(January 14, 2020 / JNS) When Rebekah Paster moved to New York City, she was just out of college and knew almost no one there. “So when a friend insisted I had to go to the nearest Moishe House,” she said, “I was blown away with how warm and welcoming they were. And I can say now I’ve met a lot of my really good friends through Moishe House, people I’d never have met otherwise.”
Not only did the place make her feel at home in a big city full of strangers, but at 25, Paster is now one of the three young adults living in the Moishe House in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. The trio is responsible for hosting everything from Shabbat dinners and holiday parties to rooftop yoga classes, rock-climbing outings and social-justice activities, like collecting books to send to prisons. Events can pull in more than 1,000 young adults each year.
“Moishe House has taught me that I can infuse my Jewish life in ways that may or may not be explicatively religious,” she says. “That I can be proud of my Jewish identity in whatever form that takes.”
And the form Jewish expression takes is changing for many millennials—a generation defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1981 and 1996, and sandwiched between Generation X (born 1965-1980) and Generation Z (1997-present).
Today’s millennials (they are also referred to as Generation Y) find themselves with all kinds of organizations in hot pursuit—from advertisers to graduate schools to employers. And in Jewish America, where indications abound that most of them (more about the observant ones later) are less traditionally identified and engaged than earlier generations, there’s a new and growing crop of initiatives designed to pull them into Jewish life, if not the mainstream then some millennial-flavored version of it.
Driving many of these strategic efforts is a number of studies pointing to millennials’ dwindling Jewish identity and engagement, and seeking to pinpoint the generation’s patterns of belief and behavior. Just out: one commissioned by Hakhel‒the Jewish Intentional Community Incubator, based on responses by 125 Jewish millennials, all of whom are active in one of Hakhel’s “intentional” communities (involving young Jews in activities around shared values and interests) in 35 countries.
A division of Hazon, an organization that describes itself as “strengthening Jewish life and contributing to a more environmentally sustainable world for all,” Hakhel commissioned the Do-Et Institute to conduct the study to identify this generation’s values and priorities. So says Hakhel founder and general director Aharon Ariel Lavi, saying “it showed overwhelmingly that they don’t drift away from their Jewish identity but from old-fashioned institutions.”
Indeed, only 30 percent of respondents said they had any interest in joining a synagogue, and only 7.5 percent were interested in the work of Jewish federations and community centers. But in what Lavi calls “the silver lining,” 84 percent were interested in Jewish learning and holiday/life-cycle activities, and 46 percent were attracted to Jewish arts and culture.
“The organized Jewish community has been aware of the drifting of millennials from its ranks for many years,” adds Lavi. “What this research shows is the extent of that disengagement on the one hand, but also the creative alternatives that are sprouting from below on the other.”
The study’s results echo many of the findings of a recent Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) report on millennials concluding that “hyper-individualism and slackening trust or interest in institutions and authority leads many young Jews to eschew denominational identity and affiliation with establishment institutions. This leads to seeking alternative and more ‘niche’ expressions of Jewish identity.”
This shift reflects a larger trend, according to a leading observer of the Jewish scene. “America is in the midst of a religious recession; it’s not just a Jewish issue,” says Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “Pew has clearly documented millennials moving away from traditional religion, most of them claiming to be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ ”
Intermarriage and the age of marriage is older than any time in human history.
This reflects fundamental demographic shifts from previous generations, he adds. Chief among them: Intermarriage and the age of marriage is older than any time in human history. For the so-called “Seinfeld” generation, many remain single until their late 30s, and those who do have children often don’t become parents until they’re nearing 40. “By that time, for many of them it’s been 20 years since they’ve been in a synagogue because most synagogues are not seen as welcoming to singles,” says Sarna.
The exception, typically ignored by the studies, he notes, are the roughly 10 percent of American millennials who are Orthodox, and tend to marry and have children younger and be more involved in synagogue life.
Issue No. 1: Finding and engaging a new generation
According to the JPPI report: “Engaging young Jews, who often feel out of place in mainstream institutions, due to low Jewish literacy or other identity components (sexual orientation, political views, etc.) requires a vastly different approach.”
So what kind of approach does attract this generation?
Many of the initiatives that are most successful in pulling in young Jews, according to the report, are “independent of established denominational or national movements. They question the benefits of belonging to a national denomination and stress nimbleness as an advantage.”
