We should be helping young adults build points of Jewish connection for themselves.
by Rachel Cort
I started out this series with the observation that many Jewish professionals who seek to serve Millennials look significantly different from their target audience. As I was writing this series, I revisited Reboot’s seminal 2006 report on Jewish identity and community “in a time of unlimited choices,” and I was struck by a passage from the report that discussed why the young adults surveyed and interviewed said they were unlikely to participate in Jewish institutional life: they felt judged for not being Jewish enough, reported having negative experiences with people involved in Jewish experiences, and felt intimidated by the barriers to participation presented by the insider language and liturgy of institutional Jewish life. At the same time, these young adults felt proud of their Jewish heritage and continued to identify as Jewish. Last year’s Pew Report echoes this finding, and my own experiences working with Jewish Millennials on campus is also consistent with it.
As such, Jewish professionals have a tremendous opportunity to build new and different types of Jewish experiences for these young adults, who seem to be interested in Judaism even as they largely reject Jewish institutions. But in order to do so, Jewish professionals interested in engagement work must develop a different complement of skills. As a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future (which is developing a formal professional education program for Jewish innovation leadership) over the past two years, I have been able to develop such a complement of skills and refine them into a program that I believe has a wide application for Jewish professionals. The most frequent question I received while publishing these pieces was what these competencies actually look like in practice. I’d like to take some time here to write about how my organization, jU Chicago (a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future), incorporates these competencies in our work with college students.
First, using disruptive innovation as a theoretical framework for talking about how radical, paradigm-shifting changes come about helped me understand and refine the work I was doing to engage Millennials at jU Chicago. Understanding unengaged Millennials as a distinct market allowed our small nonprofit develop a vision for programming and helped us understand how to best allocate our limited resources. It has reminded us to constantly return to the defining question: Are our programs serving an existing market, or an entirely new market of unengaged Millennials? If the answer is the latter, we know we’re on the right track. The disruptive innovation model has also reminded us that we don’t have to do the same things as other campus organizations; in fact, it’s actually better if we don’t. So we don’t put our resources towards owning a building, or making weekly services happen, or enforcing ritual or kashrut policies, because right now the students we work with (unengaged Millennials) don’t need those things. Instead, we’ve focused on ways to enrich and empower a cohort of student interns to build Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers in off-campus apartments and dorms. We’ve also focused on creating surprising, delightful, public and occasionally irreverent “remixes” of Jewish holiday experiences.
Design thinking is a competency that builds on the framework of disruptive innovation by demanding that we get specific about the needs and viewpoints of the new market we seek to serve. Design interviews are practiced by staff and and student interns alike, and insights and observations about student needs and behavior are gathered and shared with regularity. This has deeply influenced jU Chicago’s organizational culture, which places the student experience before institutional needs. Our large-scale experiences are created using design thinking, and we also devote a full quarter to teaching our student interns how to be design thinkers. Our student interns build and lead small communities, an experience that catalyzes them as Jewish leaders with un-traditional Jewish backgrounds. Design thinking gives them the tools the create meaningful and high quality Jewish experiences for themselves and for others.
Design thinking cannot happen without collaborative teamwork, and that is why improv, a ritualization of the collaborative process, is the third recommended competency. I found improv to be transformative in terms of my ability to listen, stay in the present and build on the ideas of others. All these things are incredibly important for generating a flow of ideas and have been internalized as an organizational value at jU Chicago. We’re a small start-up without a lot of room for error, so learning how to think together as a team to overcome challenges is critical to our survival. Staff members have taken improv classes and student interns have participated in improv seminars taught by gifted instructors from iO Theater. Future Fellows at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future (INJF) will receive improv training as part of their fellowship training.
As mentioned previously, it’s very important to have unengaged Millennials on our collaborative teams. Their voices and perspectives provide an essential counter-balance to the tendency towards institutional self-preservation that often manifests itself in Jewish programs. Unfortunately, unengaged Millennials can be quite difficult to find and, well, to engage with. A facility with relationship-based engagement and an understanding of how networks operate has helped us connect with Millennials who would otherwise be “missing” from Jewish life on campus. Investing in relationships with unengaged Millennials and connecting them to one another can also do what straightforward institutional programming often can’t: build a series of empowered, loosely-connected small communities that constitute a dynamic Jewish network, and that draw in even more unengaged young Jews from the margins.
Understanding the needs of unengaged Millennials is important, but understanding the capacity of our tradition to respond to those needs is also important. This is where “traditionally radical” Jewish learning comes in. Such learning views Torah, Talmud, Jewish history, philosophy, and rituals not as systems that bind us, but rather as raw materials with which to build new modalities of Jewish life. Jewish learning may be a familiar trope in Jewish life, but what makes this type of learning truly different is its radical perspective, the outsider sensibility of those who practice it, and its ability to turn those outsiders into “players” who see themselves as having as much stake in the Jewish future as any insider. All INJF Fellows participate in a weekly Bet Midrash run by Rabbi Benay Lappe, who has spoken to and taught our student interns as well.
The five competencies I have described above are fractal. They are present at every level: in how we train our student interns, in our organizational values, and in our approaches to engagement. They are present in the curriculum for INJF Fellows, which I have had the great privilege to pilot and help develop over the past two years. These five competencies also constitute a system for positioning Jewish professionals to empower current non-participants in Jewish life. Some commenters have suggested the need to articulate a compelling rationale for engagement before Millennials (and other non-participants) will come on board. I don’t agree. This kind of thinking doesn’t resonate with Millennials, who have already shown that they reject “one size fits all” solutions and institutions. The question of “Why be Jewish?” is one that each individual must answer for him- or herself.
The second most frequent question that I received during the course of publishing these pieces was about my own personal experience getting involved in Jewish life as a young adult. Perhaps this is merely curiosity, but I also get the sense that readers want to figure out who or what to give credit to for my engagement, so they can say “X program worked.” I resist this, because what really “worked” was the opportunity to build the kind of Jewish experiences that fit me. I think this is the only lesson to be drawn from my personal experience: rather than articulating a reason we Jewish insiders think will convince Millennials that Jewish life is worth their time, or investing in one program that we think is a “silver bullet” for engagement, we should be helping young adults build points of Jewish connection for themselves.
Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.