Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has made it clear that one of his priorities for the organization is outreach to Jews in their 20s and early 30s. As Conservative Jews gather for the USCJ’s biennial in Cherry Hill, N.J., December 6 — the first of Wernick’s tenure — and begin to chart a new course for the movement, it’s worth considering how best to go about pursuing this important goal.
Obviously, there are a lot of exciting possibilities when it comes to enfranchising and exciting 20- and 30-something Jews. But there are also some pitfalls that are common in efforts to reach this particular demographic.
Thinking in terms of “getting the young people” has too often led to programs that have the potential to fail on at least one of two counts.
On the one hand, people can spot an attempt to “be hip” from a mile away; programs that aren’t organic, that don’t genuinely tap into the zeitgeist and people’s interests will be read as pandering and condescending and are likely to fall flat.
But more than that, even when people show up, the nature of many outreach programs leads me to wonder whether we aren’t operating under a misguided definition of “success.” If people go to an event featuring a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model from Israel and leave tipsy but untransformed Jewishly, is that a success? Will attending a kosher karaoke night make people more moral, kinder, more in touch with themselves, with the Divine, with a stronger sense of meaning to their lives? Will it quench their thirst for the living Torah — the Torah that speaks to their lives, their struggles, their romances and ethical questions, to their financial woes and existential fears?
I would posit that getting butts in chairs — even the butts of a highly desirable demographic — is not the point. Our job, as rabbis, as Conservative Jews, as Jews in general, is to offer opportunities for our constituents to have meaningful connections to other people, to the Jewish tradition, to Torah, to the world as a whole, to themselves and to God. And as it happens, 20-somethings — like folks in other age groups — crave substance and depth.
In my work as a Jewish educator on a college campus, I’ve been astounded by the degree to which this is true. I’ve been tasked with helping students create Jewish opportunities and communities in the dorms, fraternities and off-campus apartments — all over campus, in other words. What most people want, I’ve learned, is the high-octane stuff: to come to a deeper understanding of Jewish spirituality; to talk about the nature of God and the purpose of religion; to find a Jewish connection to the big questions weighing on their hearts, and to create a community in which those questions can be explored together.
If this is true of college students, how much more is it true when working with those who have already transitioned to the working world? “Young adults” (which, it must be noted, also refers to the genre in which Judy Blume writes) are adults. And their questions, concerns and yearnings are adult yearnings.
In fact, the most successful programs that I can think of — in terms of lifespan, vitality and overall contribution to the Jewish community — are those that are not defined by age or generational identification. They’re opportunities for people with common interests to come together to work from a Jewish perspective on a cause or issue about which they feel passionate, to pray with a particular sensibility, to make or enjoy Jewish cultural offerings or to take part in study that touches the heart. These are programs that have depth, substance and vision, and have been created by the same types of people who ultimately participate in them.
USCJ, to its credit, has already done some strategic thinking about how to partner with folks who are making exciting things happen in a way that serves everyone’s interests. Its Kesharim program, which offers grants to independent minyans that partner with Conservative synagogues or the USCJ, has created some mutually satisfying relationships. (Rabbi Wernick has indicated that he hopes to broaden the Kesharim initiative.) Other minyans or local organizations that are not interested in this sort of partnership are nonetheless game for other kinds of joint programming and connections.
Certainly, though, there are some risks in the USCJ’s decision to create a Youth and Young Adult Services department to serve, out of one office, the teens of United Synagogue Youth, college students and people who are in their first 10 or so years out of college. As David Levy wrote on the blog Jewschool, “Please do not treat young adults in their 20s and 30s like children…. If the movement is losing members between the time individuals complete USY and the time they have their first child, the answer is not to extend the USY experience right up to the mid-life crisis.”
Jewish 20- and 30-somethings certainly don’t need to be programmed to the same way that teenagers do; taking them seriously as adults means that any initiatives that come out of USCJ must be done in very close collaboration with those it hopes to serve, and it means that the organization must know when its role is better served offering resources and letting its constituents lead.
The Conservative movement has the chance to step up to the plate and engage 20- and 30-somethings in ways that are substantive, meaningful and transformative — that address the big questions. Not, mind you, “the big questions facing young Jews” — but, rather, the big questions facing everybody. It has the chance to do so with depth, nuance and sophistication, to partner and collaborate with the adults in question in order live out the movement’s potential in the best possible way: embedded in the tradition and yet engaged in the world today. Will the organization offer up more than kosher karaoke? I hope so.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is senior Jewish educator at Tufts Hillel and the author of “Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion” (Beacon Press, 2008).