Jews Not in The Pews

by Rabbi David Singer

No shortage of keystrokes have been typed and thoughts pronounced these past two weeks about the Pew Study of American Jews.

Many of the survey’s findings show what we’ve known for many years – that Millenials are increasingly jaded with religion and uninterested in accepting some of the base assumptions of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Yet the Pew Study also shows that the Jews most “proud to be Jewish” are those aged 18-29.

What do we make of the chasm between these two sets of findings?

From my perspective, it reminds us that young Jews are far from disinterested in our tradition and community. Judaism is still quite important to all Jews, regardless of age. Rather, Millenials are increasingly skeptical of accepting many of the pretenses that so often stand in between them and an authentic engagement with Torah and the Divine – the structures and definitions of community that have worked for us for decades, but no longer seem to make sense to them.

That is what we’ve found building Makom, a young spiritual community in Dallas, this past year. Sponsored and incubated by Congregation Shearith Israel as a hub for experimentation and imagination, Makom takes the synagogue out of the synagogue, empowering Jews to build open, traditional Jewish life on their own terms. In one year we have built a community that has transformed the lives of countless people and engaged more than 700 individuals in our unique take on Jewish life.

What is radical about our work is its straightforward simplicity. We don’t engage in gimmicks to lure Jews into our community, like some Machiavellian trap. Nor do we treat them like children, hoping to employ them in some form of adult youth group. Rather, we speak directly to the hearts and minds of our peers, inviting them to join us in the holy work of meaning-making, life-celebrating, and community-building.

This has taken much courage: courage on the part of our participants, who have ventured into the unknown to follow the promise of being able to connect to their deep spiritual yearnings. Courage on the part of my synagogue, Shearith Israel, to lead the way as a traditional synagogue supporting this venture of engagement and outreach. And courage on the part of everyone who has worked so hard to build Makom, to re-imagine what is possible in Jewish community in the twenty-first century and then work tirelessly to pursue that vision.

But it’s not rocket science. We didn’t invent something particularly novel. We just translate Judaism and Jewish aspirations into a language that our peers can understand.

Millenials are just as in need of meaning, connection and spirituality as anyone else. And they are more proud to be Jewish than anyone else. If they have not found their way into our pews, then the Pew Survey teaches us that we must bring the pews to them, and be prepared to dramatically re-imagine what a pew looks like as we do.

Rabbi David Singer is Associate Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, in Dallas, TX, and the Founding Rabbi of Makom