A Millennial Speaks

As a formerly unengaged Millennial, who was inspired to build Jewish experiences for people like me, I’m writing not simply to offer criticism but also to share insights.

by Rachel Cort

I’m not your typical Jewish professional. I didn’t go to Jewish day school, or Jewish summer camp, or youth group. While I have two Jewish parents, I celebrated Christmas every year with my extended, non-Jewish family until I was twelve. My Jewish education stopped after my Bat Mitzvah. In college, I didn’t seek out Jewish life on campus, dropping in for High Holiday services but largely avoiding the Hillel building. I didn’t visit – or ever even really think about – Israel until I was 25 years old. I didn’t start working full-time as a Jewish professional until I was 27, and this field certainly wasn’t part of my imagined career path as I left college.

What I am is your typical Jewish Millennial. While this makes me an outlier among my professional peers in Jewish communal service, I have been very careful to preserve what I consider my “outsider” Millennial perspective. I believe the key to serving young adults lies in deeply understanding their experiences, habits and needs – and not just by reading the Pew study, which only confirmed what many people working closely with young adults have known for years: the American Jewish community of today is undergoing profound change. Jewish institutions are in decline. Millennials have multiple, overlapping identities and a different approach to Jewish identity than their parents or grandparents.

I’ve been very fortunate to have participated in many programs and initiatives for young Jewish professionals. So it is with great respect, and not a little trepidation, that I write to point out what I view as the biggest unspoken challenge facing Jewish organizations today: the people who are most likely to go into Jewish communal service are those who are the recipients of a rich Jewish education or a series of meaningful Jewish experiences (such as camp, youth group or Hillel – frequently all three). They are outliers, and unrepresentative of the vast majority of American Jews. Such individuals are often unable to mount a meaningful critique of institutional Judaism, or to grasp the substantial gap between their Jewish experiences and others’, or even to realize the extent to which they are outliers. They often start from the assumption that participation in Jewish life or Israel is inherently meaningful; an assumption that many of the Millennials they are attempting to engage with do not share. For many Jewish professionals, meaningful involvement in Jewish life and facility with Jewish ritual is a norm they have grown up with, which is certainly not the case for many who are the target of engagement efforts.

Let me be clear – plenty of people who went to day school or camp don’t become Jewish professionals. Some even drop out of Jewish life, despite the consensus in our field that camp and day school “work.” The people who ultimately become Jewish professionals are the ones that loved their formative experiences in Jewish life so much that they decided to make a career of it. And therein lies the problem: I often feel as if many of my professional peers, especially those charged with engagement work, are trying to replicate their own meaningful Jewish experiences for an audience that does not share their assumptions and norms. Day school, camp and Hillel-type experiences, while working well for a slender segment, will not work (and have not worked) for the vast majority of young Jewish adults.

I believe that many Jewish professionals are simply unable to reform a system of which they are a successful result, a system that personally worked for them to deliver value, meaning and community. And in a time where reform is desperately needed, this is a significant roadblock. Our professional field is more insular, more homogenous and more conservative than the population it purports to serve. The continued and widespread exclusion of women from positions of leadership in institutional Jewish life is a major indicator of this. Anecdotally, I cannot tell you how many times I have felt alienated by or at odds with a room full of my professional peers, who often seem like an extension of the Hillel clubhouse that I so assiduously avoided in college. How can such a professional field be charged with creating new Jewish experiences to meet the profoundly shifting needs of a generation on the brink of maturity and leadership? It may seem that Jewish life in America is in crisis, but such crisis represents an imperative to rethink the systems and institutions that have served (some of) us so well up to this point. I fear that those most likely to go into this field are not yet up to the task.

The Pew Study told us that Millennials feel generally positive about their Jewish identities, which is a good start. Millennials also seek to derive meaning from their personal choices. Thus, Jewish life needs to be able to compete in the marketplace of ideas, which is ever more saturated with different ways of making meaning. Jewish life must continue evolving in order to allow for Millennials to both engage with and express their Jewish identities. And this all means that sometimes, Jewish professionals have to check their institutional baggage at the door to actually adapt a Millennial mindset, not just read about it.

