Youth Groups and Youth Movements: Where Did They Come from, and What Difference Do They Make?
Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Director of Research and Projects, ATID

When my eldest daughter was in fifth grade, I had a casual conversation with a friend of mine who works as a synagogue rabbi here in Israel. "Is she in B'nei Akiva?" he wanted to know. "No," I answered, "she was never that into it." He was horrified. "You should make her go, or at least encourage it! It's so good for them."

He would seem to be correct. Intuitively, it makes sense that attendance at youth groups is a good thing for the religious education of young people, and that becoming a youth-group counselor can build leadership skills and religious self-confidence. But in the end of the day, how much impact do youth groups have, and how do we know?

Furthermore, the suggestion that youth group attendance is so critical for religious development makes me wonder how the Jewish people did without these institutions for most of its history. In historical terms, Jewish religious youth groups did not exist until the beginning of the twentieth century. How did it happen that a phenomenon so new has suddenly emerged as a sine qua non for better Jewish education?

Truth be told, in trying to understand the background and role of religious youth groups, we may in fact be dealing with two separate phenomena: youth groups and youth movements. The former could be defined as social and religious activities organized by adults, often linked to a congregation or denomination, which provide informal educational and social activities for young people in a Jewish atmosphere. The latter, in contrast, could be defined as a youth-led ideological movement with broader social if not political goals, and which generally includes a significant element of rebellion against parents and adult society. Youth movements, unlike youth groups, were not just afternoon activities, but could take over the lives of individuals and become a whole identity and ideology.

Youth movements were particularly important in the early part of the 20th century, both among Zionists and among followers of other Jewish ideologies, whether in Europe or in Palestine. During the second half of the 20th century -- in the United States, other parts of the Diaspora, or the State of Israel -- youth groups became more important in Jewish education. The trend has drifted from a more dominating and totalizing youth movements to more informal and part-time youth groups.

Youth Movements: History and Background

Both youth movements and youth groups could not have developed without the prior development of distinctive youth culture. In the pre-modern past, what we would call today teenagers would contribute economically to the family as soon as they were physically able. There was, therefore, little by way of youth culture. Young people had little formal education that would require supplementing through informal education. They had little leisure time available, and by virtue of their economic contribution, were more likely to be treated as adults. Or, put somewhat differently, the category of youth, as opposed to children or adults, was considerably less important than it is today (Austin, 2008). Youth groups would have been irrelevant. Furthermore, in the pre-modern age of lesser socio-geographic mobility and limited choice, families and local communities could relatively easily socialize young people into the group's religious and cultural norms, without a need for an institutionalized youth group.

But, in the industrial and post-industrial eras of urbanizations and increased wealth, youth suddenly found themselves, for the first time in history, out of the workforce and with little productive activities with which to fill their time. Public schooling developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in this very context, educating students in schools instead of sending them off to work or to apprentice. This created tensions in two directions. First, adults felt a need to help that youth use their growing free time effectively and efficiently. Second, the youth themselves, often with boundless energy and revolutionary ideas, looked for a more meaningful and valuable outlet for their creativity than what schools could provide (Austin, 2008).

In more narrowly religious terms, modernity also brought with it the challenge of maintaining religious commitments in an open society. That is, modernity offered people choices about who they wanted to be and what commitments that wanted to adopt. To be religious, or to advocate a particular ideological position, became increasingly a matter of individual choice. Religious groups and ideological camps had to work much harder than in the past to ensure that young people would stay within the group, rather than choosing any of the other smorgasbord of options that society offered. Institutions to provide socialization into the group's shared values became an increasingly important tool for maintaining the allegiance of the next generation (Berger, 1979). Youth groups – with their informal, enjoyable education and intense sense of camaraderie and belonging – are ideal tools for modern groups to help create and cement the allegiance of adherents.

Historically, Jewish youth movements emerged out of gentile ones, particularly the British Scouts movement and the German Wandervogel, each of which had a slightly different orientation. The British Scouts was founded in 1907 by a former British soldier, Robert Baden-Powell, and it helped to train British youngsters with the para-military and survival skills that they would need to contribute as soldiers in Britain's imperialist empire (or, in the case of non-soldiers, at least help them identify with military colonialism). In contrast, the Wandervogel, founded in 1896, adopted a more Romantic, German approach, in which the youth turned their backs on the perceived artificiality of modern society in order to return to nature. The former derived from an adult attempt to socialize young people into the mainstream values of the adult political culture, while the latter was a more youth-led attempt to move beyond the values of their parents (Gillis, 1973).

