USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

A Different Approach to Studying American Jews

A Different Approach to Studying American Jews

A Different Approach to Studying American Jews

(Photo by Yonatan Sindel)

Since the Pew Research Center launched “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews,” I’ve had a lot of interesting encounters with people who know I’m a applied sociologist of American Jewry whose work leans heavily toward the qualitative. Jewish professionals and lay people alike have sidled up to me and cautiously asked my opinion of the (very quantitative) Pew study. I tell them that I feel really excited about the Pew study, because of its timeliness in terms of punctuating the need for a more nuanced understanding of how post- boomers articulate and enact their ideas about Jewishness, which happens to be a project I’m currently working on.

This spring, I am a visiting scholar at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University, where I am working as part of a research team, headed by my colleague Ari Kelman, Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies in the Graduate School of Education. We’re in the midst of conducting an in-depth qualitative study exploring, among other things, how emerging adults learn to be Jewish.

In the past 20 years, social scientists have been expanding the study of Jewish identity to include inquiries examining “How Jewish are Jews?” (as the Pew study did) as well as research that asks “How are Jews Jewish?” It has been extremely beneficial to the field to expand the types of questions we’re asking about Jewish identity. And we’re trying to push the envelope even further. We’re hoping that if we ask the questions in a different way, we’ll learn something new.

So, rather than putting forth a variety of diverse measures designed to understand respondents’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors–in effect, asking young adults to tell us how they fit into the framework of Jewishness as we define it–we’re attempting to locate narrative authority with the research subjects themselves.

Toward this end, we’re using an inductive, life-history-based instrument adapted from the work of psychologist Dan McAdams, who is the director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. The Foley Center supports interdisciplinary research committed to studying psychological and social development in the adult years.

So far, we’ve conducted 57 in-depth interviews with individuals who map roughly onto Jeffrey Arnett’s concept of “emerging adulthood,” which we’re using to mean post-college and no children. We found these parameters helpful because of the exploratory nature of this phase of life, and the fact that it’s the least institutionally defined.

As a student, the educational system structures one’s experience in fundamental ways, and as a parent, one generally begins to make decisions within the constructs of the parent-child relationship. “Emerging adults” do neither of these, which makes them particularly interesting, as they’re figuring out who they are and who they want to be amid significant social, economic, cultural and personal flux. We used a snowball sampling method to locate respondents, which means we contacted people we know (both Jews and non Jews) and asked them for the names of Jewish people who fit the demographic profile of our ideal interviewee (identify as Jewish; non-college; no-kids).

We’re asking young adults to tell us the story of their lives: to think of their lives as a book with chapters. Then we’re asking them to tell us about these chapters, focusing on positive or negative moments, events, encounters and people that influenced them–in other words, formative experiences. We’re also asking them to reflect on how those moments have shaped how they understand themself and the world around them. In this way, we are attempting to avoid some of the challenges of earlier investigations of Jewish identity, which, we believe, might distort the magnitude of Jewishness in people’s lives by focusing almost exclusively on questions pertaining to Jewish attitudes and practices. Instead, we wanted to hear about Jewishness “in situ.”

This approach is enabling us to explore the ways in which young adults articulate who they are, what is meaningful to them and how they understand and engage with the world around them. And, specifically, the extent to which Jewishness plays a part in these individuals’ life stories.

In this way, their stories are less an accounting of their Jewish educational experiences or of how often their family observed Shabbat or whether they belonged to a synagogue or a Jewish community center (although many of those topics certainly came up). Instead, by hearing their Jewish stories within the broader context of their lives, we believe that we are developing a more nuanced account of how they learn to be Jewish, one that we think better reflects the scope of Jewishness in their lives. Ultimately, we hope our approach will contribute to reshaping our understanding of the dimensions and dynamics of contemporary Jewish life.

Tobin Belzer is a contributing fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.