As a formerly unengaged Millennial who was inspired to build Jewish experiences for people like me, I’m writing not simply to offer criticism but also to share insights. I’m writing to turn a series of formative-though-accidental experiences that happened along my “Jewish journey” (as we say in the field) into a program intended to revitalize the field of Jewish communal service. I would also like to note that the future of Jewish life doesn’t belong to professionals alone, but also to inspired and dedicated volunteer leadership. This program has potential applications for volunteer leaders as well.

Over the past two years I have been earning my Master’s in Jewish Professional Studies from the Spertus Institute while also working for an entrepreneurial campus Jewish organization that combines the tenets of design and disruptive innovation with Jewish text, thought, philosophy and ritual. These experiences, along with others, have shaped the thesis I wrote for my Master’s program, which seeks to recommend new competencies for Jewish professionals working with Millennials. Over the next few weeks, I hope to share these competencies (disruptive innovation, design thinking, improvisation and collaborative group work, relationship-based engagement and network theory, traditionally radical Talmud study) with the readers of eJewish Philanthrophy. Right now, I have the good fortune to serve the demographic to which I belong and which I greatly resemble. I realize that those I serve won’t always be Millennials (someday there will be a new generation of Jews to fret over), and that even now there are significant differences between the older members of my generation (now in their late 20s) and the college students with whom I work. These new competencies are intended to allow Jewish professionals to design meaningful experiences for people who look significantly different from them, whatever generation they may be.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, reactions and (inevitable) criticisms.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.

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  1. says

    Rachel, I enjoyed your article. I really liked this sentence:

    “I believe that many Jewish professionals are simply unable to reform a system of which they are a successful result, a system that personally worked for them to deliver value, meaning and community.”

    I’m curious to see what your recommendations are. It does seem that new, out of the box organizations just end up spinning their product differently, but really it’s the same product only under or over funded.

    When I was in my early 20s, I started a program in Chicago called Makor with Rabbi Cosgrove. I remember though what he kept saying, “This is a great program, but remember, Shabbat has been around for thousands of years.”

    Best of luck and congratulations on your upcoming graduation.

  2. Bob Hyfler says

    This is a brave, honest, insightful piece. Rachel Cort discusses truths long known but little addressed in institutional settings. Like I am sure many other readers, I await hearing how her insights are leading to a different praxis of Jewish interaction. Thank you.

  3. says

    Bravo Rachel! You have brought the opportunity for a lens shift to the readers of e-Jewishphilanthropy that is sorely needed: see Jewish life from the perspective of those we seek to engage rather from our own institutional lenses that start with our own needs and biases (those we know and those that are harder to recognize). UpStart changed its own practice in supporting Jewish social entrepreneurs and fostering entrepreneurship within legacy/established organizations as a result of our learning the Stanford d. school’s human-centered design process called “design thinking”, meshing it with deep understanding of the art of innovation (especially research on human behavior change), and adapting the wisdom in “Managing Your Innovation Portfolio”, April 2012, Harvard Business Review to the Jewish communal context.
    One of the most clear differentiators between (much/most/all?) new programming coming out of our “innovation sector” is the founders’ being part of the community for which the innovation is being designed. It is their own experience in which a gap has been discovered and their new projects are launched to fill it. They begin with their own social networks as the testing grounds; others whose articulation and lived experience of their needs forms the foundation of the founders’ program design and execution. UpStart helps to ensure that the human-centeredness of that approach continues even after growth has extended well beyond one’s initial circle as business strategy evolves to find a pathway to sustainability.
    Bringing this mindset and practice into established organizations requires different sensibilities, including knowledge of institutional culture. Yet, through UpStart’s work, especially with a dozen day schools in the NY area (Day School Collaboration Network, in partnership with the Jewish Education Project, funded generously by UJA/NY) we have shown that while there are challenges to designing change by those responsible for the no longer relevant ways of doing business, there are teams of diverse professionals within our institutions who jump at the chance to see their work differently, orient away from institutional needs to effectively understand the people they are serving and the problems they need to address to be effective and do so with unleashed creativity and joy in their work.
    There are mindsets and methods we, the Jewish community, need in order to continue to connect meaningfully with the community we have as well as with the expanded community we want. Generational and societal shifts are happening so quickly we risk even broader failures if we don’t change the way we work.

