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Wanted: New ways to engage the next generation of Jews
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Wanted: New ways to engage the next generation of Jews

Growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., in the 1950s and ’60s, my family was well connected to the organized Jewish community. Dor la dor (generation to generation), we were members of an Orthodox synagogue that my grandparents had joined decades before. We were involved with the local Jewish federation, which collected annual donations from virtually all Jewish residents in our city relatively easily. My parents’ generation regarded these donations as a kind of “Jewish tax,” almost as obligatory as the tax they paid to Uncle Sam.   

As an early baby boomer, I’m still somewhat influenced by this mindset. I feel pangs of guilt for not currently belonging to a synagogue, and I give a donation to my community federation, no questions asked. However, based on extensive research, we understand that millennials are largely unburdened by this sense of obligation. Thus, to remain relevant in the new era, Jewish legacy institutions, like synagogues and federations, are required to reinvent themselves and transition away from old paradigms. 

I discussed this topic with my friend, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky from North Brunswick. Formerly a long-time director of Big Tent Judaism (originally the Jewish Outreach Institute), an agency that focuses on outreach to intermarried couples and families, as well as to the unengaged, Kerry has been writing and speaking about the Jewish future for many years. He believes that to attract new families, synagogues should offer alternative membership options, including a voluntary-dues system. But this device isn’t a panacea. 

“The core issue,” he said, “is not the membership model and dues structure. Rather, the challenge is to identify the value proposition. We have to shift away from stressing obligation to a language of benefit.” In other words, Kerry believes contributions and dues will flow to those institutions that offer opportunities for meaningful engagement. “Those that do not embrace change in this direction will continue to struggle.”  

I heard echoes of Kerry’s analysis in a conversation with Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun of Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst. With some trepidation, his synagogue shifted to a voluntary-dues model some four years ago. “This was uncharted territory for us,” he said, “but, so far, it has worked out very well.” The real challenge, he noted, is how to give people a feeling of connection and of contributing to something important. Members have been asked to take greater responsibility for synagogue rituals and prayer, which, he believes, has led to a greater sense of ownership and empowerment. 

“There is enhanced emphasis on relationship building over programming,” he said. “Yet, this is a fluid situation. It’s like trying to change tires while the car is moving. Clearly, we are not in a business-as-usual time; we must be open to experimentation. Judaism was never afraid to evolve and grow.”   

One of the innovations at Torat El, which I personally experienced, is the practice of asking minyan participants observing a yahrtzeit to share a bit about their loved ones at the end of the service. I found that briefly talking about my deceased family members was quite meaningful. Sometimes the little things, which are neither expensive nor time consuming, can count for a lot. 

The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey gets the necessity of doing things differently. Its CEO, Keith Krivitzky, told me that the traditional role of federation primarily as a fund-raising organization can work “when people are a priori involved and understand the value of being part of Jewish community. 

“However, today, many — perhaps most — Jews don’t appreciate or understand the value of being actively Jewish,” he continued. “Unless we address that, there won’t be Jews to contribute to an annual community campaign in the future. So — despite history, inertia, anxiety about moving away from familiar territory and possible financial implications — an increasing focus of our efforts and programming is in engagement and specifically demonstrating how the Jewish community can add value to people’s lives so that they may be more interested in/likely [to] living an actively Jewish life.” 

A similar process is underway at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. According to executive vice president/CEO Dov Ben-Shimon, “While the value of federation is more critical than ever, the expectations of how we communicate with our community are changing radically. The annual campaign is critically important,” he said, “but fund raising cannot be the only embodiment of how we talk to our community.”  

Federation leadership, Ben-Shimon observed, had the courage to realize “new thinking” was needed, which led to the creation of a department that focuses exclusively on community outreach. This department, headed by Amy Biloon, has grown from three staff members to a dozen in the last three years, and is now one of the largest parts of federation. Biloon calls her department’s paradigm “matterness,” meaning that “members of the community need to feel that they matter, that the way they relate to federation deeply engages and inspires them and touches their Jewish souls.” Soliciting donations to federation isn’t always put first, she asserted. “This may be second, or third. In fact, we may not end up getting donations at all, but if people are involved and feel good about federation, they can become our ambassadors in the community.”        

This putting-people-first approach — rather than prioritizing dollars above all — was exemplified by the decision to take the young leadership department, renamed NextDor, out of the campaign department. This was a structural and symbolic indicator of their understanding of generational shifts. In addition, Biloon noted that there has been a sea change in the way federation relates to area synagogues. “We used to approach them asking primarily how they can help with the annual campaign. Now we focus on institutional and individual relationship building.”    

It’s not just the younger generation. To one degree or another, I think all of us, at any age, hunger for meaning. We search for enriching and sometime spiritual experiences and connections to community. My wife and I found this for many years outside the synagogue by participating in Chavurat Kol Ha’Neshama in East Brunswick, led by the late Jules Frankel, z”l. 

I’m certainly not opposed to synagogue membership. But what I would like to hear when I walk into a synagogue office for the first time is not, “This is our brochure with the schedule for dues,” but rather, “Let me arrange for you to meet with the rabbi and the president so they can learn more about you, your family, and how you might become meaningfully involved in our community.” I fear that too often one hears the former and not the latter. 

I was encouraged by the responses of these synagogue and federation leaders. Yet, changing deeply rooted patterns of behavior and community culture is not easy. It will take time, and we still have a long way to go to capture the hearts and minds of our next generation.

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