We in institutional Jewish life keep hearing how we are challenged by the under-35 demographic. 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 the “institutional footprint” is the key.
But I’ve been at the Consultation on Conscience this week with a delegation of nine from Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, four of them young adults. That’s up from tiny delegations when there were any at all, and certainly no young adults, throughout my 21 years at the congregation. Admittedly, winning a Fain Award attracted some 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 RAC’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? Three are Jews-by-Choice, and the fourth 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, and they volunteer at the free summer day camp, Beth-El Food and Fun, for underprivileged kids who live in the Temple’s neighborhood, the project
recognized by the Fain Award.
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 RAC 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 (like the Brickner Fellowship unites rabbis of different generations).
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. Celebrating a community that already includes Jews-by-birth and -by-choice, straight and LGBT, partnered and single, families of all kinds, who come on Shabbat and who don’t, etc., demonstrating the real diversity that comes naturally to this age group is key.
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 this morning make clear that the under-35 crowd is changing America. In their demographic, even the majority of evangelicals support same-sex marriage! Jews, more than most Americans, understand celebrate the ways our society has changed since the 1950’s. We should be eager to embrace the changes that millennial even to our hallowed institutions.
When I sit with my young adult friends at the Consultation, this almost-50 rabbi is re-energized by their social justice commitment, by their rich Jewish lives, and above all by their vision of a society freed of discrimination and hatred, poverty and hunger, where “justice will roll down like a stream!”
Rabbi Barry Block has been named Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, beginning July 1, 2013. Currently, Rabbi Block is on sabbatical as Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served since 1992.