It is no secret that the organized Jewish community is struggling to connect with the younger generations, whether Generation X, The Oregon Trail Generation, or Millenials. The Jewish Federations of North America, to their credit, has dedicated time at some of their sessions to discussing this disconnect at their annual General Assembly, which took place the last couple of days and just concluded in LA.
At yesterday morning’s plenary session, which featured Sean Rad, founder of Tinder, to speak about what Millenials want, followed by a panel discussion with Rachel Sumekh, Jason Leivenberg, and Jackie Rotman. In that panel discussion, the panelists shared some of their stories, as well as what has moved them and their similarly-aged cohort. While it was great for that plenary session to have a focus on trying to connect the organized Jewish community with Millenials, a panel discussion that took place on the previous afternoon was even further fascinating and quite insightful.
Entitled “The Millenial Factor: How a Generation Grows into Our Movement”, the panel focused on ways to serve the 18-34 population. Moderated by Mark Oppenheimer, host of Tablet Magazine‘s Unorthodox podcast, the panel featured Rabbi Michael Uram, executive director and campus rabbi of Penn Hillel; Faith Leener, co-founder and director of Base Hillel; and David Yarus, founder of JSwipe and mllnnl. With energetic interjections from Oppenheimer, the panelists shared their insights working with young adults, which were fantastic, especially for incorporating uncomfortable truths about disconnects with the older power brokers in the organized Jewish community.
Uram pointed out that most Millenials may not be interested in membership, but they may want to connect with Judaism. One project they did at Penn Hillel was to reach out to those Jews on campus who were not interested in getting involved, but trying to help them resolve a tension between Jewish pride and Jewish guilt. They’re already busy, so they don’t want to join a different club, such as Hillel.
Yarus was solidly bent on making sure he was there to share truths, even uncomfortable truths. He identified a clear generational issue:
By and large, every other organization in the Jewish world, other than some really great ones, are run by, driven by, and funded by older people who aren’t Millenials and who don’t understand the way we live, think, do what we do, generally in life, and also Jewishly. We are radically different – connect and find meaning in different ways.
This lack of understanding extends to young people engaging all day, every day with electronic stuff, but “Jewish institutional organizations, at large, their creative is just awful. It doesn’t look good.”
Uram pointed out a dramatic shift from a focus on macrocommunity to one on microcommunity. They want a deep connection in small communities, but not necessarily in broader, big communities. Also, he observed, if you really start to map who shows up at huge events, it’s low-hanging fruit, and it usually ends up being those who are already showing up to other Jewish events. One issue that is significant is that most Jews don’t have a positive orientation towards Jewish organizations. The key, he said, is to build deep relationships and bring them into community.
Leener, building off of what Uram shared, pointed out the importance of building Jewish confidence to help people get Jewish friends so that they can build their own Jewish [mini-communities]. To help build that confidence, that the Jewish community needs to create more educational vehicles to increase Jewish literacy: “How we can expect to build Jewish community when they don’t even have Jewish friends? And how do you build that Jewish confidence to get in the room? Jewish literacy.”
Leener also shared a fascinating insight about helping build and share Jewish literacy in the form of Jewish leaders: “We need to make it attractive and important to become a Jewish leader. We need to find a way to make rabbinical school like the next leadership pipeline – not just for Jewish life, but for communal life at large, the civic fabric of our entire society.”
Moreover, Leener pointed out, that people need to understand that Millenials want content and that she’s been surprised by their interest in studying Talmud: “Millenials are really blown away by the Talmud…because it’s complex, it’s controversial, and it makes no sense, and that’s what the world looks like today.” It’s through developing quality of Jewish life that we can get to a bigger quantity of Jewish life.
Uram noted that we have to stop pretending that one thing can do it for everybody. “We have to be asking ‘How do we create Jews?’ and not big Jewish organizations. “I don’t think the problem is Judaism.” One problem, he did observe, is that people with whom we want to engage probably do not connect with “we/us” language. “My guess is the people we want to engage don’t feel like they’re us.” A bold prescription he offered was simply “We need more Judaism.” Moreover, he suggested that the “future of Jewish engagement is like the seder model,” with smaller groups of Jews.
Through Uram’s insights, Leener’s wisdom, and Yarus’ truth-telling, this panel about Millenials was fascinating, thought-provoking, and full of directions for the younger generations of Jews. The question that is before the [organized] Jewish community is how much will they take in these prescriptions? How much will the older generations be willing to make room to continue and to grow for the future generations?