A spate of data released within the past year indicates that Jews in their 20s and 30s are not affiliating with American Jewish institutions or otherwise connecting with organized Jewry. This has caused many lay and professional leaders of synagogues, communal organizations and philanthropies to craft a new set of strategies designed to engage these so-called millennials on what the research indicates are their own terms.
Three purported solutions to the problem of affiliation have gained particular popularity of late. First, refashion religious institutions to provide multiple entry points for those whose affinities do not extend to matters purely liturgical. Second, emphasize the universal in Judaism while downplaying the tribal. And finally, invest heavily in Jewish cultural programming at neutral — that is, non-Jewish — venues.
Communal leaders wishing to reach out to unaffiliated 20- and 30-year-olds are now cautioned against employing the language of authenticity. Dubbing something “authentic” is considered too judgmental, and this target audience, according to the research, recoils at the suggestion that there is a right or wrong way to do or be Jewish.
As an outgrowth of this tripartite effort to reach the elusive younger market, synagogues now sponsor yoga classes, ski trips and a smorgasbord of other spiritual options on Saturday mornings; collegiate groups are focusing on social-justice programs because they are more appealing and easier to participate in with non-Jewish friends, and Jewish foundations fund arts and culture programs that insinuate a positive Jewish flavor while making few demands or judgments on audience members.
These approaches to engaging young Jews call to mind the H.L. Mencken quip, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.” The idea that by adopting any one or all of these stratagems, young unengaged Jews will be enticed to join Jewish organizations or otherwise formally affiliate with the community is naive and offensive, and ignores both current realities and historic patterns.
On the issue of synagogue affiliation, for example, veteran observers of the American Jewish community have long been aware that membership patterns correlate to age and child-rearing needs. That large numbers of singles or young couples without children are not formally affiliating with congregations is hardly news or unique to the 21st century.
Nonaffiliation has much more to do with lifecycle factors than the absence of a Sabbath-morning tai chi class. There may be merit to embracing the model now being called “synaplex,” in which a diversity of extra-liturgical offerings are featured, but doing so as a way to attract new members ignores the larger context in which contemporary religious institutions operate.
The same must be said of the fascination with Jewish cultural programming. Despite all the hype surrounding hipster Hanukkah blowouts and chi-chi film festivals, there is mounting evidence to suggest that those who participate in these programs are not the unaffiliated Jews targeted by the organizers. Indeed, while many young Jews are attracted to cultural programming — and are quite turned off by the world of synagogues, Jewish community centers, federations and Israel advocacy — those who participate in these events can hardly be considered unaffiliated and unengaged.
On the contrary, the evidence suggests that they are, in fact, people with moderate-to-high levels of Jewish engagement — Jews from backgrounds of personal observance, day-school training, Jewish camping, synagogue youth groups, Jewish campus activity or an Israel experience. There are legitimate reasons for investing in Jewish culture, but an enterprise that does so because it will result in the development of a sustained new audience of young, unaffiliated Jews is destined to be greatly disappointed.
Jewish groups wishing to engage young Jews must begin by understanding that painting all 20- and 30-year-olds with the same brush is hardly effective. There are important differences between committed young Jews who have serious issues with the state of institutional Jewish life and those of their peers who are so thoroughly dissociated from all things Jewish that they couldn’t care less.
To confuse dissatisfaction with disinterest, or to conflate a desire for creativity and experimentation with a preference for “Jewish-lite,” is to miss this point. Outreach efforts that fail to embrace these distinctions will fall short of desired expectation.
Further, no outreach strategy will succeed if it ignores the perspicacity that has become this generation’s signature. Twenty-first-century Jews are far more sophisticated and nuanced than is suggested by those who think engagement can be secured by programmatic modifications alone. Thoughtful young Jews are quite capable of distinguishing between Jewish groups that proudly perform acts of kindness and righteousness as a sacred Jewish imperative, and those desperate to cultivate new markets that capitalize on the zeitgeist by universalizing classical Jewish precepts.
Conceptualizing Jewish culture as a means to an end not only misjudges the audience, it also does a gross disservice to the artists and performers. The depiction of Jewish music, art, literature, dance or film as more acceptable to an unengaged population because such expressions pose few demands and lack rigor offends boundlessly.
As is true of ethics, deracinating culture from other aspects of Judaism reduces a magnificent and richly textured tradition to a monochrome. Jewish cultural programming deserves the attention and support of the American Jewish establishment — not because it will secure additional members or expand the ranks of potential donors, but because culture, along with learning, worship, morality and love of Israel, is an authentic component of the total Jewish experience.
No purpose is served by dumbing-down Jewish options. Severing acts of loving kindness, theological exploration or cultural expressions from the broader historical context in which they exist simply as a marketing ploy is irresponsible and destined to fail.
The onslaught of recent survey research lays bare many of the realities and challenges of contemporary Jewish life. Those charged with planning and designing policies for the American Jewish community must resist the tendency to craft simple solutions to complex problems, merely as a reaction to the latest findings. Creative marketing, however nobly conceived, cannot be allowed to trump authenticity and integrity.
Hal Lewis is an associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies and dean of public programming and continuing education at Spertus College in Chicago. He is the author of “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006).