Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Pew Report and What Millennials Want

Much cyber-ink has been spilled on the topic of the Pew Center report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Unfortunately, I haven't had much time to sit down and write about it, but winter break (the end of my first grad school class!) is coming, and I'll try not to neglect this poor blog then! I have lots to say about the study, too!

Why? As a millennial, intermarried Jew, I feel as if the Pew survey is supposed to be a portrait of me. In some ways it is, and in some ways it really isn't.  For today, let's talk non-denominational Jews.
I have wondered, since the study first came out, how I would answer this question of denomination. I would definitely call myself Jewish by religion (more on Jews of no religion another time) but I don't know what denomination I would say. I go to an "Ultra-Orthodox" synagogue. In fact, I recently set up to automatically donate money to them every month, which is essentially like paying dues, so we could even say I "belong" to that synagogue. But I don't do Orthodox Jew things like keep kosher or observe the sabbath... I would not consider myself an Orthodox Jew by any stretch of the term.
I might consider myself Conservative, since I was raised that way and want to raise my own children that way, but I don't belong to a Conservative synagogue and have written before about my reluctance to join. Because of this, I don't quite fit in that box either.
And while I do certain observances regularly (Yom Kippur and Passover are the big ones), for the rest of the year I'm not very observant. So does that make me "not practicing" or "culturally Jewish?" I would say no... but maybe someone else would say that would be a yes?
Of course, the goal of this survey was how people see themselves, not as defined by someone else. But unless you are a cookie cutter Jew, this answer is really hard to come up with. I would probably answer Non-Denominational/Just Jewish. And that growing non denominational section has scared basically all of the non-Orthodox denominations into thinking that they are about to perish from lack of new blood. Millennials, it seems, just don't want to fit in the boxes our parents' and grandparents' generations set out for us. (Which, yeah, that's kind of our thing...) So how do you reclaim the "lost" generation of non-denominational Jews?

I read an article from Interfaith Family on What Millennials Want from organized Judaism. In the article, the following actions are suggested for creating the Judaism that millenials want:
  1. Go to them. Help infuse Jewish content into their networks.
  2. Stand for something. Help them live within the context of Jewish ideas. (If they are looking for friends, love, work, etc. they will go elsewhere. They come to Jewish institutions for Jewish content!)
  3. Talk about and teach Jewish adulthood.
  4. Organize around Judaism. (Can we have house meetings to ask them what they are looking for and work with them to create programming for them?)
  5. Open our institutions: Create low barriers with high content.
 When I read this list it sounded immediately familiar. But not because it's what I want-- it is what I found. That is the Chabad model, and this really explains why I continue to attend Ultra-Orthodox services despite it not being my brand of Judaism. If a conservative synagogue did this near me, I'd be banging down their door to get in.
What can the rest of the denominations learn from Chabad?
  • Have a functioning website and utilize social media:
    The ultra-orthodox, long beards and black hat Chabad rabbis each maintain a website for their individual synagogue (with mobile version), they have weekly email newsletters, they have facebook pages that they actually use. is a fabulous resource for Jews of every denomination about holidays and practices, and they have the whole Tanach (an acronym name for all the Jewish bible books, pretty much the Old Testament) in Hebrew and English on their site. They have truly embraced the way technology can be used to reach millennial and post-millennial audiences.
    Most conservative/reform synagogues on the other hand? Their websites haven't been updated in years (A few years ago I lived literally next door to a reform synagogue building that I thought was defunct, because their website was 5 years out of date. I found out recently that they are alive and kicking, but their website is still not.). You're doing it wrong. And for God's sake (see what I did there?) get a mobile website!
  • Make all the holidays the center of your calendar:
    Before I went to Chabad, I celebrated what I would deem my "big three." Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Passover. Aside from that, I didn't observe most holidays.  Most conservative/ reform synagogues do the high holidays, and maybe Hanukkah, but miss plenty of opportunities for low maintenance but high-fun holidays.
    But for Chabad, every holiday is celebrated as if it were one of the big three. It's hard not to want to join in! I started attending the community Sukkot dinner about 4 years ago. Since then I have fulfilled the mitzvah every year, at least once during the 8 day holiday, of eating a meal in the sukkah. 
    Judaism, with its multitude of distinctive holidays (just about all centered around food, of course) offers a perfect calendar for routine Jewish events. The Sukkot dinner, the menorah lighting in the mall, the Purim party, the Shavuot cheesecake party... there's so many options to make Judaism accessible and fun.
  • Create low barriers with high content:
    I'll just go right ahead and steal their #5 because it's perfect.
    Do you know what it cost me to "join" Chabad? Nothing. I showed up for Saturday services, and they fed me and then invited me back for the holiday dinner the next weekend. I kept showing up and they kept inviting me back. Sure I would donate little bits here and there, usually the suggested donation for a specific event, but never much more than that. After a year of just showing up and hanging out, I did start donating more regularly to do my part for the community. And now I actually give them more money than the conservative synagogue would ask of me in dues.
    But at the outset, I could attend every event, be treated as part of the community (despite, as I said above, my not really fitting their mold) and pay only what I wanted, when I wanted. Within the year they had me hooked, but at the beginning there was the lowest possible barrier for all the content: Just show up.
    And I did. And I stayed.
  • Cut down on your overhead:  (this will probably help create those low barriers... don't need to charge $1000 in membership fee if you don't need to sustain a large overhead)
    Dan and I have this conversation a lot, mostly in the context of the Catholic church by our house, which is really nice and fancy and spent a lot of money on aesthetics and gold plated things, which seems like a waste of money. Some people, I think, really like going to these fancy gold-plated churches or those opulent synagogues with stained glass windows and beautiful carved arks.
    But look at Chabad. All a synagogue needs is a torah scroll (not 5), a cabinet to keep it in, some prayer books, some chairs, and a place to meet. My rabbi operates a shul out of his living room. For high holidays they rent a conference room in a hotel and set up there. I don't know what that costs, but it can't possibly be anywhere near owning a synagogue building that would only fill up three times a year.
    Our running route goes by an elementary school where a church sets up every Sunday. They have a few portable signs, and a couple trailers. Meeting at the elementary school means they have plenty of space and don't have to upkeep it. It's brilliant! Synagogues are flailing because their dues-paying membership is not large enough to sustain their aging buildings. I should know, the synagogue I became Bat Mitzvah in folded before my brother's Bar Mitzvah 6 years later; the core membership still meets in a storefront. Because a house of worship is really a community of people. They can sit anywhere, look at anything, and still pray. My main advice to Conservative synagogues would be to trim the excess, cut back a bit. It'll get them through the lean years, and it'll probably attract more millenials- those kids coming of age in the Great Recession, with tastes to match- than extravagant sanctuaries and shiny things.

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