By Yoni Heilman
As the country recovers from what, by any measure, was a stunning political upset, one question stands out perhaps more than any other. How did we not see this coming?
Despite the ongoing email scandal and the shifting momentum, nearly every poll had this election in the bag for Hillary Clinton. How did the media get it wrong? How did the pollsters get it wrong? One emerging answer is that we, as Americans, don’t understand ourselves as well as we had thought. What we think, how we feel, what we believe. Blame it on polarization, blame it on social media, but the bottom line is that we don’t really know who we are.
Taglit-Birthright has been running for 17 years now, and has sent more than half a million young adults on a free trip to Israel. Those participants have returned to the U.S. with a fire in their bellies, talking about the trip that ‘changed their lives’…and yet, 17 years later, the Jewish community is still struggling to provide ‘follow-up’ programs that keep the fire burning. Many organizations are doing incredible work post-Birthright, but it’s safe to say the Jewish community has not been inundated with 500,000 enthusiastic college graduated. What don’t we get? Why can’t we create sustainable engagement using the momentum of a life-changing trip?
Maybe, just maybe, we don’t know these Millenials the way we think we do.
A recent Pew report on American Millenials reveals that they are less likely to engage politically, or affiliate religiously, than any other generation. So when we try to build on Birthright’s momentum using religious identity or political advocacy, we’re only going to be partially successful, at best. At worst, we will look back and realize we were simply speaking the wrong language, and when the dust settles and the next community report comes out, we’ll wonder how we never saw it coming.
The good news is that we are starting to get it. A look at some of the fastest-growing projects shows a new approach: we need to stop asking ‘how can we make Millenials want what we want?’ and start asking ‘what do they want for themselves?’
Organizations like Moishe House use young adults’ need for housing as a means to provide them with opportunities to create meaningful Jewish content. Many alternative minyans and learning circles are thriving because they are built and managed by their own constituents.
It is no different in college. TAMID Group, where I am privileged to work, puts programming control in the hands of the students. Or more accurately, we never wrested it from their control, since students started the organization in 2008. Their goal was creating sustainable connections to Israel among the next generation of business leaders, and they did it by creating programming that gives students top-level business training as they prepare to launch their own careers. Eight years later we are on 34 campuses, engaging 1700 students and preparing for the 30 more campuses in our pipeline. We have no political agenda and no religious affiliation – a sizeable percentage of our students are not Jewish – and we are forging new and stronger connections to Israel across the country.
Despite popular culture’s focus on Millenials, we are still a People that values tradition and respects legacy. But amidst all of the talk about senior leadership and their impending wave of retirement, we must also spend time thinking about how the Millenial generation – our future community leaders – will engage with us.