Young Adults: Hope for Creative Jewish Institutions

We in institutional Jewish life keep hearing how we are challenged by the under-35 crowd.  They supposedly aren’t joiners.  They “won’t” pay for Jewish life.  To the extent there’s a secret to attracting them, we are told that eliminating “institutional footprint” is the key, meaning that they may come to a Jewish activity, or an activity with other Jews, but not if it’s noticeably associated with a synagogue, JCC, Federation, or the like.

But last week, I went to Reform Judaism’s Consultation on Conscience in Washington, D.C., as part of a delegation of nine from Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, four of them young adults Throughout my 21 years at the congregation, I don’t think we ever had delegations larger than one for any past Consultation.  Admittedly, winning a special award for a great social service project attracted many of us.

But young adults are the real difference.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel recruited four 20-somethings to join us at the Consultation, aided by the Reform Movement’s recognition of this demographic’s importance:  The registration fee for the under 35 crowd was a manageable $50.

So who are these young adults?  Rabbi Koppel made the opportunity widely known to young adults through Facebook.  The four who accepted the offer were three Jews-by-Choice and a fourth who is well along the path to conversion.  They are all LGBT:  one lesbian and three gay men, including a couple whose marriage I officiated last month.

All four jumped at the opportunity to be part of our Reform Movement’s commitment to social justice, which was key to attracting them to Judaism.  But these are not single-issue Reform Jews.  The married couple keeps a kosher home.  All four celebrate Shabbat regularly at Temple and at home.  They are active in Machar, the Temple’s young adult engagement.  They participate in Jewish learning.  And they volunteer, for example at the free summer day camp for underprivileged kids, “Beth-El Food and Fun,” the project recognized by the award in D.C.

Oh, and to state the obvious fact that is nonetheless widely considered counterintuitive:  The three who are Jewish already are dues-paying members of Temple Beh-El, and have been for several years.

In other words, the “institutional footprint” is heavy in these young adults’ Jewish lives.

And here they are, using two days of their precious few annual vacation days, and plunking down real money for the experience, albeit appropriately reduced by the Reform Movement and with some help from  rabbinic discretionary funds toward the flights.

This Consultation experience, and Machar’s success, suggest a model for engaging the next generation of Reform Jewish leadership.  Without dismissing other models, please consider this combination:

1.  Meaningful tikkun olam opportunities, engaging young adults both in groups of their contemporaries and in more diverse groups.

2. A public rabbinic voice for social justice, heard widely in the community, not only by those already engaged in our Jewish institutions.

3.  Pricing structures that require young adults to make a commitment but are appropriate to their circumstances.

4.  Demonstrating the real diversity that comes naturally to this age group:  A community that proudly already includes Jews-by-birth and -by-choice, straight and LGBT, partnered and single, families of all kinds, Jews as well as interested non-Jews including but not limited to those in relationships with Jews, those who come on Shabbat and those who don’t, people of a variety of ethnicities and political viewpoints, etc.

5.  A relevant Shabbat worship experience, spiritually and intellectually stimulating, with regular reference to social justice.

6.  Opportunities like the Consultation for the most engaged to celebrate their involvement and find partners across North America.

The slides in the front of the room at the Consultation made clear that the under-35 crowd is changing America.  One example:  In their demographic, even the majority of evangelicals (!) support same-sex marriage.  Jews, more than most Americans, celebrate the ways our society has changed since the 1950’s.  We should be eager to embrace the changes that “millennials” bring even to our hallowed institutions.

When I sat with my young adult friends at the Consultation, this almost-50 rabbi was re-energized by their social justice commitment, by their rich Jewish lives, and above all by their vision of a vibrant future for the organized Jewish community.


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