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Ilana Horwitz presents “Taking Stock of Capital among North American Jews”

Jan 17 2019

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Jewish Studies & Education graduate student Ilana Horwitz attended the 2018 annual AJS meeting in Boston on December 16-18, 2018.

At the 2018 annual AJS meeting, I convened a session called “Taking Stock of Capital among North American Jews.” Capital, whether it be economic, social, cultural, or human capital, plays a key role in shaping the social position of different groups. In this panel, myself and two other scholars examined how different forms of capital have shaped the social, economic, and religious lives of North American Jews.

In my paper, “Religious Stratification in Higher Education: The Case of American Jews,” I examined the narratives of American Jews to illustrate how cultural context, informed by both religion and ethnicity, shapes students’ postsecondary pathways. I utilize 10 years of longitudinal interview data from the National Study of Youth and Religion to analyze the educational and life trajectories of 30 youth from adolescence into emerging adulthood (15 self-identified as Jewish; 15 identified as non-Jewish). I take a cultural approach, drawing on theories of self-concept congruence to show how aspirations for occupational and academic prestige, combined with an openness to new ideas, align with elite higher education institutions to give rise to the high educational attainment of Jews. First, Jewish adolescents see college as a step, not an endpoint, in an academic journey that will culminate in a prestigious career. Jewish women, in particular, see a prestigious career—not parenthood or altruism—as central to their lives’ purpose, which drives them to attend the most prestigious college to which they can gain admission. Second, Jewish adolescents demonstrate openness and intellectualism, dispositions that are particularly valued by elite colleges. Meanwhile, non-Jewish respondents have more of an instrumental orientation to education, viewing it as necessary for securing a job after college but indicating little interest in academic subjects in and of themselves. I argue that an essential step in advancing our understanding of stratification in the educational system is to examine the role of cultural systems that shape youth’s beliefs about their academic and professional selves.

Dr. Barry Chiswick examined why Jews have been exceptionally successful in the United States economy over the past three centuries. He discussed hypotheses such as the "diaspora" hypothesis, being a "people of the book," a trade-off of "child quantity" for "child quality," the economic freedom inherent in the largely laissez faire economy, and an emphasis on decision making skills that advantaged Jews. 

Dr. Alex Pomson extended the idea of social and cultural capital by examining sixteen families that participated in a 10-year ethnographic study. Pomson found that  families with higher Jewish social capital and lower Jewish cultural capital at the start of the study were among those whose Jewish lives intensified most over the following decade. He offered evidence that Jewish capital is not always something that an individual or family consistently accumulates or that remains inert over time.

The panel was moderated my Dr. Carmel Chiswick.