I recently received an email from the congregation about programming for young professionals.
This isn’t all that surprising in itself. Synagogues are always trying to attract young people. And although I’m not convinced that mid-thirties is really “young” any more (I picked the blog name because it’s catchy, not because I believe it), when the overwhelming majority of the congregants are retirement age, anyone younger than 70 looks young. In this case, the email was about programming for people in their 20s and 30s.
The surprising part was the fact that I’ve barely received these Young People Programming emails since the pandemic started. That makes sense. Synagogues everywhere were scrambling to figure out how to do Shabbat, holidays (the COVID shutdowns hit not long before Passover last year…), whether or not to do virtual services, how to do virtual services, existential questions like how to build community without in–person worship and what is the purpose of a faith community, etc. No congregation had time to worry about whether they were attracting new members under 30. There were exceptions, of course. Kiruv groups that were always specifically targeted to getting unaffiliated young people to be more observant in Judaism continued their young person-focused classes and programming virtually. But I found that mainstream congregations didn’t have the bandwidth. But I also wondered if one of the key assumptions of Jewish community was being challenged – the assumption that young people are the building blocks / future of the community.
I have to admit my biases. Although I am a Millennial and although I have many friends who are my age or younger, and although I like interesting programs and events as much as anyone else, I kind of hate young people as a collective. Yes, this is partly because what minimal self-esteem I have is based pretty much entirely on comparing myself to other people in my age group, and yes, this is more my fault than theirs. But also, as someone who joined a congregation of 65+ year-olds by myself in my 20s with no expectation that other young people would join, simply because I loved the davening (prayer services) there, I suspect that I am just not really representative. Said congregation of course was all too happy to volunteer me to be membership chair to try to get more young people to show up. I posted our planned events on Facebook and while a few new young faces showed up, and some showed up more than once, I was constantly blamed for the lack of new young members, which I did not appreciate; I deliberately switched roles on the board so that I would have absolutely no involvement in programming or publicity to young people. So justly or unjustly, “young people” is not a group I have favorable opinions towards as a collective when it comes to Jewish community engagement. I admit that.
But I also think that several of the underlying assumptions around the idea that young people will take up the reign of leadership are flawed. For example, it assumes the following:
- Young people will settle down and stay in the community – I know that home buying is up, but I thought that Millennials are more mobile than previous generations, in part due to less job stability.
- Young people have free time to be active in the Jewish community – All of the young people I know have at least one or more of the following:
- A job with long hours
- An extremely long commute (pre-COVID, but replaced with long hours during the pandemic)
- More than one job, given less job security/financial stability
- Family/home responsibilities (While I know some Millennial parents who wish they could be a stay-at-home parent, I do not actually know of any who are. All the Millennial parents I know are in two working parent households.)
- Young people will have children – Some do, certainly. Like all of my parent-friends I’m not really friends with anymore except for Bestie. But generally, Millennials are marrying later and having children later, if at all, and doting on their niblings instead (Side note: I came down hard on the term “niblings” as some stupid new slang in my earlier post on them, but I have just learned that “niblings” was first coined in the 1950s. I stand corrected.) I get that this is more likely the case outside of Orthodoxy.
- Young people want to connect to Judaism through synagogue communities – Based on my anecdotal experience, young people may be drawn less to organized religion and more to other less organized forms of spirituality, and also, young people may be drawn more to less traditional kehillot vs. traditional synagogues. I suspect this is partly due to high synagogue membership dues, but I also think this is in part a reflection of a disinterest in traditional institutions. This is also more likely the case outside of Orthodoxy.
The focus on events and programming just for young people also feels a bit…I don’t know. Faith communities are by nature multi-generational. I get the appeal of a community made up only of one’s peers. It feels fun, like Jewish summer camp. But it also feels like not a true reflection of what a faith community is.
Then again, there are people who have become more involved in communities specifically because there was a concerted effort to target their demographic. Bestie joined her synagogue for their children’s programming for her kids and is now volunteering to co-run something. My sister and her husband found an incredible synagogue near them (serious, this Rabbi is awesome) with programming designed to appeal to them, and they have become more involved than ever. I have friends who joined for the young person programs who are now running them. Another friend is now on the synagogue board. So perhaps I am wrong.