A different view of millennial engagement …
By Rabbi Jim Rogozen
My daughter lives in Berkeley, California (yes, that Berkeley, the one where hippies used to, and some still do, roam). Over a couple of visits during her grad school years, I witnessed a thriving Jewish life in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus. My daughter’s little shtetl hosts a variety of shuls and minyanim that attract a real mix of participants, some connected to the university, most not.
To get a sense of Jewish life in her neighborhood, I’ve accompanied her to services at a few of the locations on her regular Shabbat rotation: Netivot Shalom (a Conservative synagogue), Congregation Beth Israel (an Orthodox synagogue), Minyan Dafna (a traditional egalitarian independent minyan, no Rabbi), and Urban Adamah (an educational farm and community center).
As a Jewish educator and Rabbi, I cannot attend a shul or minyan without stepping out of my role as a visitor and putting on my educator (or, unearned, social anthropologist) hat.
Before going to these places I had assumed that everyone would be young. After all this was a college town. Another assumption was that each minyan would attract a narrow, homogeneous slice of the local Jewish Population. Here’s what I found:
Contrary to my expectations, both the established congregations and the minyanim had members of all age groups (including the much-worried-about “millennials” – many of whom came from very different backgrounds and approaches to Jewish life).
There were other commonalities among the venues: a relaxed dress code, friendly people, published start times that were only suggestions (“Berkeley time”), lots of good food, with attention paid to health, allergy issues, and food justice, and a sense that all-kinds-of-Jews were welcome.
All venues attracted a good number of highly educated people, many of whom, but certainly not all, had attended Jewish Day Schools and Jewish camps, and had spent time in serious Torah study (and continue to do so). Given the educational background of the participants, it is no surprise that an important part of their mission includes Jewish learning. The Divrei Torah (sermons) and study sessions I experienced were wonderful. While they weren’t academic dissertations, they assumed intelligence and knowledge on the part of those in the audience; even more, they “stretched” people. In fact, what they had in common was a shared understanding that the participants wanted, and were able to, wrestle with their Judaism in an attempt to make it more modern and engaging, as well as egalitarian (in ritual as well as in learning and leadership). Related to that, each minyan encouraged discussion of, and practices supporting, individual spiritual journeys.
Throughout the U.S., communities have been trying to connect with millennials through the back door: events that have some kind of hook, but little Jewish content. These prayer experiences, by definition, were more “content” oriented. Except for Urban Adamah, the other shuls and minyanim followed a very traditional liturgy and involved some Torah study.
The service we attended at Urban Adamah was different. There were few traditional prayers; instead there were niggunim, stories, periods of silence and a meditative walk around the “farm” area. This was also the only venue in which prayer leaders used a guitar. The service started very early and we left well before Shabbat began so I don’t know what they did after we had left. I was told later that their practice is to let people know in advance if they will be using musical instruments on Shabbat. The other shuls and minyan don’t use musical instruments.
Beyond the prayer components, two of the groups have an additional, ongoing focus that is supported by programming, readings, and sermon content that are often connected to a theme. Urban Adamah is front and center about food, sustainability, and ending food poverty, while Netivot Shalom emphasizes social justice.
While there was a continuum from professionally led to completely volunteer led services, each of these places relies heavily on volunteers to make Shabbat and holiday programming happen. Due to their Jewish education and background, my daughter and her friends are often called upon to lead services, read Torah, and conduct Torah study sessions. On the one hand, this is what they know and what they want for their Jewish life. Nevertheless, given the number of outside interests, and the lengthy work commutes to San Francisco and the South Bay that are common among Berkeley residents, this level of volunteerism is impressive.
Another common element deserves special notice: To a great extent, the atmosphere and “programmatics” of each space are carefully planned, or curated. For instance, one minyan’s leadership meets regularly to ensure that every detail of their services and programming matches the group’s founding mission and vision. In all of these synagogues and minyanim, attention is paid to aesthetic sense, architecture, and strategies for structuring and nurturing community, with much effort made to include those who might not otherwise be included.
Because these are not large organizations, and the surrounding “davening ecosystem” is quite varied, there is little temptation to “do more and be more,” or to “be everything for all people,” the key factors that lead to mission drift. While other Berkeley organizations provide different programs and services, such as Wilderness Torah’s commitment to spirituality and nature, the places I attended focus on Shabbat services and a few other key activities. Their size and mission help them concentrate on the programmatic “sweet spot” that keep people connected.
Here are a few “big picture” takeaways from my brief exposure to the Berkeley community:
- Berkeley’s strength is in its diversity. “Radical acceptance” of all is rooted in the city’s history and allows for communities to genuinely embrace all who enter their doors. Hakhnasat Orkhim (welcoming others) is in the air and is multigenerational.
- Berkeley’s shuls and minyanim promote a Judaism that thinks about things critically, asks the tough questions, and has room for opposing viewpoints on key areas of Jewish life.
- The ever-replenished number of young people attracted to this area keeps the community on its toes, both in terms of being welcoming, as well as ensuring that programming continues to engage newcomers and “veterans” alike.
- The organized synagogue community recognizes this and has been supportive of new efforts. Rather than being scared that it would take away members, Netivot Shalom embraced Minyan Dafna, to the benefit of both groups. This interconnectedness is a good fit for the Jews of Berkeley who tend to want a primary shul but also look to a variety of places to meet their needs
There are some “on the ground” takeaways that other communities might learn from:
- Shuls cannot be all things to all people; they need to stick to a mission/vision. In our time everyone, not just millennials, is a consumer and will pick what works for them.
- Key activities, in addition to being aligned with the mission/vision, need to be planned out carefully, and executed well. People are looking for experiences that are consistently impactful and moving.
- People, especially millenials, are more likely to give their time to an organization that takes its programming seriously. When people have so many ways to get involved, organizations need to show they value the people who want to connect with them.
- Professionals and volunteers must share a vision for their synagogue or minyan. They must also shoulder the responsibility for their organization, as a team. People value, and are inspired by, commitment
There is a great deal of anxiety about keeping millenials connected. This had led to much experimentation and innovative programming. Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of each organization doing less, but doing it better.
Rabbi Jim Rogozen is the Head of Schools at the Galinsky Academy, an integrated system comprised of Day School, Preschool, Religious School, Hebrew High, Youth Programs and Day Camp, at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. He is the former Chief Learning Officer at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.