Or as Hakhel community participant Bradly Caro Cook puts it: “Our generation is looking for something authentic,” says the Las Vegas millennial. “We’re not going to do Judaism by the numbers and metrics.”
Among the crop of new organizations designed to meet this new generation of Jews where they live:
Moishe House was among the first on the millennial scene: “When we started out in 2006, there was a black hole for post-college Jewish young adults,” says founder and CEO David Cygielman. “Some have a strong Jewish identity, but are disengaged; others never had it. But they all want to be part of a meaningful Jewish community where you know everyone and they know you; we’re combating loneliness at a time when it’s rampant.” The Moishe House formula: Find a neighborhood with a population of young Jews and a Jewish community (most often, the federation, local donors and family foundations) committed to supporting the Moishe House model. That has resulted in 115 of them—and they just signed a lease for No. 116, in Rome. Some 70,000 young adults turned out for programs last year in “vibrant home-based Jewish communities,” says Cygielman, adding that they’re adding more immersive Jewish learning and Israel programming.
Base Hillel was born in 2015, when Faith Leener and her freshly ordained rabbi husband Jonathan moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., and began hosting Shabbat dinners. “We started thinking, how can we impact the young people asking for Jewish learning without knowing they’re asking for it?” she says. “We saw that they wanted meaning and community, but weren’t going to synagogue for it.” With friends Rabbi Avram Mlotek and Yael Kornfeld, they soon linked up with Hillel International’s office of innovation, and were off and running with a brand of “radical hospitality” featuring Jewish learning, holiday celebrations and social-justice projects. Now the executive director, Leener lives in Base Brooklyn with her family, and oversees the nine bases run by young rabbinic families and underwritten mostly by local grants from federations, Hillel and others. The Bases, mostly along the East Coast—with one in Ithaca, N.Y., and another in Berlin—serve 6,000 young Jews annually. “We’re post-denominational, but deeply rooted in Jewish tradition,” says Leener. “It’s not do-it-yourself Judaism, but letting go of the labels and immersing in each Jewish communal experience—be it in text, ritual, Shabbat, holidays or life-cycle counseling.”
OneTable was designed to welcome young Jewish adults to Friday-night Shabbat dinners hosted by their peers. Each week, OneTable, which has been described as “a social dining app that helps people of all religious backgrounds celebrate inclusive Shabbat meals,” averages 190 dinners across the United States. Support comes from grants from federations, local philanthropists and Jewish foundations that help underwrite the meals served in participants’ homes. The idea has caught on, and in the last five years since founding executive director Aliza Kline cooked up the idea, more than 30,000 Friday-night dinners have been served to young adults. According to their website, its ultimate goal: for the Shabbat dinner experience to become “a platform for community building … for those “who otherwise would be absent from Jewish community.”
GatherDC, unlike the initiatives above with locations in a number of communities, began a decade ago to offer community-based Jewish experiences to young Jews in the Washington D.C. area. On tap: interactive Jewish learning, twice-yearly retreats, social-justice projects, and Shabbat and holiday celebrations. They also have coffee with every newcomer—“not just to find out what they want to do, but who they are,” says its community rabbi, Ilana Zietman, a millennial born in 1989. “We offer them a Judaism they never got growing up,” she adds. “They say, ‘This Torah portion has so much of my life in it. I never knew it existed.’ Meaning we have to work harder to showcase what’s beautiful about Judaism, and build community people are craving and where they feel valued.” GatherDC is supported by Jewish family foundations, local federations and private donors.
Not learning, but ‘experiencing’ Jewish identity
“The identity of American Jews for most of the 20th century was rooted in ethnicity, love of the Jewish people, fear of anti-Semitism, horror and guilt over the Holocaust, commitment to Soviet Jewry, and love of and concern for the State of Israel,” writes Barry Shrage who, after 31 years at the helm of Boston’s federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, is now a professor in Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. “But assimilation inevitably erodes ethnic identification … and there’s never been a more powerful assimilating culture than America in the 21st century.”
The best defense against assimilation, argues Shrage, is “Jewish peoplehood.”
