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How Jewish families prime girls for success in schools and careers

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(JTA) — In her new book, “God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success,” sociologist Ilana Horwitz examines the ways a religious upbringing shape the academic lives of teens. In one important finding, the subject of her recent op-ed in the New York Times, she found that working-class teenage boys raised in strongly religious homes were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than boys who were not.

The same body of research also led her to a striking — if, to some, unsurprising — finding about Jewish women: girls raised in Jewish homes were 23 percentage points more likely to graduate college than girls with a non-Jewish upbringing, even controlling for their parents’ socioeconomic status. Jewish women also tend to graduate from much more selective colleges than their similarly situated non-Jewish peers.

Horwitz and her co-authors discuss the finding in “From Bat Mitzvah to the Bar: Religious Habitus, Self-Concept and Women’s Educational Outcomes,” a paper published in the American Sociological Review. They argue that elite higher education and graduate school are central to the “self-concept” of girls who grew up in Jewish homes. By contrast, girls raised by non-Jewish parents “tend to prioritize motherhood and have humbler employment aims,” they write.

Horwitz, an assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Tulane University, based her research on the National Study of Youth and Religion to the National Student Clearinghouse, which followed 3,238 adolescents for 13 years.

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“The central finding of the paper is about girls raised by Jewish parents — not ‘Jewish girls,’ because this paper is a story about how families socialize their children into different religious subcultures and gender ideologies,” Horwitz told me. “We want to move away from the idea that Jews are inherently predisposed to educational success, to really thinking about a family socialization process.”

I recently spoke with Horwitz about what messages children pick up in Jewish homes, how she accounted for differences between religious and secular Jewish families and what policymakers and religious community leaders could learn from her research

Our conversation was edited and condensed for length and clarity.

JTA: Let’s start with definitions: What was your working definition of Judaism or Jewishness? Is it a religion? A culture? A race? Because if the different outcomes were about religion, then we know deeply religious, ultra-Orthodox families would have very different expectations for their young women.

Ilana Horwitz: We’re talking about it as an ethno-religious subculture. That is different from thinking about religion specifically as a set of practices or as a set of beliefs. In the paper we talk about “shared ideas, values, experiences, behaviors and symbols that are transmitted intergenerationally between members of different religious and ethno-religious groups.” Religious subcultures are not just shaped by theology, but also by factors like historical events, demographic patterns and political concerns.

So what happens in the home: What shapes the self-concept of Jewish girls that you talk about?

Sociologists have for a while talked about the fact that educational attainment is stratified by social class. Children who grow up in different social class groups develop different dispositions and different ways of thinking about themselves, the world and where education fits into that. Sociologists term this the “habitus.” Habitus basically refers to the air we breathe.

What we try to argue in the paper is that the habitus is not just informed by class. It is also informed by religious subculture, even if the families are not intensely religious. Kids are going to bar mitzvahs, to Hebrew school. Their family members are also........

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