By Dahlia Bendavid
The Jewish community is constantly trying to figure out how to engage the next generation in terms of their Jewish identity, Israel, in-marrying, donating to communal institutions, raising Jewish families, and connecting to community.
Rightfully so. This group is our future. If we want to ensure a strong Jewish community 10, 20, or 30 years down the road, we need to make sure the next generation – whether they are teens or in their twenties or thirties – are connected in some manner to their Jewish community. Many realize this group will not engage with traditional Jewish institutions. They have multiple identities and being Jewish may be only one of many and a lot of thinking is going into trying to meet the next generation where they are.
A lot of energy, focus and funding is directed to the young adult population, offering low cost or minimal participation fees from participants. Everyone is searching for the magic formula to engage Millennials, Generation Y-ers and Generation Z-ers.
Maybe it is connecting young adults to Israel/Jewish identity with a free trip to Israel. There is a free 10-day trip through Birthright Israel for those age 18-26 and more recently for those age 27-32. There is Honeymoon Israel, a nine-day trip for young couples 25-40, or highly subsidized trips to Israel through Onward Israel for college-aged students, just to name a few.
Maybe it is a cheap place to live and have gatherings for your friends and social network. There is Moishe House for young adults in their twenties offering subsidized housing for putting together peer programing or One Table for folks in their twenties and thirties to either host or experience Shabbat dinners where they can “step back, connect with others, have moments of mindfulness and enjoy great meals on a Friday night.”
Maybe it is involving young adults through service opportunities. There is Repair the World which, “makes meaningful service a defining element of American Jewish life.” These are all wonderful and important programs. Each has a goal and seems to be successful. Many are helping young Jews explore and develop a Jewish identity, meet others their own age and find a sense of community.
These are just a few national and international programs. In addition, a lot is being done in individual communities trying to target the next generation of young adults, whether it is through a federation, JCC, synagogue or other local program. In Miami there is The Tribe for young, Jewish professionals, or YJP Miami.
What is interesting is that so much effort is focused on the next generation, that those age 45+ seem to be a forgotten constituency. According to the American Jewish Population Project, 63% of American Jews are over the age of 45. There isn’t a whole lot of investment in this older group. While those over age 45 may have younger kids, many have kids that are finishing high school, or are off at college or are empty nesters. It seems this is a missed opportunity on many levels. Many in this population may have been involved Jewishly when their kids were younger and they may not have that same connection anymore. No bar/bat mitzvah lessons, no more frequent synagogue attendance in preparation for a life-cycle event, no family Shabbat dinners since the kids are either going out with their friends or are away for college or have moved out of the house, no Jewish communal social gatherings targeted for this group.
It seems that living a Jewish life is easier if one has children living at home. Holiday programming and celebrations seem to be geared to families, and more so for those with younger children. If one is single, divorced, or widowed, or not a parent, one can feel excluded. From my personal experience, I have found that being divorced and an empty nester makes it much harder for me to feel part of a larger Jewish community. I have many friends in a similar situation; they often ask me why don’t synagogues have Shabbat dinners for those that are empty nesters? Why doesn’t federation have programming for singles that are over 50 and only have singles events for those under 40? Why do the volunteer service opportunities target families with children or young adult professionals?
From a communal perspective, maybe we should be paying more attention to those asking these questions. I am sure some synagogues, though not all, do have programs geared toward those over age 45, in particular singles or empty nesters. There are also many people that are not affiliated with synagogues, especially if they do not have children living at home with them or have never had children. Those in this demographic are often at a successful stage in their careers, have a professional network, have the time to engage and get involved with different organizations, and may have the disposable income to be investors in our communities. We should be trying to engage and connect this group with their Jewish identity. This group did not have tons of resources focused on them when they were younger. Birthright did not exist and neither did many of the other programs that exist today.
The average life expectancy of adults in the US is almost 79 years old (76 years old for men; 81 years old for women). Many people live well into their 80’s and 90’s. Many seniors face mental health issues, loneliness, or social isolation. Thank goodness there are some programs like congregate meals sites or senior programming that help seniors retain a sense of community. What if we try to create a sense of community for people while they are in their mid-life and they get to broaden their social network and are able to do so Jewishly? If they develop a network, find a way to connect and remain connected to the Jewish community, maybe they won’t need as many services when they age.
There is so much talk about inclusion in the Jewish community. What about making those over age 45 feel included? The Jewish community has a lot to offer and in return can benefit from engaging those that are not necessarily parents of young children. Of course, it is difficult to meet all the needs in a community, especially when financial and human resources are limited for many of our Jewish communal organizations. Ensuring the future of the Jewish community is of key importance. One way to enhance life for many in the Jewish community would be to offer programs geared at those that belong to the 45+ demographic that has been neglected since most everyone is focusing on the next generation.
Maybe these programs do exist and I am not aware of them. I would be interested in hearing if your community outside of a synagogue is doing anything in this area.
Dahlia Bendavid is the Israel and Overseas Director of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. She is 45+, but doesn’t look a day over 40.