“You can’t learn Jewish identity; you have to experience it to create a love for the Jewish people.” What’s more, he adds that “one of the most powerful experiences for this generation is Birthright Israel,” the 10-day trip to Israel which nearly half of them have taken. “It’s having a powerful impact on them.”
Indeed, studies show the 750,000 Birthright travelers are much more likely to marry other Jews, raise Jewish children and stay connected to Israel, says Len Saxe, who directs both the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis. Still, he acknowledges that times have changed. “These young Jews are broadening what it means to be involved Jewishly and doing it in new ways.”
Saxe says it reminds him of Israel, where more than half the country is not religious “but Friday nights are for family to eat together. So for young Jews here having Friday night at OneTable, who’s to say they’re less engaged?”
Synagogues and programs for younger individuals
Evidence abounds that young Jews are seeking religious communities that are alive and warm, and that can add real meaning to their lives, says Shrage.
Among congregations experiencing success in drawing in millennials are Boston’s Temple Israel, whose Riverway Project is designed to meet their young members where they live (among them, many studying medicine down the street) and Sixth & I, a synagogue as well as a center for arts, entertainment and ideas in Washington, D.C., that “reimagines how religion and community can enhance people’s everyday lives.”
Another young-flavored variation on the synagogue theme is The Den Collective, whose rabbis conduct a range of services in suburban Washington homes and elsewhere. They describe themselves as seeking to “build spaces of meaning that invite people to deepen their connection to Judaism, feel part of a community and enrich their lives. The Den strives to be collaborative, experimental, transparent and radically welcoming.”
Says Sarna: “Of the Jewish religious start-ups today—the emergent congregations, partnership services, independent minyanim and more—many of them will not survive, but some of them will make it very, very big and reshape American Judaism in the decades to come.”
Also pioneering meeting this generation of Jews is the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which has long made an art of including Jews of all backgrounds. Specifically, in the last seven years, it’s been drawing millennials to Chabad Young Professionals (CYP) International, which has about 120 couples around the globe serving young Jews with a range of programming, meals, workshops, and Shabbat and holiday celebrations in areas where they tend to live and work.
“They went into neighborhoods where few young Jewish adults were engaged and where now there are big vibrant communities of young Jews,” says the network’s director, Rabbi Beryl Frankel. “They’re looking for a sense of community, and also to make friends and meet their significant other, but they have to feel ‘It’s not my parents’ Judaism. It’s my Judaism,’ and based on that, we’ve seen them go from apathy to ‘I love this, I care about this, I want to pass it onto my kids someday.’ ”
One CYP couple is Rabbi Sholom and Mushky Brook, millennials themselves working with their peers in Uptown Minneapolis. “There’s something unique about our generation; we’re empowered to do things independently. We want the full truth, and we want to be part of something bigger,” says the rabbi. “We tell them that labels are for T-shirts, and you don’t have to be ‘religious’ to be 100 percent Jewish, and to be involved in our networking programs, holiday events or social-justice projects, or even just to enjoy my wife’s cooking on Friday night.”
Outreach efforts by the three main religious streams
Judaism’s largest movements are also working in creative ways to welcome this new generation.
“With the average age of marriage and having children so much higher than in the past, it’s a nomadic period for many young adults, so we can’t sit around waiting for them to come to us,” says Rabbi Joshua Rabin, senior director of synagogue leadership at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In an effort to be proactive, synagogues, especially in urban centers, are sponsoring events designed just for them. “Many of these are a separate brand and hold user-friendly events outside the walls of the synagogue, in private homes or public spaces.” The advantage: By connecting with one aspect of the congregation, they will “always have a place to come back to when they’re ready. We need to understand their desire for meaning and purpose, and give free samples instead of assuming it’s like the old days when first you join a synagogue and then you find out what it has to offer.”
Within the Reform movement, they’ve researched how and why young people engage, identified who’s having success with the age group and “developed a pipeline to engage the disengaged or unaffiliated,” says the Union of Reform Judaism’s director of emerging networks Rabbi Adam B. Grossman. “What we consistently find is that this age group has a lot of positive qualities that are going to reshape the Jewish world today and ultimately tomorrow. And, as the largest and most diverse movement, we’re able to do some incredibly innovative work in our congregations to create a framework for opportunities to connect and grow, and to create meaning for the individual and the community, plus develop the leaders to support that communal growth.”
