Jewish Childhood Experiences: President of our Conservative congregation’s youth group chapter; attended religious school; my parents were synagogue leaders (religious school teacher, sisterhood president); our family regularly attended services, had Shabbat dinners at home, and celebrated holidays; my maternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Also, we were one of the only Jewish families in our school and city, which meant I was often an outsider—but that also enabled me to empathize and understand other marginalized groups in society. I consider that a great gift.
Perspectives on Engaging 20s and 30s: Ten years out of college, I still have not found a synagogue community I can call my own and choose to support with my time, energy, and dollars. My friends and I have a constant conversation every fall: Where are you going for the holidays? We float around from shul to shul, taking advantage of complimentary ticket programs and making nominal donations, but none of the congregations ever embrace me, invite me to come back for a service or Shabbat dinner, or even add me to their mailing list. So why should I join?
If I could find a congregation that “got it” when it came to 20s and 30s, that showed me it can offer something for people like me who are transplants and not yet married with kids, I would absolutely want to get involved. And if it offered flexible membership rates, I might ultimately join.
Young Jews in big cities have innovative options, groups such as Riverway in Boston, Romemu in New York, and IKAR in Los Angeles—vibrant, Jewishly engaging, fun, exciting communities of young adults. Those of us living outside these major population centers, however, are still stuck with older congregations that don’t speak our language and don’t understand what it means to be young today. They do things the way they were always done and think they’re “up to date” if they have a semi-functional (albeit still outdated) website. If an organization’s website doesn’t speak to me as a young adult, then I know the organization probably won’t either.
Meanwhile, I lead Jersey Tribe, an organization I founded in December 2009 that offers social, educational, volunteer, religious, and philanthropic programs for Jewish New Jerseyans in their 20s and 30s from across the religious and relationship spectrum. We fill a significant need at a time when more established Jewish organizations are, by and large, doing a terrible job of meeting young Jews’ needs. Congregations are stuck in outdated modes of engagement, focused on membership as the ultimate end. They are not attentive towhat compels people to join organizations and fail at being welcoming and inviting. How many times can a young person go to a synagogue alone and be ignored by the membership and leadership before he/she decides to give up? In contrast, when you show up at Chabad, people will be incredibly friendly to you, will invite you into their homes, will want to get to know you, will encourage you to come again. They won’t care if you ever had a bar/bat mitzvah, what kind of car you drive, if you have a lot of money. They know you are a Jew and accept you no matter what. We need to incorporate Chabad’s concepts into our own practices.
From my experience with Jersey Tribe, I’ve learned that young Jews feel compelled to participate in a Jewish community when it speaks to their needs—whether social, religious, or activist. Going on a hike might not be a specifically Jewish activity, but the choice to attend a hike with a Jewish group versus a secular group reflects a young person’s sense of peoplehood and belonging. Also, being Jewish means tremendously different things to different people—but for everyone it means something.
Recently, 20 people from Jersey Tribe attended a Rock and Roll Shabbat service at a local congregation. Previous synagogue-based events had not been successful, but all of us who attended this one loved the experience! The setting was informal, with round tables instead of pews, and free snacks and drinks during the service (including beer and wine). All the clergy personally introduced themselves to each of us. It was a perfect example of how thinking outside the box, lowering barriers to entry, and being engaging can strengthen relationships with 20s and 30s.
With just a few simple, low-cost steps, such as appointing a young adult to the board to plan events and act as a liaison to peers, asking Birthright alumni to serve on committees, inviting a rabbi to host a Torah on Tap event at a local bar or coffee shop, and/or creating a designated young adults’ page on a congregational website, synagogues could dramatically improve how they meet the needs of Jews under 40. It just takes the courage to look outside the box and to commit to thinking in new ways. The sweet spot for all Jews is for both established and innovative organizations and synagogues to come together—to find commonalities, share best practices, break apart silos, and focus energies on building better communities and engaging Jews of all ages.