Will they return? The organized Jewish community often asks this question about Jews in their 20s and 30s. And we are right to ask.
Today’s young adults are much less likely to join organized Jewish life and have more opportunities, both within and outside the Jewish communities, where they can become involved in spiritual life. An entire generation is emerging who only have a few years of formal Jewish education, whose parents enrolled them in religious school for their b’nai mitzvah, and then dropped out. And many of them had negative experiences.
This creative, dynamic generation is also more complicated to engage: They tend to have complex identities when it comes to religion, race, and gender. They are skeptical of the notions of “joining” and “membership.” With limited staff and financial resources, congregations struggle to engage this cohort successfully. Yet, without this cohort, the rich fabric of our Jewish community is diminished and the sustainability of our future is endangered. Frankly, we need their creativity and disruptive entrepreneurship to transform Jewish life for the next era.
The High Holidays present a unique opportunity for those of us in synagogue leadership to welcome this generation home. The themes of return and renewal, the nostalgia for tradition, and the yearning for family and community are all keenly present during these days. Synagogues must leverage these sacred moments to passionately welcome young people home. But let us be clear and honest: Today’s young adults need more than just words of welcome and invitation. They need to experience congregational life that is actually relevant to their own lives, which honors their values, interests, and concerns. Today’s successful congregations are engaging young adult leaders to create liturgical and educational experiences that actually move their peers.
For several weeks, we have been culling a list of congregations that have created special High Holiday initiatives for those in their 20s and 30s. Many of these innovative programs are free or low cost and offer opportunities not only to pray but to engage socially as well. In and around Washington, D.C., there are several congregations that offer discounted or free high holiday tickets and discounts on membership. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has a free outdoor service at Oregon Ridge Park and Congregation Kol Ami in Frederick has a potluck break-fast after Yom Kippur. But this engagement must go beyond the High Holidays.
For the past year, the Union for Reform Judaism has been working with eight congregations in an Emerging Young Adult Initiatives community of practice group, a networking group for congregations that share a concern and passion for 20s and 30s engagement. We seek to advance current engagement strategies. Through participation during the 18-month process, congregational staff are learning together about key challenges and opportunities of young adult engagement, studying best principles from across the field and identifying and executing a pilot experiment to scale up their efforts. The group is discussing trends in the field, building support, financing initiatives, marketing and communications, networking, measuring results and succession planning.
Temple Emanuel in Kensington is one of the congregations participating in the group. Through its participation during the last nine months, it has begun engaging local young adults in conversation to identify their interests and begin building relationships and community. As part of its work with the community of practice group, Temple Emanuel will be launching an “experiment” to push the boundaries of its young adult engagement work forward. Bringing together multiple generations, the synagogue will be hosting a “surrogate bubbe” multiseries Jewish cooking class for young adults. This program will bring together a small cohort of young adults to learn traditional holiday recipes from one of the congregation’s bubbes, share family stories and taste some treats.
During these final days of Elul, we are focusing on teshuvah. Most often when we think of teshuvah, we think of personal acts of repentance. This year, let our synagogues and our movements do teshuvah for all the ways we have alienated this generation. Let us also enable young people to do teshuvah — literally to return, to come home to the sacred communities that yearn for their presence.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner is senior vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism.