by Rabbi Aaron Miller
Before coming to Washington Hebrew Congregation, I served as the Hillel rabbi at Earlham College, a small liberal arts school in Indiana. Keeping up with my students after graduation, I remember one of them telling me how difficult it was for her to find a Jewish community in her new city. “I did everything right,” she said. “I went to religious school since kindergarten, had a bat mitzvah, went through confirmation, was active in NFTY [the Reform Movement’s youth organization], was active in Hillel, and now that I’m out of school, I can’t seem to find my Jewish home.” I asked her about the half-dozen congregations she had within driving distance. She said, “They look great … for people with kids. Maybe I’ll just have to wait.”
In the Jewish professional world, we talk about entry points – times in life when people connect and reconnect to their Jewish community. As my Earlham graduate could tell you, Jewish childhood is full of them. Congregations run Jewish preschools, religious schools, b’nai mitzvah programs, confirmation, and youth groups. Most universities offer Hillel. And then … well, for many Jews, it’s back to religious school, only this time, to take their children.
Do Jews need to be children or have children to enter congregational life? Most young single professionals would say “yes.” When we take a closer look at what many congregations are offering young Jewish adults, it’s no surprise that they are not banging down our doors. We are asking them to join a community where they would feel alone in their stage of life, where few would identify with their aspirations, and where dues generally support programming designed for other demographics. The 2012 Pew study on religious affiliation found that today’s young adults are less likely to join a congregation than previous generations, and congregations must ask what we can do to shift this trend.
Some congregations are already deeply engaged in 20s and 30s programming. In my own experience leading Washington Hebrew Congregation’s “2239” auxiliary, there are specific insights that help guide our success in reaching thousands of young Jewish professionals.
In transplant-heavy cities like D.C., recent college graduates are looking to meet each other. For many, this also means finding a spouse or partner. The anecdotes are overwhelmingly consistent – every young Jewish professional I have met has begrudgingly tried online dating. Our Jewish singles would much rather meet in person, and, all else being equal, date and marry Jews. Meeting each other is a priority, and so for a congregational initiative to work, it has to be focused. When congregations do not specify the targeted age of an event, or when programs are described as “congregational” or “multigenerational,” it is interpreted (often correctly) as “kids, parents, and grandparents.” This is not the community young Jewish adults are looking for right now.
Our recent graduates also want to discover something beyond friendship and romance. They are looking for a sense of personal growth and meaning. They want to be involved in interesting and fulfilling causes, organizations with vision and purpose. With every option before them, they are looking for a grounding sense of identity. Congregations can offer all of these. We can become what many Jewish 20s and 30s are looking for.
Why should a congregation support a vibrant young professionals organization? Young Jewish adults will not balance a congregation’s budget, and in a city like D.C., there is always the possibility that some will “settle down” elsewhere. Congregations, however, invest in countless projects whose return cannot be seen on a balance sheet. Every congregation I know, for example, prioritizes social action projects, not because these initiatives make money (quite the opposite!), but because they serve the congregation’s mission of tikkun olam. In the same vein, congregations should prioritize 20s and 30s engagement, fostering a sense of adult Jewish identity during some of the most formative years in a young person’s life.
Altruism aside, it is also a matter of congregational membership. If Jewish identity focuses on childhood and raising children, when these stages in life are over (usually after the youngest child’s bar/bat mitzvah), so is a family’s reason for membership. Congregations address these issues by investing in strong post-bar/bat mitzvah programs for children or even developing special “empty-nester” initiatives for their parents. While these programs can be excellent, an additional strategic and long-term solution for congregational membership is to invest in their young Jewish adults before children ever enter the picture. If people are able to connect to the Jewish community as young adults, then synagogue membership is no longer linked with children and religious school. Members will stay involved because Judaism means something to them. It is a connection that can last a lifetime.
Targeted and thoughtful young professional programming is vital because most people begin to discover their sense of adult self between college and starting families of their own. These are formative years, years when, for the first time, we are asked to establish our own priorities, enter into significant personal relationships, and establish and expand our life-long interests and passions. These are years when Judaism can shape what we become, and with the right vision, energy, and resources, rabbis and congregations that take young professional engagement seriously can help guide the Jewish future.
Rabbi Aaron Miller serves as assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation where he leads the congregation’s 20s and 30s organization, 2239.