I was thrilled to participate in Reform Judaism magazine’s winter cover story, “Forum for the Future,” a symposium that provides Jews in their 20s and 30s a platform to speak candidly about what young adults want and need to find their home in the Jewish community. Historian and Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna sets the stage, shedding light on what history can teach us about the challenge of engaging the next generation of Jews and what to make of young Jewish leaders who are questioning and disrupting the establishment.
And then, the panelists:
- Yoav Schlesinger, 32, executive director of Reboot, says his experience with an Orthodox minyan at in college taught him the value of Jewish community. He says, “I am a Jew with a tattoo, a nonobservant theist, an unapologetic culturalist, a determined skeptic, a lover of yiddishkeit and of Carlebach melodies, a sukkah builder and a yontif chazzan (holiday cantor)…” but admits he sees little value in joining a synagogue.
- David Cygielman, 30, tells of how his organization Moishe House was born and questions the Jewish establishment: “In order to create strong Jewish communities for the future, established institutions must understand that the infrastructure they have built may not be what my generation is willing to take on. We need to put the needs of potential participants first and foremost.”
- My colleague and friend Rebecca Missel, 32, founder of Jersey Tribe, spends her holidays bopping from synagogue to synagogue but says none seems particularly welcoming in the long run. “If I could find a congregation that “got it” when it came to 20s and 30s, that showed me it can offer something for people like me who are transplants and not yet married with kids, I would absolutely want to get involved,” she says.
- The only rabbi in the bunch is Rabbi David Gerber, 32, who finds that because young Jews “want to be around others who share their passions,” he values smaller interest groups for Jews with similar hobbies and, well, interests. When it comes to congregations, he says, “No single medium for outreach will apply to every community member, so it behooves us to reach out in as many ways as possible.”
- Sarah Lefton, founder of the multimedia Torah teacher G-dcast, is the oldest panelist at 38, and focused primarily on young families: “There’s a missed opportunity for the ‘establishment’ to create Jewish daycare centers, services with childcare for babies and tots, Torah study that happens online after the kids are in bed.”
- Popular Jewish musician Josh Nelson, 34, another friend of mine, hasn’t settled down into synagogue membership because his busy performance schedule keeps him on the road. But, he adds, “I have also often felt uncomfortable with the worship options available to me. Starting in my mid-20s, I wanted to experience powerful, meaningful communal prayer without pretense, pomp, and a holier-than-thou attitude.”
- Boston-area non-profit fundraising professional Joanna Brinton, 28, isn’t a member of a congregation because, she says, dues are too expensive. Friendly attitudes aren’t enough for young Jews who are too scared to attend temple events alone. “That’s where Facebook and other social media come in,” she says, “when you can see that people you know will be there, it lessens the apprehension and fear.”
- And then there’s me: “I’d prefer to follow and donate to Jewish organizations that don’t require in-person involvement, attend independent minyanim, interact on social media with rabbis and other engaged Jews about topics that matter to me—like feminism, civil rights, and pop culture—and ease into congregational life by being a wallflower for a while.”
If you’re a young Jew in your 20s or 30s, we want to hear from you: Do you belong to a congregation? Why or why not? What makes you feel connected and what do you find alienating?