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Rabbis reach out to engage millennials in community
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Rabbis reach out to engage millennials in community

Employing warmth, innovation, authenticity to meet young Jews’ needs

Rabbi Philip Bazeley of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple explains the significance
of the etrog and lulav to a young congregant. Photo by Ouriel Morgansztern
Rabbi Philip Bazeley of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple explains the significance of the etrog and lulav to a young congregant. Photo by Ouriel Morgansztern

Millennials are “the unicorn that every synagogue is chasing after,” according to Rabbi David Vaisberg, religious leader of the Reform congregation Temple Emanu-El in Edison and president of the Rabbinical Association in the Heart of New Jersey.

There is cause for optimism on that front, said Rabbi Sara Metz of Congregation Beth Mordecai, the Conservative synagogue in Perth Amboy. Despite “a trend to less synagogue involvement and membership,” she told NJJN, “I think that people are looking for community, and people are looking for meaning.”

Reform Rabbi Philip Bazeley, the senior rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, agrees. He said that among young people, “there is definitely a need and desire to have Jewish meaning in one’s life, especially in a world that sometimes feels like there is no meaning.”

This yearning for meaning intensifies during the High Holy Day season, Rabbi Esther Reed wrote in an email to NJJN. Reed, the senior associate director at Rutgers Hillel, said, “Jews of all ages are looking to connect with Jewish tradition.”

Metz stressed that addressing the spiritual yearning of younger Jews — be they teens, young singles, or young marrieds — requires an approach based on establishing relationships. “When anybody expresses any kind of interest,” she said, “I try to reach out, take them out for coffee or lunch to know who they are and help them connect with me and the community.”

Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi David Vaisberg and religious school principal Jill Santoni, fourth from left, explore Prague with youngsters during the congregation’s triennial post-confirmation trip to Europe.
Photo by Zvi Friedman

Not only does Metz warmly welcome people who come to her, she goes out and seeks interested Jews. At noon on Wednesday, Sept. 26 — the third day of Sukkot — she will be in the food court at the Menlo Park Mall in Edison “to teach whoever is around shopping about the lulav and etrog,” the ritual items key to the holiday’s observance.

Vaisberg said that authenticity is critical to reaching younger Jews in two ways: First, it means being authentic to the essence of Judaism. “Shabbat is a time for centering yourself, connecting with community, reflecting, elevating our souls — that’s the experience we try to achieve together,” he said.

Second, spiritual leaders themselves must be “real and present.” With teenagers in particular, Vaisberg said, “I’m a liberal Jew and ‘Dave’ — and those aspects of my identity I share with them…. I’m not afraid to express my doubts and my anger. People are looking for what is real and factual.”

So what specifically is the Jewish community doing to draw in the next generation of young families, young singles, and teenagers?

First, it is trying to create bottom-up programs that grow out of an understanding of the needs of younger Jews.

Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ is using “teen advisory boards to direct and advise us on what will fly with teens,” said Lisa Karasic, the organization’s chief marketing officer. For example, for the November Teen Israel Summit, whose purpose is “to connect teens to what Israel means to them,” the young people themselves suggested a focus on advocacy for Israel and on Israeli pop culture, music, food, sports, technology, and innovation.

Federation is also expanding its teen philanthropy offerings, because, Karasic said, the youngsters told them “they want to make a difference in the world by exploring where needs exist that are not being met and doing what they can to fill those needs.” Also, the life skills they are learning through teen philanthropy are helping them to distinguish themselves, for example, on college applications.

Vaisberg, a young parent himself, emphasized the importance of “having programming that actually meets young parents’ needs and are not top down.” Since “young parents need a community where their kids can be active and be honored,” he said, Temple Emanu-El offers a monthly Tot Shabbat for infants to kindergartners, with songs, prayers, stories, crafts, and snacks. “We’ve been getting a very good turnout,” he said; “the kids adore it, and it’s a good place for them and their families to develop community.”

The youth group at Temple Emanu-El is run by the members themselves via a teen board. “It is built on a model we see in Reform movement youth groups — what is the experience they are looking for and how can we infuse Judaism into it,” Vaisberg said.

Congregants from Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, led by Rabbi Philip Bazeley, left, visit the Capitol in Washington. Photo by Ouriel Morgansztern

After Anshe Emeth’s Generation Alef group for young Jews failed, the synagogue last year started L’Chaim, listening more closely to the needs of this age bracket. “They not only wanted a social group but also a group of substance,” Bazeley said. While they have socialized together — going to comedy clubs, for example — they will also be undertaking social justice projects, things that they can do “as a group here together that they can’t do in other places.”

Addressing the needs of teens in a different way, Rabbi Effy Unterman of the Orthodox synagogue Young Israel of East Brunswick emphasized the need for a strong community among teens in his congregation who attend many different schools, day and public. Fulfilling this need is a teen-led and -organized minyan each Shabbat, in which 30-40 teens participate. Unterman said, “The minyan gives them ownership over what happens on a Shabbat morning. They’re not just sitting back and the service happens to them; it is something they create themselves, and it is giving them a space for their own leadership.”

Another approach to drawing in younger Jews is to open synagogue events to the public wherever possible.

At Metz’s synagogue, although tickets are required for the Kol Nidrei service and the first day of Rosh HaShanah, members of the broader community are welcome to other services during the High Holy Day season, as long as they contact the office in advance for a free ticket. On erev Rosh HaShanah, Sunday, Sept. 9, at 5:15 p.m., Beth Mordecai will hold an abbreviated, more informal family service open to the larger community, with keyboard accompaniment “to get the kids involved in singing and understanding the prayers.”

Metz also invites the wider community to her home sukkah.

At Temple Emanu-El, the youth group is open to the community, although only members can serve on its board.

Anshe Emeth has family Shabbat morning services twice a month that are open to the entire community; after the service, children go to the care of babysitters while the parents have a nosh, network, and get some information on Jewish parenting. “Sure, we would love to get new members,” Bazeley said, but his motivation has more to do with showing young families how “the synagogue can be a Jewish resource for you and give you a solid footing.”

In addition to those approaches, some synagogues use unique programs to draw in younger Jews and create community among them. Young Israel of East Brunswick holds a mystery hosting Shabbat, where hosts and guests don’t find out who will be lunching with whom until Shabbat morning. At Temple Emanu-El, families have used Legos to build a giant model of Shushan — the Persian town that is the setting for the events of Purim — and there’s a confirmation trip every three years to five European cities. This year Anshe Emeth is taking its teens to the Deep South to learn about civil rights.

One idea, from Reed, focused specifically on the High Holy Days. Rutgers Hillel is partnering with Reboot — a nonprofit that “affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own” — to offer people the opportunity to answer one question a day for each of the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and get back their answers a year later by email. Those interested in participating can share their thoughts about the new year by answering 10 provocative questions about the past and the future at doyou10q.com.

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