than reported by previous generations; those involved in Jewish youth organizations are more engaged in Jewish life; and many feel connected to their Jewishness through family, holidays and cultural practice.