  4. David Posner says

    Rachel, thank you for your piece. The challenge of engaging Millenials, and some of the of your initial thoughts concerning changing competencies required by professionals and volunteers, can be applied to other demographics of Jews as well. We cannot take for granted that what has worked well in the past (and we are admired by other groups for our degree of community organization and seeming cohesion) will continue to work in the future.

    I look forward to reading your views in the weeks ahead.

  5. Dave Neil says

    Yes wonderful, let’s fill up the ranks of Jewish leadership with people who have no Jewish backgrounds! (i hope i am missing something from your article and i hope what you will share in the future will be truly helpful in engaging young Jews) By the way- PresenTense, ROI, Bikurim, Joshua Venture- even one of the talkbacks presented here (Upstart Bay)- does show that the Jewish community is interested in empowering Millenials to create new initiatives to young people of all backgrounds in the hopes of finding meaningful ways to get other Millenials to connect Jewishly. I think a better point would be made to say that different Jews are drawn to different things and if someone is in a leadership solely because camp Ramah for example spoke to them it does not mean that person should narrowly promote Camp Ramah to save American Jewry from assimilation… since it is true that there are different strokes for different folks… as for trying to create new venues for engaging Jews (as opposed to the traditional ones like Camp) as i mentioned we have funded PresenTense and others which have spawned Moishe House and other projects….

  6. Sarah F says

    Dave Neil, you are indeed missing Rachel’s point, which is a valuable one. She is not saying we need to fill the ranks of Jewish leadership with people who have no Jewish background. She is saying we need Jewish teachers and leaders and professionals who recognize that “Jewish background” can look very different than it did in prior generations, and who recognize that young people today are not necessarily going to find meaning in Judaism in the same verses or rooms or campgrounds or politics or experiences that you and I may have – or at least not without questioning WHY those are meaningful.

    The relevance of Israel or of kashrut or of Chanukah or of pirkei avot is not immediately evident to many Jews today; the challenge facing the talented professionals who have undertaken the daunting task of reforming and reinvigorating Jewish education and engagement for today’s young Jews is to look beyond the tangible and replicable models of their own experiences that successfully committed them to Jewish life, and to look instead at the intangible emotions and motivations that came about through them. The program itself: Camp Ramah, Hebrew School, the Purim Carnival – these were simply the old means to the end. They’re not getting us there anymore, so we need new means.

    Rachel, I look forward to reading what you have to share with us.

  7. Joel Schindler says

    David Neil’s cynicism is the sad reflection of the kind of naiveté among today’s Jewish communal leadership. What defines a “Jewish background”? The point of Rachel’s excellent piece is that the traditional Jewish background Neil expects is not sufficient, not broad enough, not creative enough, not inclusive enough. Why are we not supporting Jewish video game producers or Jewish animal welfare programs? Why are programs looking at sustainability and ecology generally NOT part of “mainstream” Jewish organizational life? The MINDSET about Jewish community and Jewish community professionals needs to change.

  8. Jim Rogozen says


    I liked your article, but I’d like to push back on a couple of your statements:

    1. Several of the best Jewish educators I know are people who absolutely hated Hebrew school or day school. They found value in being Jewish from other venues, on their timeline, and then came back to improve they systems that let them down. Some of their innovations were considered “disruptive” at the time. They also continue to monitor themselves so that they don’t become the administrators that they rejected decades earlier. Their input shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

    2. The concept of responding to/predicting/programming for change, especially in the education field, is not foreign to many of my colleagues. They have developed great approaches that involve taking a very critical look, on a regular basis, at their assumptions and practice. It often involves talking to people who are “outsiders” so that they don’t succumb to group-think or assume all is well.

    3. Finally, I’m hoping you’ll address the concept of commitment in your upcoming articles. No matter how innovative or disruptive, yet-to-be-imagined programs will no doubt need time to come into their own. The people designing them, and for whom they are being designed, will need to stay the course. How will you nurture that very necessary condition?

    Good luck!

