A Millennial is loosely defined as someone born between 1981 and 2000 (also known as Generation Y). I am going to do something Millennials hate: I’m going to try to explain our generation — more specifically, how Millennials relate to Judaism.
Millennials live in a new world. The proliferation of the Internet and social media, which began taking off when the oldest Millennials were coming of age, has made our world more connected and accessible than ever. To the chagrin of Millennials, this has also afforded older generations the opportunity to step up on their soapboxes and preach, via the Internet, the wisdom they acquired in their own 20-something days. However, many times this wisdom is antiquated, condescending, and does not reflect the world in which Millenials are beginning their adult lives. I could provide you with a long list of reasons why 20-somethings today are living very different lives than the last generation, but more relevant to my ultimate point is that Millennials are the first generation to come of age in the time of unlimited access to knowledge (and cat videos).
Attempts to understand, compartmentalize and then advise Millennials extends to the Jewish community. Speaking with a baby boomer, you would think that Millennials are unreligious, unconnected, and unconcerned about Judaism. While you will find those who distance themselves from Judaism in every generation, and the Millennials are no exception, we are not as disconnected as low synagogue membership numbers would lead one to believe. We are finding our connection in new, innovative ways that reflect the world around us.
When our parents and grandparents were our age, they had two primary ways of connecting to Judaism. The first, common in cities, was to live in a predominately Jewish neighborhood where the chief source of community was inherently Jewish — my own grandparents raised my mom in Canarsie, Brooklyn, after immigrating to America post-Holocaust. The second option was to join a synagogue, which provided a ready-made Jewish community. The Jewish identities of previous generations were shaped either by their geographic location or synagogue association.
Millennials, thanks to technology, have more options when it comes to finding a Jewish community and building a Jewish identity. In fact, we are able to create our own unique Jewish communities in which we pick and choose how we want to express our Judaism. Some Millennials still define their Jewish identity through religious observance; however, email, social media and the Internet in general have made it easy for 20-somethings to organize their own minyanim, allowing them to transcend the need to join a synagogue and to pigeon-hole themselves into any one denomination. There are at least 10 minyanim with a young professional audience that meet regularly in D.C., each with its own unique flavor, as well as several other groups that operate outside of the traditional shul structure to provide Jewish learning opportunities.
Technology also allows those who do not connect to Judaism through prayer to explore their Jewish identities in other ways. There are countless organizations that provide opportunities for community service, social justice, and social interaction. In a recent article, one Millennial explained how she grew up secular and did not identify with Judaism until she began helping immigrants learn English through CARECEN, formerly a project of HIAS. Her article ran on a website I manage called Gather the Jews, where our mission is to make it even easier for young Jews in D.C. to find organizations such as CARECEN, and connect to Judaism in a way that works for them. Our numbers speak for themselves: more than 4,500 people subscribe to our weekly newsletter, and during the past month, we have had 15,000+ visitors with over 35,000+ page views. That does not sound like a disconnected generation to me.
I do not believe that Millennials will never join a synagogue — eventually we will get married and need a rabbi and/or synagogue to do so. We will also eventually have children and will need a place to outsource their Jewish educations. In the meantime though, we are creating our Jewish communities and Jewish identities in our own way.
Rachel Giattino is director of Gather the Jews, George Washington University Hillel.