But the situation among Jews was slightly different, particularly in Poland and Germany, the places where Jewish youth movements began and grew in the early years of the twentieth century. Germany was the country in which emancipation and integration into general culture had been particularly fast and dramatic, challenging Jews to rearticulate how they envisioned Jewish identity. Furthermore, German society as a whole was in an upheaval after the First World War, and the gradual rise of Nazism made the task of envisioning a new Jewish way of life seem all the more urgent to Jewish youth. These youth developed various kinds of Zionist and socialist movements, such as Blau-Weiss, Habonim, Werkleute, Hashomer Hatzair, Ezra, and Brit Halutzim Datiim. With of the onset of World War II, many of these groups played active roles in helping Jews to survive, whether in and out of the ghettos (HaEncyclopedia Shel HaShoa, 1990).

Regarding Eastern Europe, and Poland in particular, pogroms and harsh economic conditions in the late 19th century led to a growing sense that Jews could not continue to live there in the same ways that they had in the past. The question became, what would be the alternative? Many voted with their feet, traveling to America, but many others developed new ideologies for Jewish life, whether focusing on Zionism and the Land of Israel or on restructuring Jewish life in Europe. For the most part, the younger Jews were most active in this ideological rethinking, with the older Jews more set in their ways and more attached to traditional practices. These young East European Jews became the core of the major ideological movements, such as Jewish versions of communism and socialism, Yiddishism, and (most importantly into the future) Zionism. Each ideology had at least one youth movement, and many had more than one, each representing a different sub-ideology (Lamm, 1991). Movements included HaShomer HaTzair, Gordoniah, Dror, and Beitar, among others, in the secular camp (HaEncyclopedia Shel HaShoa, 1990), and HaShomer HaDati and Bnei Akiva , among others, in the religious camp (Elihai, 2001). Just prior to the eventual destruction of European Jewish life, some hundred thousand young people in Poland and a similar number in Germany were members of one or another youth movement.

The youth were the less religious segment of European Jewish society during that period, and as a result many of the youth movements did not particularly have a religious flavor, and often had an anti-religious flavor. Hence, the religious movements were founded only after the secular ones, and often to combat, or at least provide an alternative to, the secular movements. Obviously, being religious, they were interested not only in revolutionary change, but also in maintaining elements of the tradition. Even while aspects of youthful rebellion remained - such as B'nei Akiva's kibbutz-oriented socialism – the religious youth movements were often guided more closely by adults. Rabbinic and educational leaders understood the attraction of the non-religious movements and these leaders understood that religious alternatives (whether as an ideal, or a necessary evil) could help keep young, observant Jews in the fold (Elihai, 2001). That is to say, the Orthodox Jewish youth movements in Eastern Europe and Palestine looked somewhat more like the model of youth groups, while the secularist ones were more fully youth movements.

For the most part, Zionist youth movements encouraged their members to lead the way settling Palestine. Hence, youth movements became extremely important in the establishment of the new yishuv, particularly in the founding of early kvutzot and kibbutzim. Youth movements that had their roots in Europe opened branches in the Land of Israel, and gradually new native Israeli youth movements were established in the first half of the 20th century, which played central roles in founding many settlements and in establishing key social, educational, military, and political institutions in the nascent Zionist settlement. (For a history of the numerous youth movements in the Land of Israel prior to the founding of the State and during its first years, see (Naor, 1989; Reichel, 2008).)

Contemporary Youth Groups

Gradually, however, the cultural influence of the revolutionary youth movements began to wane, and they were replaced with the more conservative youth groups. European Jewry was utterly destroyed during the Holocaust, and with it a plethora of Jewish youth movements. The Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel established itself, culminating in the founding of the State, thereby making revolutionary movements less important. And, the United States was gradually becoming the main center of Diaspora Judaism. American Jews felt so comfortable in the United States that they had no need for revolution. Instead, they needed formal and informal educational institutions that would help maintain the Jewish identity of young Jews. By the second half of the 20th century, youth groups had largely replace youth movements.

In Israel, secular youth groups continued to exist, but for the most part they involved after-school social and recreational activities, along with a spirit of communal-service voluntarism. The religious movements play a similar role, albeit with a particular religious twist. In North America, both non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish youth groups also continued, more often than not associated with the religious denominations or with other Jewish fraternal organizations.

