[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 James Jacobson-Maisels
Young Jews have switched the center of their Jewish lives from the focus on identity in earlier generations to a focus on purpose and meaning. This can be seen in the fact that, as the Synagogue 3000 study reports, “For Jews, younger adults are more spiritual and more religious than their elders.” The authors continue:
These patterns are remarkable not just because they run counter to the general patterns among non-Jewish Americans, where old out-score young, but also to the patterns for Jewish identity among American Jews discovered elsewhere (see, for example, Uncoupled by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman). In virtually all recent research on American Jews, we find that on most measures of behavior and belonging, younger Jews trail older ones. That is, younger Jews report lower levels of Jewish association (marriage, friends, neighbors), Jewish affiliation (organizations, synagogues, federations, etc.), and Jewish ritual practice (e.g., observance of holidays). The exception is Jewish spirituality.
Young Jews are unwilling to affiliate or to care about the Jewish People simply from a sense of belonging. For them to care about the Jewish People, they need to understand why the Jewish People should matter to them. They need to understand how their participation in Jewish life can be meaningful, powerful and transformative. This is not only born out by the data but is my experience in over a decade of teaching Jewish spirituality to students at Or Halev: A Center for Jewish Spirituality, The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Yeshivat Hadar and other institutions.
While a sense of ethnic identification may have sufficed for earlier generations, millennials demand that we show them what Judaism has to offer on their quest for meaning, purpose, self-realization and connection. Their path to care about the Jewish people is through being part of concrete communities of practice that allow them to experience how Judaism can be powerful for them. They will need to live out the potent ways of living and being that Judaism has to offer, that will make them feel part of this project called “Jewish peoplehood.” This is why immersive experiences, such as those provided on meditation retreats or prolonged beit midrash study, are so crucial. They must be given a way to integrate their everyday life and experience into their Jewish lives. Their passion, connection and commitment will not come from assumed identification and belonging, it will no longer be primarily ethnic or tribal, but will come from a sense of purpose and vision, of being part of a life and world transforming practice. This is the reason, I believe, that both spirituality and social action/tikkun olam are becoming increasingly popular and important to young Jews’ Jewish lives and identity. They both provide young Jews with a sense of purpose and mission, a vision that Judaism offers of what it means to be a person in the world, and a meaningful way to live out that purpose.
If we want young Jews to care about Jewish peoplehood, we have to show them that being part of this project is meaningful, purposeful and vital. We need to show them how it can transform their lives and the lives of those around them. We have to provide them with concrete modes of spiritual practice that speak to their passions and needs and help them to find a home in their tradition that will engender a passionate commitment to that home and its preservation. Or HaLev gives our participants a taste of this passion on our mediation retreats. Through deep practice, we create a space where we can touch the fullness of our humanity while grounding ourselves in Jewish tradition. It is immersive experiences like these that engage millennials in the project of Jewish peoplehood.
Rabbi Dr. James Jacobson-Maisels is the founder of Or HaLev: A Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation. He teaches Jewish thought, mysticism, spiritual practices and meditation at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Haifa University and Yeshivat Hadar.