The Orthodox Union also recently held a conference to explore best practices for engaging young adults, says OU’s director of synagogue and community services Rabbi Adir Posey. “We had lots of millennials and stake-holders sharing wisdom because, even though the Orthodox community has the strong advantage of having the traditional family as a central component, we also need to create best practices that can bridge the gap between traditional organizations and this generation.” On the table were emerging communities, both online and off, and creative ways to meet millennials’ needs within pre-existing communal structures “without having it feel stodgy.” One theme that came across loud and clear: “People become engaged only if and when they feel they actually have an impact.”
Federation works to strengthen identity and build relationships
A backbone institution in Jewish life, the federation system has as its primary task to care for the needs of the Jewish community around the world.
But how does such a gigantic enterprise—the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, represents 146 federations and more than 300 Network communities, which raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually, as well as lobbying government agencies for another $10 billion in public funds to support thousands of human-services agencies serving people of all backgrounds—pull a new and often disinterested generation into this work?
Some preliminary answers emerged from a study designed to “get a better understanding of their lifestyle, needs, goals and the role that being Jewish plays in their lives” released by the New York Federation in 2016.
The findings included young adults turning out for programs that “focus on millennials’ life goals in a Jewish context, and in a way that strengthens Jewish identity or builds Jewish relationships.” Examples: a bike ride to raise money for a cause or mentorships or job listings, and “other efforts to help millennials pursue their career goals while building Jewish relationships.”
“What we found was that millennials don’t go to synagogue except when they do, won’t do organized activities except when they do and won’t pay for services except when they do,” notes Hana Gruenberg, managing director of Jewish Life UJA-Federation of New York. Look for different points of entry for different young Jews, she adds: “Some were engaged for social reasons, others for social justice, still others who just want to have big Shabbat dinners at their house.”
Like many federations, New York’s awards grants to such independent millennial-focused initiatives as Moishe House, “giving them both our funding and expertise to help them be even more creative and organized,” says Gruenberg.
But when it comes to “nurturing a sense of responsibility to give back to the Jewish community,” federations are providing opportunities for young professionals to meet with mentors and each other around what philanthropy means to them, Gruenberg adds. “It’s about taking something that already exists and creating ways in for them.”
“Some were engaged for social reasons, others for social justice, still others who just want to have big Shabbat dinners at their house.”
Indeed, this awareness of the new generation’s singular qualities, coupled with the challenges of reaching them, is resonating throughout the federation system, according to Rebecca Dinar, spokeswoman for JFNA. At the recent FedLab, bringing together 900 lay and professional leaders from across North America, discussions included the importance of social justice and environmental work to this generation, and of “bringing in new voices to help create our community agendas.”
Much of the success of Federation’s work in this space has been driven by “an understanding that young people are powered by involvement in networks and their ability to shape their own Jewish journeys,” she adds. “This has required a shift in the way many of our institutions operate, but we still need the institutions—to influence and drive this new thinking and ensure its continuity over time.”
Creative outside-the-box initiatives like Moishe House, she maintains, “have been able to scale the way they have because of federations’ infrastructure—and funds—working in partnership for a common goal. Now, being touched by these experiences, young Jews can find federations a ladder to engagement and influencing the future.”
Adds Eric Robbins, president and CEO of Atlanta’s Federation, which, like many others, supports OneTable and other programs designed for (and in most cases also by) millennial Jews, “It’s a generation looking for meaning and also a place at the table.”
Still, the cold hard truth is that the American Jewish community is at a crossroads, says Shrage. “We must take advantage of every opportunity to reach out to this generation.”
But he stops short of taking millennial studies as gospel. “In my experience, young adults respect adults who actually believe in something and offer compelling beliefs. An older generation that crafts its beliefs based on research of next generation opinions is not worth following.”
And abandoning the traditional synagogue model “would be a huge disservice to God and the Jewish people,” he argues. “Where will they go when they have families and need a shul?”
Indeed, a marriage of the best of the old and the new may be in the Jewish future. “We can learn from them, and they can learn from us,” says Base Hillel’s Leener. “Traditional synagogues and other Jewish organizations were built for a different time and a different culture, but they have so much experience and knowledge we need. If we can respect that, and they are willing to take risks and empower newcomers and not see change as failure, then both sides can shift and we can do amazing things together.”
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