“My grown children are homeless,” says Dr. Ron Wolfson.
“Oh,” he adds, “they have apartments, but they are spiritually homeless…completely unconnected to a spiritual community even though they are day school graduates, summer campers who had trips to Israel, a warm Jewish family…and Daddy in ‘the business.’” Wolfson is president of Synagogue 3000, the transdenominational organization devoted to shaping synagogues as vital centers of Jewish life. “Today,” he says, “young people like my children frequently don’t marry until they’re near 30—if not older—and, consequently, many ‘family units’ do not show up at our doors until the adults are well into their 30s.”
How can mainstream synagogues engage the “next dor ”—the next generation, often referred to as Generation Y? After a two-year study of the phenomenon of independent, fledgling minyanim springing up across the country, Synagogue 3000 recently concluded, “If given the vision, financial incentive, and coaching, mainstream congregations could connect with young Jews.” And so, last year, with a Marcus Foundation grant, Synagogue 3000 launched Next Dor to provide congregations with those tools.
“Being authentic, personal, and interested in people’s full selves” is how Rabbi Esther Lederman of Temple Micah in Washington D.C. (www.templemicah.org) describes engaging the 100 Jews in their 20s and 30s who now receive her weekly Next Dor DC email.
She meets young Jews one-on-one in the evenings in a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant—not at the temple, because “space communicates so much.” She avoids talking about Judaism at the outset; instead she asks, “Are you happy with what are you doing in your life?” and “What matters to you?” Later the conversation shifts to Jewish topics, and then comes the invitation to join other young Jews in “creating Jewish community for ourselves and doing Jewish stuff together”—Shabbat dinners in people’s homes, community volunteering, outside classes, cultural outings, outdoor adventures, holiday gatherings, and happy hours. “The goal is not to build membership,” she says, “but to build Jewish community, one by one. And people want to feel a part of something that they themselves are building.”
On December 24, 2008, about seventy 20- and 30-somethings gathered at the bar of The Beauty Shop, a hip restaurant in downtown Memphis, talking, laughing, eating and drinking, enjoying the band—and lighting the chanukiah.
It all began in the summer of ’08, when Rabbi Adam Grossman, newly hired at Memphis’ Temple Israel (www.timemphis.org), convened a focus group of 10 young members and learned that for them, “temple and religion are abstract and very intangible…and often compete with the gym, the theater, sporting events, movies, or dinner.” He then solicited local businesses and developed the “Community Six-Pack,” a discounted temple membership for 22- to 39-year-olds, which includes a membership to the Memphis Jewish Community Center, a subscription to the local Jewish paper, a donation to the Jewish federation, tickets to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and a membership to Bravo Memphis (which offers unique Memphis arts experiences). He also applied the “get ’em where they are” strategy, gathering young folks together outside the temple in order to create a new, empowered, connected community—and, once they became a cohesive group, bringing them into the temple to enjoy pizza and the NCAA basketball tournament, Kabbalat Shabbat worship followed by a wine-tasting and a tour of the synagogue’s museum, and participatory havdalah cooking demonstrations with some of Memphis’ top chefs.
Now, 20s and 30s Jews are getting together regularly within and beyond the temple walls.
When Temple Emanu-El in Dallas (www.tedallas.org) surveyed its members, asking, “What does Temple Emanu-El mean to you?” one young adult member commented: “Old people doing old things in an old building.” Clearly, says Rabbi Oren Hayon, the congregation’s young adult rabbinic liaison, “we had to make some changes.”
Rabbi Hayon presented the board and the senior clergy with a “manifesto” calling for action. After “a short, intense, targeted development campaign” which enabled the temple to hire a young adult coordinator, they were on their way.
Initially, the synagogue was “thrilled to get 20 people to an event,” says young adult coordinator Mimi Zimmerman. But five years later, in the fall of 2009, nearly 400 young people showed up for the now annual young-adults-only Rosh Hashanah service followed by a martini reception, held in what she describes as “an ordinary room at temple that’s transformed into a chic-looking lounge, sending a message that temple is a cool place to hang out.” Also “cool” are young adult study programs on “Love, Sex, and Relationships” and “Bible Boot Camp”; the informal dinner before the Cinema Emanu-El film series; the “Fiesta Purim” celebration; the Tu B’Shevat seder and wine-tasting; the “Mitzvahs and Mimosas” social action initiative; and a High Holiday food drive benefiting the North Dallas Shared Ministries, which prompted many young adults to tell Rabbi Hayon that doing real-world social justice work on the High Holidays makes its message feel authentic.
David Danish, co-chair with Eric Goldberg of Emanu-El’s young adult lay-led planning committee, says that the temple’s initiative “allows me to be a contributing member of society beyond what can be accomplished within the walls of my office.” Hosting a havdalah service and Rosh Hashanah dinner in his home last fall, he recalls how, “as the sky darkened and [friends from the young adults program at temple] gathered on the patio, I felt connected to my community in a way I probably hadn’t since I was at Jewish summer camp 15 years ago.”
