[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 17 – Engaging Millennials with Jewish Peoplehood What Does It Take? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Sarah Eisenman
It all comes down to the problem.
In many ways, the Jewish community has defined the problem of engaging millennials as young people themselves. We are obsessed with getting them involved and through the door.
If instead we related to them as the solution, not just by having them “show up” for our events, but by sharing with them the essential challenges of our people – challenges they can help us overcome – we might be closer to futureproofing Jewish life. Their talents and vantage points are perfectly matched to complex issues rising from a new era in Jewish life.
At JDC Entwine, we’re catalyzing a rising generation of Jews to see global Jewish responsibility as a cornerstone of their identity. Having built a growing platform connecting with 15,000 young people to date, we’ve discovered three key truths:
Jewish Service is How to Build Jewish Peoplehood – Young people want to volunteer and have direct impact. We want them to see that Jewish peoplehood is not just a value, but an action. Service combines them and demonstrates first-hand the power of Jewish mutual responsibility.
By taking part in immersive service programs, stretching beyond their comfort zone, and learning about the Jewish values that underpin volunteerism, these young people move beyond the individual, feeling the impact of being part of a collective bigger than any one of us. All of a sudden participating in Jewish life becomes about being part of a solution to real-world problems.
Seen and Not Heard, No More – Ninety-eight percent of our alumni return home more committed to the Jewish people and eager to engage in their local community. More compelling, over a third of trip applicants had no current Jewish involvement. Clearly, service programs are inspirational, creating a new wonderment for the Jewish people.
But what comes next?
Bring them aboard; integrate them into our leadership structures, and not just as observers.
We have to acknowledge that young leaders in the Jewish community are often in a perpetual cycle of training, not necessarily placed in the central leadership roles they are capable to take on.
We must put them at the table and provide them a critical mass within the leadership body of the organization. This can be challenging given minimum giving requirements, but we cannot let that get in the way.
This year, after changing our organizational by-laws, JDC, a large, legacy Jewish group, will welcome fifteen young adults in their 20’s and 30’s on to our Board of Directors. All, but one, are alumni of Entwine’s service programs and they will put their commitment to global Jewish responsibility to work.
We need to calm our Jewish particularism nerves – In building a young adult movement centered on global Jewish responsibility, we weren’t sure if this generation cared about Jewish life or an organization largely supporting other Jews. Maybe this notion was passé?
We found something very different. By and large, they do care about uniquely Jewish issues, just as much as universal ones. But two facts proved essential: first, they know far less about specifically Jewish concerns, so a major investment in “knowing” is critical. And two, they care deeply for other Jews but not at the exclusion of others.
So if we want to foster Jewish peoplehood among them, we need to support their commitment to their people and the wider world. If we wish to foster a commitment to the Jewish people, we must lead with the unique and special responsibility that Jews have to other Jews. Lead with it – do not shy away or qualify – yet do not criticize their dedication to other people. And instead, help them frame this Jewishly too. With more than 3,000 young Jewish adults volunteering globally through our programs, and more to come, we have learned you can do both.
So let’s tell them clearly: the Jewish people do have a unique responsibility to each other and yes, our tradition calls for us to care for humanity. There is nothing wrong with that, and surely there is room and need for both.
Start there, put Jewish responsibility into action, and before you know it, they have found their people, and not just themselves.
Sarah Eisenman is the Executive Director of JDC Entwine and JDC Assistant Executive Vice President.