These unexpected patterns are part of an answer to one of the most central questions for the Jewish community in America: How is a heavy investment in education changing how we act, especially with regard to the religious and communal activities we pursue?
As opposed to my immigrant grandparents who probably only ever received at most the equivalent of a high-school education, my parents both have at least one master’s degree, while among me and my sisters, two of us have bachelor's degrees and one has a Ph.D.—and all three of us were enrolled in dual-curriculum Jewish schools all the way through college. These multi-generational shifts in education change our desires and expectations for so much in life, it's safe to assume that they’d change our preferences in religious life too. By investing in our educations, we invested in what economists call “human capital.” And like other forms of capital, when you have a lot of it, you seek out ways to deploy it, and to do so in concert with economic principles, or, as Chiswick puts it, “Nonwork skills increase our efficiency and enjoyment of the many unpaid activities that make up the rest of our lives.”
What's most relevant here isn't just generic human capital but what Chiswick calls “Jewish human capital,” which we might gain by investing in going to Jewish schools and camps, learning Hebrew, reading Jewish texts, or attending Jewishly-relevant art exhibits or events, and even prayer services. The various ways to engage with the Jewish world assume differing degrees and types of investments in Jewish human capital: If you go to an Orthodox synagogue without knowing a fair amount of Hebrew, you’ll have a hard time following what’s going on; likewise, if you attend a Jewish literature discussion and haven’t read any Philip Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer, you'll be quite lost as well. The attainment of this "Jewish human capital" has costs, but it enables people to enjoy and experience Jewish life more deeply. Said simply, those costs can sometimes pay off.
But standard, non-Jewish human capital is also shaping Jewish communities today. Surely, someone without a lot of Jewish schooling is unlikely to be able to pick up a Hebrew text at a class and start reading, but if that person nonetheless has studied literature, writing, history, and sociology, they’ll expect quite a lot more from community classes and events than mumbled prayers, trite fairy tales, and magical beliefs.
A non-economic examination of much of what the Jewish world has had to offer the non-Orthodox in recent decades reveals that it’s not simply a smaller ask on their time, but it’s quite often also a smaller ask on their minds: In young Jews today I see a desire for more distinct, engaging learning opportunities, not just quick-and-easy holiday celebrations. In the same way that highly-educated professionals expect to go to the opera and learn a thing or two, they’d expect their leisure activities in Jewish life to be similarly edifying.