What happens when young adults from the Long Island suburbs move to Manhattan and want to maintain the religious and social connections of their youth? For Scott Reich and friends from Temple Sinai of Roslyn Heights, New York (www.templesinairoslyn.com), the answer is “Sinai in the City.” Last year, 65 young temple members attended the group’s inaugural gathering at a Manhattan restaurant, where Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Michael White made welcoming remarks—and everyone who attended ultimately joined. A Chanukah party in conjunction with a toy drive for underprivileged children followed, and now the 100-member group is planning monthly Shabbat dinners, a mentoring program for high school students, and a “Dinner with the Rabbi” program with discussion of contemporary Jewish issues. Supported administratively and financially by the Roslyn Heights temple, “Sinai in the City provides an opportunity to maintain our community roots,” Reich says, “while we reconnect with our faith on our own terms.”
In spring 2001, Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, director of the Riverway Project at Temple Israel in Boston (www.tisrael.org), conducted a series of meetings in people’s homes to ask the city’s young unaffiliated Jews how they wanted to be Jewish and what they hoped to get from the experience. He heard three distinct answers: Shabbat meals and services in an intimate setting, serious Jewish learning, and social action projects leading to new social connections. Many said they found it off-putting to walk in “cold” to a large synagogue.
Rabbi Morrison and his wife began hosting services and communal meals in their apartment. By 2001, 27 gatherings were being held in participants’ living rooms, setting the groundwork for a network of neighborhood circles situated in four greater Boston areas. Today the circles, comprised of 12–18 core members, meet in homes for Shabbat meals/services, study sessions, and havdalah. Because the activities are open to anyone in their 20s and 30s, a wider network of relationships is constantly forming—and 200 individuals end up joining the Riverway Project each year. Other Riverway programs—holiday celebrations, social action initiatives, “Torah and Tonics on Tuesday,” “Riverway Tots” (a pre-Shabbat experience for parents with children up to three), and the monthly “Soul Food Fridays”—are held at Temple Israel, introducing 20- and 30-somethings to synagogue life. Notably, 16% of TI’s membership has now joined through Riverway. “Torah and Tonics” has also led to the neighborhood-based “Mining for Meaning” course on how Jewish rituals can enrich one’s life; and “Mining” has spawned self-sustaining Jewish learning circles where participants teach one another.
Riverway Project coordinator Mike Fishbein explains that because this “cohort is constantly in flux,” successful 20s and 30s programs require a “loose and informal” leadership structure, consistent identification of future leaders, and continuous building and replenishing of relationships. At Riverway, an ever-changing group of 20–25 core participants meet quarterly as part of the leadership team to evaluate, envision, brainstorm, strengthen, initiate, and plan what’s next.
Other temple programs abound:
At Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City (www.shaaraytefilanyc.org), JeTSeT (Jewish Twenties and Thirties at Shaaray Tefila) draws more than 130 young adults to its once-a-month Shabbat Unplugged service featuring a seven-piece band and a siddur designed for people of all backgrounds.
Every month Temple Sholom in Chicago (www.sholomchicago.org) attracts hundreds of 20s and 30s through a campy Shabbat service and “Sushi Shabbat” reception featuring such varied music programming as “Honky-Tonk” and a Jewish beat-box performer. Young Jews also gravitate to social action projects such as the temple’s weekly soup kitchen as well as a Colorado trip that included building a Habitat for Humanity house, Shabbat on a mountaintop, whitewater rafting, and hiking. “Usually,” says Rabbi Taron Tachman, “the most successful initiatives are those where relationships are forged and people return to the clergy or temple looking for more.”
Because of themed dinners and onegs such as “S’more Shabbat” and “Fond-Jew Shabbat,” more than 100 young adults regularly worship at Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton (www.cbiboca.org). “The music is contemporary…the service is light…and we explain what the prayers mean to help participants feel at home,” says Rabbi Marci R. Bloch. Social events, holiday celebrations, and mitzvah opportunities round out the programming, targeted in large part to non-members, those “young adults in the midbar (wilderness) searching for solid ground on which to plant their roots,” she says. After five years, “some of those young people are now calling about membership….we are reaping the fruits of our labors.”
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is here to help synagogues engage local 20s and 30s Jews in Jewish life. “View your outreach as an investment in the Jewish future rather than as a way to increase membership numbers,” advises Vicky Farhi, URJ Co-Director, Expanding Our Reach Community of Practice (email@example.com, 212-650-4247). “And look outside the box. Go where 20s and 30s are and bring them back gradually.”
URJ Co-Director, Expanding Our Reach Community of Practice Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, RJE (Lbarzilai@urj.org, 212-650-4081) says the most successful programs have “a staff person or lay leader who devotes time to the project, a planning group comprised of 20s and 30s participants, monthly programming, constant outreach, and relationship development between the leader and participants as well as among participants.” For more successful congregational models and programming ideas, consult The Outreach and Membership Idea Books Vol. I, II, & III as well as Engaging Generation Aleph. To help decide on an appropriate 20s and 30s congregational dues policy, consult "Financial Incentives and Leadership Opportunities for Young Adults," which explores programming without membership, complimentary dues, flat rates, and graduated financial commitment options.
With ingenuity, creativity, time, and effort, you can engage this next generation and, in the process, hopefully make your temple the happening place to be.
—Jane E. Herman (JanetheWriter at rj.org), writer and assistant to URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie