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Care about the future of Judaism? It’s time to start listening to millennials.

Every Jewish person knows that this is going to be a High Holiday season like no other in recent memory. Most of us won’t be able to attend services in synagogue in person, and many of us won’t even be able to visit our families. We’re all going to become very familiar with all of the features of Zoom, and how this platform is not built for New York Ashkenazi Jewish families all talking over each other.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

But in at least one respect, the general weirdness of this year is just going to exacerbate trends that we see in Jewish organizational discourse every single Rosh Hashanah season. The fact that fewer Jews than ever will be able to attend synagogue this year likely means we’ll see more of the same series of anguished pieces that we see every year, worrying about why so many young non-Orthodox Jews in the United States are formally disaffiliating with synagogues, why fewer of us are marrying and starting families at all these days, why among those who are only 40% of us are marrying other Jews, why 32% of millennial American Jews describe ourselves as “Jews of no religion,” and why more than seven out of ten of us are not members of any major Jewish organizations such as Jewish community centers, Jewish federations, or the American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress.

The difficulty of engaging young Jews during a pandemic, when we cannot gather in person, is just going to make these annual anguished pleas about how non-Orthodox millennial Jews are disaffiliating from the formal American Jewish community seem all the more urgent.

As a patented non-Orthodox millennial American Jew whose Jewish identity nonetheless remains so strong that I am a Jewish Studies PhD student and I recently had a Jewish wedding to another millennial Jew, I’m here to say: It doesn’t have to be this way.

Instead of seeing the pandemic as only a reason for the same usual hand wringing about Jewish disaffiliation, American Jewish organizations could use it as an opportunity to really listen to us, and to hear why it is that we’re feeling so alienated from the formal institutions that claim to speak for American Jews. If they really want to engage with us, and don’t want to simply lose a generation of American Jews, it’s time to listen.

And if they did listen to us, they might hear a few themes for why the majority of us are refusing to affiliate with either synagogues or Jewish organizations these days.

The first reason any millennial will probably bring up is money. Millennials are one of the most economically stressed generations in recent U.S. history. Even before the coronavirus recession hit, millennials had still not recovered from graduating during the Great Recession of 2008, and in fact, many economists predict we never will. Even before the pandemic, millennials had 34% less wealth than we would have had we been born in a previous generation. We’re deeper in debt than any previous generation, and it’s leading us to delay significant life milestones like getting married and having children. All this debt is affecting our mental health, too.

But it’s expensive to be a member of a synagogue, and millennial Jews are disproportionately likely to report that membership dues and fees are keeping them out of formal Jewish life.

When it can cost hundreds of dollars just to attend High Holiday services, money that many of us need to pay off student loans and other debts, can you blame us for feeling put off by this cost?

If the affiliation of millennials were a real priority, Jewish philanthropists could be putting their money into funding scholarships and grants for synagogue membership and Jewish education. Instead, the very top charitable cause chosen by wealthy Jewish donors in the United States for their donations is… Birthright Israel.

That’s right: At a time when the American Jewish community is fretting about disaffiliation and alienation from the community, Jewish donors have chosen to prioritize a free, all-expenses paid trip to Israel for a few weeks in a young Jewish person’s life over sustained engagement with Jewish education and synagogue life.

The consequences of this decision are enormous. The fact is, most millennial American Jews do not want to define our Jewish identities in terms of our connection to a nation-state where we are choosing not to live. In fact, only 43% of American Jews consider caring about Israel to be an essential part of their Jewish identy, and among the youngest cohort of American Jews, this number drops to 32%. Meanwhile, if you ask American Jews what is actually essential to their Jewish identities, they’re more likely to report such qualities as “remembering the Holocaust,” “leading an ethical and moral life,” “working for justice and equality,” and even “being intellectually curious.”

Seen from this perspective, the Jewish donor world’s decision to go all in on Birthright Israel as its charity of choice seems tragically misguided.

At a time when young American Jews are increasingly critical of Israel’s political direction and are more sympathetic toward the Palestinian cause than any previous generation of American Jews before them, a community focus on free trips is further alienating to us.

Meanwhile, when we young Jews have tried to organize politically as Jews around issues not related to Israel, centering our Jewish identities as politically vital to us, the organized Jewish community has not been terribly sympathetic to our efforts. One of the most vibrant and successful Jewish millennial political movements in recent years is #JewsAgainstICE, which has explicitly linked the Jewish history of diaspora, dispossession, and forced migration to their efforts to halt U.S. detentions of migrants along the southern border.

But instead of nurturing this effort to build a vibrant, distinctively Jewish millennial political movement, too many establishment Jewish organizations seemed more concerned with gatekeeping the memory of the Holocaust by preventing any comparisons to U.S. camps on the southern border, though these very same Jewish organizations are happy to invoke the memory of Hitler and the Holocaust when it allows them to defend the state of Israel.

And yet, just 4% of American Jews consider Israel a top priority when we decide our votes in US elections, while the single political issue that unites the greatest number of us as Jews is our opposition to the Trump administration’s family separations at the Mexican border. Attacking attempts to ground opposition to family separations in our memories of the Holocaust, as so many Jewish organizations chose to do, is just going to drive us away.

The truth is, young, non-Orthodox American Jews really do want to remain connected to our Jewish identities. Even as we disaffiliate from synagogues and Jewish organizations, the youngest cohort of American Jews are actually more likely than American Jews as a whole to report that we are “proud to be Jewish.” Even among those of us who marry non-Jews, the majority retain a strong Jewish identity, and our children continue to identify as Jewish.

Non-Orthodox millennial Jews hunger for connection to our community, our people, and our history. But that connection can’t come in the form of free trips to Israel and handwringing about high rates of intermarriage while ignoring the fact that we’re building our own Jewish communities and our own Jewish political movements here, exactly where we are. If the organized Jewish community wants to engage us, it could start by listening.

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