Growing New Saplings of Jewish Life

by Renee Rubin Ross

This weekend, as we celebrate Tu B’shvat, the “birthday of the trees,” we would do well to look to the world of trees to think about how the Jewish world is growing and changing. An individual tree follows a cycle of birth, growth, and eventual decay. Each tree continuously sends out small shoots nearby that eventually replace the older tree. The survival of a forest depends on each tree’s individual growth, and its ability to send out seeds that will create a new set of trees that survive and thrive in the current conditions.

What’s the connection between Jewish life and those trees? In my opinion, while we work to help those 500-year-old redwoods grow taller, we should focus on the forest floor as well. Jewish life will thrive with vitality and joy as saplings, or new forms of Jewish life, are planted and nourished.

In 2013, there is evidence that traditional pathways of religious school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, confirmation, young adulthood, starting a family, synagogue affiliation and Federation giving are not as relevant to many Jews as they once were. Marriage and starting a family happen much later, if they happen at all. Jewish families exist in diverse forms. The number of individuals contributing to Federation annual campaigns has declined steeply in the last decade. Fewer Jews are synagogue members than in the past, and a lower percentage of Jews in their 30s and 40s are synagogue members as compared to Jews in their 50s, 60s or 70s[1]. This change mirrors broader trends: a recent survey found that 16% of Americans now identify themselves as “unaffiliated.”

These traditional Jewish institutions and the conventional pathways of Jewish life represent the tall trees of the forest. Here is the challenge: on the floor of the forest, a next generation of Jews feels distant from what is happening above. This generation has tremendous energy to build, create and grow. The question is whether their energy will go toward the creation of and participation in both new and traditional forms of Jewish life.

So where does this leave those of us who are invested in (and invest in) the Jewish future? Some would argue that the goal of Jewish education is to bring Jews back to traditional pathways of Jewish life. Using this criteria, we measure the effectiveness of educational initiatives by the degree to which they foster affiliation with Jewish institutions.

But another possibility is that young Jews feel little commitment to follow traditional pathways. While we might still imagine that “one day down the road” these Jews will marry, join congregations, etc., this ultimately may no longer be the case for some.

If we acknowledge that many Jews may not be moving toward formal affiliation with synagogues and other traditional Jewish organizations, what kind of measures should we use to imagine success in Jewish education? I think two evaluation studies conducted by the Jim Joseph Foundation in the last few years provide new frameworks for defining success.

First, the evaluation of Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educators/Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (SJE/CEI), conducted by Research Success Technologies and Ukeles Associates, examined the relationship between contact with a Senior Jewish Educator or Campus Entrepreneur and Jewish Growth. Jewish Growth encompasses participation in a Jewish learning, organizational, or Hillel activity. It also encompasses “Jewish ownership,” which means that participants reported the importance of having Jewish friends, a strong sense of Jewish belonging, a desire to be involved in Jewish life after finishing college, seeing Jewish traditions as relevant to one’s life, and that Jewish values guided their life choices.

Second, the evaluation of Moishe House explored residents’ and participants’ desires to learn more about Judaism; to take a leadership role in Jewish life; and to envision their own future as one in which they planned to celebrate Shabbat/holidays, observe traditions, raise Jewish children as well as get involved in organized Jewish life (synagogue, federations, etc). Moishe House’s vision of success is inspiring young Jews and helping them begin to decide how they want to express their Judaism, whether this means joining a synagogue, involvement in Federation leadership, home-based observance, or forming a havurah.

In other words, as we work to define what constitutes success in different Jewish educational initiatives, we are looking closely at whether the experiences planned encourage participants to seek out personally meaningful connections with Jewish life; to take agency in becoming active in Jewish organizations; and to be open to developing leadership skills that young adults will use interacting with other Jews who come together around shared interests.

Some would argue that this is all very vague: without a clear connection to synagogues and the organized Jewish community, what will continue to hold us all together? Interestingly enough, with increasing frequency, traditional institutions are now conceptualizing their success in ways that go beyond tracking membership numbers. The forward looking synagogues and Federations are taking a close look at the quality of experiences they provide and the degree to which those experiences foster increased participation in the institution and Jewish life more broadly. Not surprisingly, innovative synagogues and Federations are paying attention to the new forms of vitality and creative Jewish expression on the forest floor, and putting systems in place to capture and nourish that expression within their institutions.

For me, this all relates to the energy of that next generation and what they strive to create and accomplish. Does it go towards building a havurah, planning service learning events or creating some yet-to-be discovered form of Jewish participation? There are conditions that we can put into place and values to articulate to cultivate the success of these varying forms of Jewish life. What works for the newer saplings of Jewish life may look very different than what came before. But I would assert that they deserve our care and encouragement just the same.

Renne Rubin Ross, Ph.D., is a Program Officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States.

This is cross-posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation blog.

[1] Ira M. Sheskin, Comparisons of Jewish Communities: Synagogue Membership. Berman institute-North American Jewish Data Bank, 2012.