If a Supreme Court justice, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and the secretary of the Treasury were not enough, Jewish girls can find plenty of other role models of professional success.
A new study suggests the examples of these Jewish women — Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and many others like them — have made a deep impression.
The study, published in the latest edition of the American Sociological Review, finds that girls with a Jewish upbringing are 23% more likely to graduate college, and to graduate from much more selective colleges, than girls with a Christian upbringing (the study included comparisons with Protestants, mostly evangelicals, but mainline and nonreligious, too).
These girls, the study found, have ambitious career goals and prioritize their professional success over marriage and motherhood. The girls in the study were all reared in liberal Jewish movements that make up the vast majority of American Jewish life; none was Orthodox.
“Whereas Jewish upbringing promoted self-concepts centered on meaningful careers and public impact, non-Jewish upbringing promoted self-concepts centered on marriage and motherhood,” wrote the study’s four authors, led by Tulane University sociologist Ilana Horwitz.
The study is based on an analysis of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a 10-year longitudinal study of the religious lives of 3,290 American youth from adolescence into young adulthood. The NSYR included an oversample of 80 Jewish households, from which researchers based their study. (The NSYR did not include sufficient Muslim or Hindu participants for comparison.)
The researchers then matched the data with the National Student Clearinghouse, which provides educational reporting and verification.
The results were startling. The study estimates that boys and girls raised by at least one Jewish parent have a 73% probability of graduating from college, as opposed to 32% of young people raised by non-Jewish parents. In other words, they are at least 2.28 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than children raised by non-Jewish parents.
When researchers looked at the elite schools attended by the Jewish NSYR participants, they found the school’s average SAT scores were higher, too.
Students raised by at least one Jewish parent attended colleges with a mean SAT score of 1201, whereas participants raised by non-Jewish parents attended colleges with a mean SAT score of 1102 (99 points lower).
But girls raised by Jewish parents were even more likely to graduate from college than boys raised with Jewish parents.
“I’d like to make a mark,” said a Jewish girl named Debbie who was interviewed by NSYR researchers. “I’m not the type of person who’s okay not being in the limelight.”
“I’m thinking about Ivy Leagues,” a Jewish girl named Jessica told researchers. “My parents both went to Cornell. I’ve been there a few times, I like it there a lot and it’s the kind of place where I would want to go.”
By contrast, some of the Christian girls in the study had other priorities.
“I think the biggest thing that a mother can do is to be with her kids,” said a girl named Mandy. “That’s the greatest thing over her career.”
The study suggests it was not any innate genetic factors that made the Jewish girls stand out. Rather it was a set of cultural, historical, political and religious factors that contributed to an environment in which parents and other Jewish elders imbued the girls with educational and professional expectations of success.
One key attribute shared by the Jewish girls: They grew up in Jewish communities that were egalitarian, believing men and women are equal in roles and responsibilities, both in the home and in society at large.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine and the author of “Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America,” a 1991 book that addressed Jewish feminism, said she was not at all surprised by the findings.
“I think there has been a gradual accumulation of knowledge that explains women feeling that, ‘Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.’ As long as we can have a postgraduate degree we can mark our lives and we don’t have to marry achievement,” she said. “We can achieve our own.”
Stephen Vaisey, a professor of sociology at Duke University who was an interviewer for the NSYR when he was in graduate school, said he thought the study of Jewish girls was well designed and comprehensive. But it contrasted two very different groups: liberal Jews and often conservative Protestants. Had it included nonreligious as a comparison group, the results may have looked different.
“If you took people with the same level of education and the same level of occupational prestige and compare Jewish and secular I wonder if you’d see a difference,” Vaisey said. “How much of this is about Judaism and how much about Christianity and traditional gender roles?”
All the girls in the NSYR study had what researchers described as a “moderate” level of Jewish engagement. They attended Hebrew school or perhaps a Jewish day school. They went to synagogue occasionally. Some belonged to a Jewish youth group.
But it was not Jewish teachings or any particular set of beliefs that necessarily contributed to their success so much as the stories they may have absorbed from their parents and grandparents at Shabbat dinners or bat mitzvah parties or at the Passover Seder about the accomplishments of their Jewish women ancestors, said Horwitz.
“Part of the narrative that Jewish adults convey to their children is that education helped Jews survive in Europe and eventually thrive in the United States,” according to the study.
Women are now much more likely to enroll in college than men. In 2020, just 41% of students enrolled in a postsecondary institution were men, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
But Horwitz argues there is something about liberal Judaism that socializes girls to succeed academically and professionally.
“There’s an egalitarianism in Judaism where families teach their girls they can be anything they want to be,” Horwitz said. “They don’t want to do it by altruism, they want to do it by being prominent within. They want to be in the spotlight and make a difference in a loud way.”