[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 Beth Cousens
This is a personal story, but it’s not about me.
I grew up in a thick Jewish community. On any first days – of school, of camp, of youth group – when I would come home and tell my mother who I met, she would inevitably suggest that I knew them already from JCC Mother-Toddler or preschool or kindergarten religious school. When I went out to dinner during college breaks I could count on seeing someone I knew from camp or youth group. There was always a Hanukah Roll special on the board at the sushi restaurant. There were three grocery stores any of us shopped in for Passover and the pre-seder reunions in the store aisles were as important as the seders themselves.
These communities still exist. At the same time, a variety of forces – the housing market, intermarriage, globalism, sheer economic opportunity – have pushed more Jews than ever away from thick community. Our bonding capital, Robert Putnam might say, is lessening. The experiences that bring us together are slipping away.
I’m evidence of that. I live now in Bavel, in San Francisco, a place that has rich Jewish opportunity but little thick community. My son sees no Jewy Jews on the street, not even Jews walking to shul on Yom Kippur. There’s no sushi named for our holidays. The challah tastes funny, when we can get it. He will become close buddies with non-Jews at his Jewish pre-school. None of that is bad, but the Jewishness is not palpable.
What I’ve learned from leading Federations in Millennial engagement (Boston, Detroit, Northeastern New York, Chicago, Vancouver, Los Angeles, among others) is that reweaving Jewish community is possible. It takes anchors and architects – educators and other professionals who are paid to do this work, volunteers on an outreach team. It takes all of us acting as Malcom Gladwell’s connectors, “bringing the world together,” getting over the awkwardness of introductions to make them, constantly, making sure that at any Jewish event – I’m making this up, any metric will do – we make ten new introductions. It takes our having event after event that builds new micro-communities, bringing small groups of people together for deep conversation, scheduling a get-to-know-you coffee with a recent college graduate and bringing another recent graduate along, inviting a few newly married couples of mixed religious backgrounds for Shabbat dinner and giving them lifelong friendships (as well as a group of peers that can support decision-making about Jewish life). It takes an emphasis on relationships, on quality, not quantity.
And what I’ve learned is that Millennials care; they’re open to engaging, maybe even eager to engage. With these connections, they see people they know in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. They read the Jewish newspaper, looking to recognize names. The grocery store and the mall become Jewish experiences. They begin to feel at home, a sense of belonging. They come to know Jewish community in their kishkas.
Feelings of belonging are intangible but they aren’t without cause. That is, we can’t touch them, but we can influence them, literally tying North American Jews back together. We probably won’t all learn Yiddish or revert to Philip Roth’s Newark, but we can know each other. Maybe that’s all we need.
Dr. Beth Cousens is the Associate Vice President of the Jewish Federations of North America.