    Jim Rogozen

  9. says

    Rachel – I agree with many of your points, but I also believe you’re not sufficiently giving credit to the many educators and institutions which have already significantly addressed many of your concerns. For instance, most of the Hillel educators I know grew up with a significantly less “Jewish” background than a reader of your article would expect. In fact, many Hillels deliberately hire staff with backgrounds that are more similar to a typical millennial so that they will be more relatable to those students. And while I appreciate your desire to infuse our community with “disruptive innovation, design thinking, improvisation and collaborative group work, relationship-based engagement and network theory, traditionally radical Talmud study” – I have personally seen all of those methods in action already in many Hillels dating back 5 – 10 years ago. I certainly welcome the series of upcoming articles – I think you have identified some crucial areas that all of our Jewish institutions should be utilizing – I would just remind readers of the successes that Ron Wolfson and others have already documented. Thankfully, there is a lot of really great work already happening in the Jewish world in these areas! And the next 5 – 10 years will bring yet another adaptive shift as a new generation of young people bring their own particular sensibilities to our community.

  10. Dan Ab says

    Great article! Much of the Jewish world doesn’t understand the difference between “most” and “all.” Rachel’s background is different from most Jewish leaders, but she exists, I exist, and many others do too. As Rachel notes, the hyperfocus on the day school + summer camp + Israel trip + Hillel track to Jewish leadership loses sight of that only a small fraction of Jewish follow this path and a professional class that is blind to this becomes unable to identify and cultivate the best new leaders. Rachel is only an outsider in the eyes of leaders who decide she don’t fit their assumed profile. It is easier for them to think of her as an exception rather than change their worldview.

  11. Joel Levy says

    Very interesting piece!
    A word of caution. Classical music is also in decline in the West. To become a performer requires huge devotion and dedication to a highly refined art form. Outreach to encourage millenials to attend concerts or even to take up a classical instrument might also need to take into account their peculiarities as a group, but the performers on stage will still need to have utterly devoted themselves to their genre, in an un-millenial manner for the requisite thousands of hours in order that a performance might take place. Access into Torah must be meaningful and easy, but in order for the teacher to speak with an authentic voice they will need to have transcended their millenial ambivalence and to have devoted themselves to particularist mastery.

  12. Dr. jane West Walsh says

    Thank you, Rachel. Your voice exudes the heartfelt passion of a Jewish leader. You have outlined a series of challenging observations about who sits beside you, both figuratively and actually, in the field. One gloss: in the end, no one wades into the waters of Jewish leadership and stays the course without the capacity to create, re-create and renew a variety of meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and living for themselves, and the communities in which they live and serve. Life transforms us all. I look forward to learning with and from you in the years to come.

  13. says

    A wonderfully expressed article and a very important point to be made and illuminated. Clearly you’ve touched a nerve to receive so many enthusiastic and thoughtful comments. An additional reflection to draw out from your article:
    I hear you describing TWO axes. One, depth or length of Jewish education. If the majority of those designing Jewish educational experiences assume values, background, context, home life in which they were raised, there’s bound to be a disconnect. And two, generational differences.

    Perhaps we’ve gotten away with #1 for many years because #2 wasn’t such a strong influence. But today the differences between millennials and baby boomers (who represent a decent portion of organizational leadership both locally and nationally) are strong enough that #1 and #2 compounded are quite serious. I have shared your observations and believe that we as a community of professionals and leaders must be better listeners, observers and reality-checkers in order to achieve our own goals, as well as those of the people we wish to serve.
    Thanks for this important piece, and I look forward to the next in the series!

  14. Alan Woronoff says

    I hope that the author responds to these posts. Ms. Cori, you raise valid criticisms of the establishment–in my opinion, similar to criticisms in the Jewish and American political world raised in the last half century.

    What is missing for me is: How did you engage? What was your life change? Why did someone so self-admittedly non-engaged and disinterested become a masters student and author?

    I think the institutions that you refer to, Jewish day school, Hillel on campus, Jewish youth groups, Jewish camps–all have been shown to have a positive effect on Jewish identity, but there is never a linear model that leads directly to Jewish leadership. (Those things don’t hurt, though). How do you propose building interest among the Millenials who otherwise are disinterested, assuming the majority of people you describe don’t have those backgrounds.

  15. says

    Hi everyone! Thank you so much for your thoughts and feedback. I’m extremely grateful and humbled that people are interested in my perspective. I’ve been thinking about writing a conclusion to the series that explains a bit more about how I went from unengaged Jew to Jewish professional. I believe other questions raised by this piece will be addressed throughout the series, so please stay tuned!