The question is, how effective are these youth groups as a contributing factor in Jewish identity? Of course, there may be more than one answer to this question. Some groups or structures may be more effective than others; some populations of Jews may be more open to the influence of youth groups; and some individuals may gain more from youth-group participation than others. Surprisingly, there has been a little study of these questions, in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts, and the studies that do exist often leave more questions than they provide answers.

For example, a 1998 study of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (associated with the Orthodox Union), found extremely strong correlation between participation in NCS Y and a whole series of markers of Jewish activity and Jewish identity. More than that, the majority of NCSY alumni claimed that the youth group was a positive influence on their religious observance. That is, former members attribute some of their religious identity to NCSY. The survey took particular pride in the vast differences between NCSY alumni and the general Jewish population (as reflected in the 1991 National Jewish Population Study ), in terms of level of Jewish practice and identity (Friedman, 1998). However, the study remains largely unhelpful since the comparison to the general population does not provide much information. After all, only a very self-selected group of people -- likely those with strong interest in pursuing Judaism more seriously -- choose to attend NCSY on a regular basis.

Steven Cohen raises a series of related questions regarding how to parse the correlation between various formal and informal educational activities and Jewish identity. Studies consistently show that the single most important factor in youth religious life is the religious life of parents (Hayes & Pittelkow, 1993; Hoge, Petrillo, & Smith, 1982). If we want to assess the impact of religious youth groups, says Cohen, we have to control for the families pre-existing Jewish commitments, what they brought with them to the Jewish youth group. A study that he conducted in the 1990s suggests that all kinds of Jewish educational experiences - both formal and informal - correlate with higher levels of Jewish activity and lower levels of intermarriage. However, he also found that parents with higher levels of Jewish identity and Jewish practice were much more likely to have children who attended Jewish schools or youth groups. Similar results were found in studies of non-Jewish families (Hoge & Petrillo, 1978).The increased parental Jewish involvement explains more of the children's Jewish identity than any other factor. Once parental Jewishness is factored out, participation in youth groups and other educational activities was found to have some effect, but a much smaller one than initially appeared (Cohen, 1995). Perhaps the study of NCSY tells us more about the young people who chose to attend the youth group and then it does about the impact of the group itself?

Cohen's study is consistent with the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, a monumental study of (primarily non-Jewish) American teens and their religious lives. NSYR found that some 69% of American teens had attended some sort of religious youth group in their lives, and nearly 40% currently did so. Yet, the study also found that the single most important factor in these youth's religious lives was that of family religiosity, and the authors of the study numbered family as higher in the list of factors in youth religion than youth groups (Smith, 2005). Another smaller study, conducted among Seventh-Day Adventists, found something similar: that youth group participation made a young person more likely to retain his or her religious identity in the long-term, but that parental religiosity was a much more important influence (Dudley, 1999).

This same question about the "value added" of religious youth groups is important in the Israeli context as well. Research in the 1990s suggested that a great many Israeli Jewish youth -- approximately half -- participated in one way or another in youth groups. The study found that participation in youth groups correlates highly with many positive social and educational traits, such as dedication to schoolwork, social voluntarism, and a greater attachment to Israel and Zionism. Yet, the researchers also determined that youth who participate in such organizations come from the higher level socio-economic groups. They tend to come from the Ashkenazic middle-class, while Sephardic and recent immigrants are underrepresented. Further, they found that parents of those in youth groups invested more on the whole in their children's education. At a religious level, those who attended religious youth movements were more religiously active and had deeper commitments to the Land-of-Israel ideology of the religious Zionist community. Yet, again, they also came from families that were dedicated to these ideals to begin with. That is, youth arrive in the youth group already containing the seeds of those positive social and educational outcomes. At least some -- though researchers were hard-pressed to figure out how much -- of the success of these youth groups comes from the socio-economic and educational situation in the home, rather than from the group itself. It is hard to determine how much youth groups create idealism, and how much idealistic children are naturally drawn to youth groups (Shapira, Feir, & Adler, 2004).

None of which is to say that youth-group participation is a bad thing. On the contrary, I have no doubt that my rabbi friend was correct. Attending such groups is good for kids, and becoming leaders is even better. Participation may (or may not) help to keep them religious, and it may or may not) increase social characteristics that we find it desirable, but it certainly does give these young people a healthy, Jewish social atmosphere in which to meet like-minded peers. What could be bad about that?

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