By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky
Big Tent Judaism initiated a study in Summer 2016 to learn more about the experience of being Jewish among Jewish millennials, and to better understand how this population demonstrates its connection to being Jewish. Because this population appears to be elusive and hard to reach, any inquiry into this population is important. The study defined experiences broadly to include anything that a Jewish millennial does that makes her/him feel Jewish, including beyond the “traditional” ways of being Jewish such as going to synagogue, keeping kosher, or celebrating holidays.
The study included a combination of quantitative methods and qualitative methodology. The quantitative portion of the study included a set of multiple choice and scaled item questions in an on-line survey of nearly 600. The study included a series of open-ended survey questions conducted primarily as an optional section of the quantitative survey as well as one-on-one interviews conducted by staff members of Big Tent Judaism.
We intentionally limited the length of these (questions and) interviews since we knew a priori (as evidenced in the literature on this population) that time was a valued commodity for these millennials. All of the findings are available at bigtentjudaism.org/millennial-engagement-in-the-jewish-community-2016/
In addition to the nearly 600 on-line surveys, we conducted 75 in-depth interviews in-person, as well as on the telephone. In many cases, the respondents were the same as those who participated in the on-line survey and volunteered to participate in a follow-up interview. On-line survey data are included in the quantitative report. In the reporting of the in-depth interviews, we are interested in the (mega and micro) trends that are reflected in these in-depth conversations. It is difficult to draw a set of universal conclusions about engaging this generation. Nonetheless, there are many lessons that we learned. These insights extend our knowledge beyond the previous boundaries, including those made public in recent research studies and reports. Our research also provided us with the opportunity to make suggestions to Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders as to how to engage the millennial population, as well as the benefits of doing so.
These are the trends that emerged from the in-depth interviews that should be highlighted:
- Whether they are more engaged by the community than their peers or more distant from it, the complaints about the Jewish community from those who are engaged are often the same as criticisms from those who are not engaged in the community. This is also true of their suggestions for how to engage more people among the millennial generation.
- Even among those who are actively involved, and those who are proud to be Jewish, they have experienced times in which the Jewish community has been unwelcoming to them. These experiences make them more cautious about further engagement with the organized community and its institutions.
- The millennials who participated in our research project often described themselves as grappling with contemporary Israel and with American social justice issues. This is an important reflection of the time period in which they were born.
- Even for those who are Jewishly active, they may not describe themselves as being spiritual or see Judaism as fulfilling their spiritual needs.
- Beyond time and cost, there were two items mentioned by almost all of the respondents: the synagogue and the organized Jewish community are not adapting to meet the expressed needs of the generation. This is a particular challenge as the generation finds itself in the historical trajectory several generations away from the immigrant experience of American Jews.
- Those things that they identify as being Jewish represent a wide panoply of activities and are generally not confined to taking place in one institution. Even those who are active Jewishly have episodic connections with numerous institutions. This is even the case among those who are dues-paying members of an institution.
- The respondents tend to consider themselves more actively Jewish than might otherwise seem obvious by their responses. Thus, measurements for engagement must be expanded, especially beyond the organized Jewish community.
- While respondents tend to mark Jewish time (holidays and the like), they are more likely to do so outside of the institutions that are part of the landscape of the organized Jewish community. This is a trend that we see in other population segments, as well, but it seems more pronounced among millennials. There may be some leakage from one generation to another.
- Like other generations at this point in American Jewish history, this generation has difficulty trying to define the notion of Jewish community – as well as its relation to it.
- Family-of-origin (that is, their Jewish upbringing) and their Jewish education contributed to how they now feel about being Jewish. But they couldn’t really identify what is essential to being Jewish or acting Jewish.
- An inclusive Jewish community (the welcoming of a variety of subgroups including those who are LGBTQ and those who have intermarried) is an important condition for participation for many respondents.
- Since millennials have limited discretionary time, help them to understand the benefit of participating in the community or in a program. (Make sure you understand the benefit first and can articulate it.) This will allow them to spend their expressed limited commodity of time more wisely. A subset of this issue: cost may be a factor, but the cost benefit is even more important and must also be shared with them.
- Provide them with opportunities for leadership. Don’t make them earn it over time. If you choose to wait, they will find these opportunities elsewhere or build their own institutions (i.e., start-ups, independent minyanim and the “emergent communities”). And make sure that authority accompanies responsibility.
- Stop privileging members over those who want an episodic connection with an institution or program or a group of institutions or programs. This will help increase their feeling of belonging.
- Offer alternative membership models for those who seek it, recognizing that many will not want it. But without such alternatives, you will not be able to reach them at all.
- Discontinue social mixers as a primary programming model. Single millennials are looking for more from the Jewish community than social mixers, but they may be looking for social events. Similarly, there is a gap in programming for millennial couples who do not have children. Of special note: there is an increasing number of single mothers-by-choice who may require special program attention.
- Provide a context – and safe space – for civil discourse regarding Israel.
- Partner with other community organizations (outside of the Jewish community), especially those with a social justice agenda.
- Provide them with opportunities to actually experience the Divine rather than just talk about it or assume that traditional vehicles accomplish the task. For that segment of the population who are humanists and do not believe in God, affirm that belief as legitimate and authentic (since Judaism has always been more interested in what people do rather than in what they believe).
- Like other population segments, millennials are more likely to access Judaism at holiday time. While some may be in close geographic proximity to their parents, and others will return “home” for the holidays, many will celebrate with their local friends rather than travel to be with their family. Thus, use the holidays as a primary vehicle to reach them – in informal contexts with their friends. Encourage them to get together with friends and provide them with program support and resources to do so. But don’t push them into traditional modes of observance and participation.
- Be transparent. This generation abhors the lack of transparency prevalent in some Jewish institutions.
While there is no guarantee that the application of these strategies will bring more millennials into engagement with Judaism and the Jewish community, it is quite certain that without the implementation of these strategies, we run the risk of losing a large segment of this population, perhaps an entire generation. There are many forces in the world that are pulling at them. And if we push them away from the Jewish community through inaction, or with an unwillingness to change and adapt to meet their expressed needs and observed behaviors, then the various forces pulling at them will be made even stronger. And we will be diminished as a community as a result.
Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism (formerly Jewish Outreach Institute).