The New New York Jews: Unaffiliated, But Not Unengaged

In a study released on May 19th by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, social researchers Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman report that many Jews in their 20’s and 30’s in New York are highly engaged in Jewish life, even though, for the most part, they are not currently affiliated with traditional institutions such as synagogues and Jewish Community Centers.

Funded by a grant from UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, “Cultural Events and Jewish Identities” analyzes both the venues and participants in a variety of alternative Jewish performance events in New York City over a six-month period.

Copies of “Cultural Events & Jewish Identities” can be ordered from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, 330 7th Avenue, 21st Floor, NY, NY 10001, 212-629-0500 or downloaded as a PDF file from:

“The import of this study on Jewish communal policy could be dramatic,” observes Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.  “Most other studies of Jewish identity link affiliation with engagement, as is appropriate for middle-aged and older Jewish adults.  By uncoupling these behaviors, Cohen and Kelman suggest an entirely different strategy for serving the next generation of American Jews.”

Rather than relying exclusively on the traditional institutions – synagogues, JCC’s, federations and Jewish communal organizations – the study suggests greater investment in contemporary Jewish artists, particularly musicians and performance artists, who perform in venues outside the organized Jewish community, such as bars, clubs and alternative performance spaces.

These events are appealing to young Jews, the study reports, because they attract diverse crowds, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and feature “cultural hybridity,” blending Jewish and other idioms, such as Matisyahu’s Hasidic-reggae, Balkan Beatbox’s Central-European dance beats, or the Hip-Hop Hoodios Spanish-Jewish hip hop.  The non-Jewish venues, such as Joe’s Pub, the Slipper Room or the Knitting Factory, provide considerable cultural cache, generational comfort, low entrance barriers, and no expectations for future obligation, all important criteria for this generation when choosing leisure time activities.

The full report also includes a first-ever cultural analysis of the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, as well as a unique breakdown of the “functions” of Jewish cultural engagement.  In brief, analysis of the NJPS shows that “Jewish cultural engagement provides an important link to Jewish life for the intermarried, the geographically remote, the unmarried and the unaffiliated,” the most difficult populations to reach for the organized Jewish community.  The “functions” of Jewish cultural engagement include community-building, networking, challenging the conventional, and serving as a laboratory for new cultural ideas and forms.

Commenting on the study, Cohen and Kelman remarked, “These young adult Jews see organized Jewry as alien, uniform, coercive, and parochial, both socially and culturally. In contrast, cultural events create a new space where they can express themselves Jewishly in ways that are distinctive to their generation. They relish the unpredictable, the freedom to sample and assemble their identities, the presence of all kinds of Jews and non-Jews, and the opportunity to construct a hybrid culture where the Jewish meets the formerly non-Jewish and makes it Jewish again.”

“This study is important because it seeks to understand how young adults interact with and are influenced by arts and culture in a Jewish context, and it affirms that the arts can be a powerful medium for deepening Jewish connections,” said Alisa Rubin Kurshan, UJA-Federation of New York’s senior vice president for strategic planning and organizational resources.  “UJA-Federation commissioned this research because we seek to engage young people in Jewish life through innovative models of programming that foster Jewish connections at a time in life when many young people disaffiliate with the Jewish community. The findings affirm the value of Jewish culture as a means of reaching the unengaged and providing safe spaces for young Jewish adults to explore what being Jewish means to them.”

“The connection between Jewish culture and Jewish identity is a link that we instinctively feel is very strong,” said Scott Shay, chair of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal. “However, the entire arena has been woefully under-researched. The study by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman, commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture with funding from UJA-Federation, is a first step toward shedding light on how the Jewish community can leverage the growing interest among young adults in Jewish culture while not being overbearing,”

Reflecting on the report’s emphasis on the impact of cutting-edge artists, musicians and performers on Jewish identity, Carol Spinner, president of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, observed that “There is limited support for the creatives whose work impacts on thousands of people over time.”  Noting that “this group needs to be educated, trained and mentored in order to nurture future expressions of Jewish creativity in America,” Spinner commended the UJA-Federation of New York and its Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, both on funding this study and on the recent award to a consortium comprised of the NFJC, AvodaArts and JDub Records to initiate an innovative Jewish artists fellowship program.

A symposium on the study is tentatively planned for September 18, 2006, to be convened by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, in association with UJA-Federation of New York.  Copies of “Cultural Events & Jewish Identities” can be ordered from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, 330 7th Avenue, 21st Floor, NY, NY 10001, 212-629-0500 or downloaded as a PDF file from.


October 30, 2015 | Category: Blog