By Rabbi Joshua Rabin
Millennial engagement is the hot topic of conversation in the Jewish world, as professionals and lay leaders worry about whether or not the emerging generation of Jewish adults will invest in the Jewish future. Frankly, this communal concern is well founded. Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber write in Generation We that millennials are 21% less likely than previous generations to join an organized religious institution, and 33% more likely than to express personal spiritual beliefs outside organized religion (p. 195). These numbers cannot be reversed through financial investment alone; rather, these numbers require that Jewish organizations shift their millennial engagement strategies by rethinking their definitions of engagement.
I am a millennial Jew, and I work at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), a legacy organization in existence for over 100 years. Like most legacy organizations, it is a challenge for the professional and lay leadership at to think strategically about millennial engagement. However, when over 1200 participants convened for five days this past November at Shape the Center, USCJ’s biennial convention, over 450 of those participants were between the ages of 18-35, over 25% of the total attendance. Half of those millennials never set foot inside of the hotel, but were engaged through the convention team’s coordinated strategy to offer a myriad of opportunities for engagement and leadership development.
This accomplishment was primarily the result of a strategic partnership formed between USCJ and OneTable, a startup organization that empowers millennial Jews to take ownership of the Shabbat experience by hosting and attending Shabbat dinners in all kinds of locations. In addition to leading intensive millennial engagement opportunities at the convention, OneTable and USCJ partnered to run #ShapeTheTable, a mashup hashtag of OneTable’s name and the tagline of the USCJ Convention. On Friday night during the convention, 250 millennials in the Chicago-area participated in a series of hosted Shabbat dinners – a chance for OneTable to showcase it’s incredible work in the Chicago-area, and for USCJ to model a paradigm shift for what it means to engage the under-engaged.
1. Millennial Engagement: From Consumers to Activists
While many Jewish organizations say they want to increase millennial engagement, the strategies for accomplishing this goal make a certain set of assumptions about what it means to participate, where a person must participate, and why millennials choose not to participate in certain organizations, particularly synagogues.
In fact, Jewish organizations are not the only organizations that need to rethink the assumptions of millennial engagement. In Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, George Barna and David Kinnaman of the Barna Research Group, a think tank that does polling and research on evangelical Christians, found that only 11% of the “unchurched” consider themselves completely disassociated from the church; what Barna and Kinnaman call “prodigals” (p. 90). In contrast, the majority of unchurched are either “nomads,” people who dropped out of organized religious life because they wanted to experiment with other spiritual pathways, or “exiles,” people who feel disconnected from the church because of a specific conflict with organized religion, such as an evangelical church’s stance on evolution or abortion.
The key takeaway from this research is that most people not engaged in religious life are on a journey without a clear destination. By extension, this research also reveals that with strategic investments, organizations can find a way to route the under-engaged towards religious institutions that speak to them and meet their needs. That being said, many Jewish organizations miss the opportunity to be a stop on that journey because they assume that engagement is a zero-sum game, as opposed to a long-term investment in a person’s evolving Jewish self.
Regarding millennials specifically, Kari Dunn Saratovsky and Derrick Feldman argue in Cause for Change that increasing millennial participation requires that nonprofit organizations “move individuals through a path of discovery to become content consumers, then activists for a cause, and then ultimately influencers who encourage their own social networks to jump into the virtuous cycle all over again” (p. 22). This requires years of financial investment for any organization, yet Saratovsky and Feldman argue that a financial commitment alone is not sufficient. Ultimately, an organization that optimizes the role of millennials will transition millennials from a “consumer mind-set” to one where they see themselves as “creators of ideas, experiences, and solutions for an organization” (Ibid.). Millennials will not invest in any organization if they only see themselves as consumers; millennials need to be co-creators.
2. #ShapeTheTable: Our Organizational Partnership
For many Jewish professionals and lay leaders, OneTable’s work is a radical departure from how they think about what it means for an individual Jew to enhance his or her engagement. Prior to the USCJ Convention, OneTable recruited millennial Jews in the Chicago-area to serve as Shabbat dinner hosts for peers and friends who may or may not have any connection to Conservative Judaism; all that mattered was that these Jews could find a way to own their Shabbat dinner experience. OneTable hosts were then matched with a Shabbat Coach who worked with them to discuss all aspects of the dinner, from the menu to ritual. Jessica Minnen, OneTable’s Resident Rabbi, says that, “Our most effective partnerships are with organizations that see the potential the Shabbat dinner table offers. It is an entry point that allows emerging adults to become the active producers of their own Jewish experiences, rather than passive consumers of a Judaism that someone else is producing for them.”
OneTable’s approach to millennial engagement transforms millennials from content consumers to co-creators. “The Shabbat Coaching process is about asking questions and exploring who you are and what you care about,” Minnen explains. “Every Friday night we see someone realize for the first time that they can do this: they can end their week with intention, they can create a Jewish space that is value-driven and authentic and entirely theirs.” On the Sunday of the USCJ Convention, the rest of the participants were able to learn about these Shabbat dinners in a workshop led by OneTable staff, Shabbat coaches and hosts, showcasing #ShapeTheTable to people who can learn a great deal from the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) spirit of OneTable’s mission.
For USCJ, this partnership anchored a holistic millennial engagement strategy to engage different constituencies with different levels of intensity throughout the USCJ Convention. While over 250 millennial Jews were enjoying Shabbat dinner with the support of OneTable, another 50 millennials attended an alumni event sponsored by United Synagogue Youth (USY), USCJ’s youth movement, and another 150 millennials were inside the hotel as presenters and creators who helped the entire convention vision a thriving future for Conservative Judaism. The participants inside the hotel had opportunities to join the rest of participants in all of our programming, yet they had special opportunities to vision how our synagogues can better embrace the needs of the emerging Jewish future with members of the USCJ Staff and professionals doing innovative millennial engagement work in Conservative synagogues.
Creating a virtuous cycle of millennial participation requires different orbits of engagement, where each kind of participant feels connected to the Jewish community from his or her vantage point, at that moment in time. USCJ still has a long way to go to ensure that the tremendous strides made this past year will no go to waste, but the partnership formed with OneTable provides a powerful model to utilize going forward. If the Jewish community wants future generations of Jews to dwell together, then it needs to reframe the assumptions about who feels “in” and who feels “out” of Jewish communal life, and see the many shades of what it means to be engaged or disengaged. When it does that, Judaism will become a wide table, one that makes space for all the Jews who do not even realize the possibilities of what Jewish community can mean to them.
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.