On Young People and Jewish Community

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.

Like this young Jewish stock photo guy. Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

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.
How accurate are these assumptions? Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

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.

26 comments

  1. I read your article with interest. Our community here is an aging one. The shul is trying to come up with ways to attract young people, particularly those with young children. One of the big problems I see in my area is the cost of housing. How can we expect young people to move close to the shul if they can’t afford to live here? I don’t know what the solution is. And then, it’s just trying to get the young people interested in being part of the shul community. Both are a challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a problem complicated by numerous factors, including housing costs, jobs and work/life balance, and as I mentioned above, I do think young people have different needs for community and may be drawn to less traditional forms of community.

      One thing I have found is that a lot of synagogues will focus on events for young professionals. This drives attendance, but often not long-term engagement. Events are great, but I think eventually, there has to be a shift towards building relationships with other members in a multigenerational community. Potentially through a Shabbat home hospitality program or something.

      Like

  2. I’m a member of a christian group and it works both ways, as your post indicates it does, by appealing to a certain demographic but also on other occasions appealing to the whole community of believers —

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for sharing about your community. I guess you do need a mix of both. Everyone wants to feel like there is something designed just for them and that there will be people like them in the community (although I think there are limits to the idea of similarity based on age group), but it’s also a bit sad if we never get past the age groups.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “Millennials are more mobile than previous generations,”

    Yup, even when I was young, in the 90’s, young people were more mobile, and working constantly. And having kids later (or not at all).
    Personally, I think that our nation has been caught up with either living in Youth Bubbles, as in DC, or with the idea that such bubbles are a good idea, for the last couple of decades or more, and it is not good for us. For lots of reasons, many of which you have just laid out. Thank you for this post, JYP.
    Stay safe,
    -Shira

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are spot-on re: Youth Bubbles. I get the appeal, but I also think there are drawbacks.
      Then I’ve been hearing about cities like Tulsa, OK trying to attract young people working remotely away from expensive Youth Bubbles places like NYC or DC or SF or wherever to Tulsa. Actually, they offer a pretty nice stipend and it’s not limited to young people. I know someone who moved to Tulsa and she seemed happy, although that was pre-COVID, so who knows now. Anyway, I digress.
      Still, I think we lose something when we don’t have multigenerational communities.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, alot of places are trying to attract young people.
        We definitely lose out when we lose multigenerational communities. The problem is that it takes years before folks understand that, and then it is not easy to rebuild.

        An ounce of prevention…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Funny you should all be the “young ‘uns” in congregations of older people. I am considered the grandmother of my shul, and the only people of my age we ever see are occasional tourists.
    The young crowd likes to come to my house for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals, but especially for Melave Malka, when they bring guitars and I sit at the piano, and we jam. I do think this is more fun than regular programming.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That Melava Malka sounds AMAZING! Invite me! 😉 (j/k. I know I’m just a random person on the internet) But seriously, you are awesome for creating that atmosphere. I guess that every community is different and your community sounds extremely cool. I feel like my community should be doing more to connect the young people with the AWESOME “shul grandmothers” like you rather than further encouraging the young people to stick to themselves.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I cannot agree more. When I was “a young professional,” I loved hanging out with people my parents’ and even grandparents’ age. I think the error of thinking is that young people should not be stewing in their own chaulent, but spend time with dynamic older people.
        As to being a random stranger, we love random strangers, darling! Our community is cool; our calendar of a couple of years ago proclaims it’s a surfers’ shul ( I don’t surf; I sail and jet ski). Covid put a damper on gatherings, sadly, but last year some brave ones still had a perfectly kosher Seder on the beach, on a table made of surfboards.

        Liked by 2 people

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