Beyond Engagement of Religious Nones: Jewish Learning through the Cultural Arts

A mixed-age group looking at museum exhibits about American Jewish history.

National Museum of American Jewish History ©G. Widman/Visit Philadelphia

Demographic studies of millennial Jews have hypothesized that Jews who identify as “secular” are more likely to engage with venues of Jewish cultural arts, such as a museum, than with a religious space, such as a synagogue. Without disputing that assumption per se, this research is built on the hypothesis that cultural arts are venues of Jewish learning as well as Jewish engagement. In other words, when Jews visit a Jewish museum, they learn something about Jewish culture and civilization, and concomitantly, about their own identity as a Jewish person.

We will document and chart elements of that learning process, paying particular attention to the question of whether learners narrate the experience in terms of the categories of “religion” vs “secular” or “cultural."  The study, to be conducted this year, will take place at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, PA, and will focus on young adult museum visitors from the greater Philadelphia area.

The research questions that this project will investigate include:

  • How do visitors talk about what they have learned during their visit to the museum?
  • How do visitors narrate aesthetic and the cognitive dimensions of their learning?
  • How does the visit stimulate recall of prior learning experiences (e.g. in Sunday school, day school, summer camp, informal learning gatherings, etc.), and how does this recall function as a part of the learning experience?
  • Do visitors narrate their learnings using the categories of “religion,” “culture,” and “secular?”
  • How do visitors corporally experience a Jewish museum exhibit? Where does their attention linger? How do they respond physically, through posture, gesture, and movement? How do they converse with others in the gallery?
  • How do they talk about their learning relative to their current Jewish lives? 

This project is led by Dr. Laura Yares, Mandel Center affiliated scholar and assistant professor of religious studies at Michigan State University.