By Rabbi Rami Schwartzer
and Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal
A Jewish Wedding
Michaela and Jeremy (names changed for privacy) want a Jewish wedding, but they have no idea why or what that means. Both in their late-20s, they were born into Jewish families in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. Michaela was minimally involved with BBYO while in high school and spent a summer or two at a camp with a subtle Jewish flavor. In a later interview, it emerges that Jeremy has never seen a shofar, heard one, or known its association with the Jewish New Year.
But they want a rabbi to marry them.
At the recommendation of a “friend of a friend,” Michaela and Jeremy first approached a local congregational rabbi to officiate. This often happens – couples approach a rabbi in a congregation, but they don’t live close by (this demographic often doesn’t live out in the suburbs), have no prior connections to the synagogue, and little interest in an ongoing relationship to synagogue life or membership, at least until they have children.
Of course colleagues and synagogues want to create that ongoing connection, and sometimes they do. But more often the wedding is joyful, and then the couple disappears, “hiding in plain sight” among other “post-college, pre-family” young Jews who are not attracted to suburban synagogue life.
But in this case, rather than officiating at the wedding and saying farewell, the synagogue rabbi was happy to refer Michaela and Jeremy to the community’s new engagement rabbi who is out in the community specializing in connecting with this population.
Our Community’s Answer: The Jewish Millennial Engagement Project (JMEP)
This was possible because, in recent years, a group of Conservative rabbis in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. realized that we had to find young Jews where they are and help them connect with a rabbi, with each other, and with an authentic and meaningful Judaism in their own neighborhoods. Rather than waiting for them to “find us when they’re ready,” we sought to be available to them in the ways they already are ready, creating a method of substantive Jewish engagement that offered a parallel opportunity, different from a traditional synagogue.
Further, we realized that rather than continuing to believe that each of our synagogues could be “all things to all people,” we needed to collaborate, and see synagogue life as part of an ecosystem in order to fulfill our vision of bringing our brand of Torah learning, living, and meaning to this next generation of Jews. As rabbis and congregations, we have a mission to serve Jews of every life stage. And what’s more, when this generation is ready to engage synagogue life, we need to learn as much about them so we can be ready to embrace them.
And so, the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project (JMEP, though only a corporate name, not a street brand) was born. We formed a partnership of nearly a dozen local congregations. And then we brought on additional funding partners, including USCJ, Camp Ramah, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. These partnerships caught the interest of generous local funders and foundations. Finally, our first iteration of our work has been powered by our partners at Base Hillel.
Embracing Disruptive Change and Innovation
Much of JMEP’s methodology grows out of Rabbi Mike Uram’s work at Penn Hillel and the Jewish Renaissance Project, described in his book Next Generation Judaism. Uram brilliantly describes a project that could seem unique to a college campus and then extrapolates principles that are replicable in other Jewish settings. Our team in greater Washington found tremendous insight in Uram’s distillation of his method, and realized that we are living in practice at least three of his major principles of engagement:
1. There is more than one way to be Jewishly engaged
Uram reminds us that organizations evolve to serve a core constituency with perfection and efficiency. Our synagogues tend to serve a specific population with excellence – families with children, or those seeking a traditional worship experience, or those seeking specific educational programs – what Uram calls “empowerment Jews,” already having some knowledge of or commitment to Jewish life. But that very excellence and specialization makes change particularly difficult, and the millennial generation is far more diverse in their Jewish identity, knowledge, and commitment.
In particular, Uram asks us to think about what he calls “engagement Jews,” those who aren’t knowledgeable, confident, or interested enough in Jewish life to come looking for a Jewish community. Uram stresses that require a different approach than legacy institutions (Hillels and synagogues alike) typically provide to “empowerment Jews,” and that engagement approach must be based less on programs and more on relationship. Our engagement rabbi, unencumbered by a program calendar, daily minyan, weekly sermon, or synagogue operation, is available to devote nearly 100% of his time to cultivating and nurturing these sacred relationships in an effort to educate these engagement Jews.
2. Disruptive Innovation is Inevitable
It was a tough realization for our synagogue partners that many of us had tried and failed to engage this demographic in a sustainable and fulfilling way. Geography, lack of critical mass, and a sense that current synagogue culture was not a great match for this group seemed like insurmountable challenges to overcome. As rabbis and congregations, we know we have a Judaism that is dynamic, passionate, and capable of creating powerful Jewish experiences. But how do we change ourselves to engage this next generation?
Uram argues that what he calls “disruptive” change is inevitable – the only question is whether organizations can see it coming (think about what happened to Kodak when photography moved to your smartphone) and adapt. But existing customers value current products and resist new initiatives. Instead he notes Clayton Christensen’s argument that for truly deep change, organizations need to create a separate operating unit, one that has funding and freedom to fill a need that is otherwise too difficult or even painful to create in house. That unit might eventually survive post-disruption as the future of the entire enterprise (think Dayton-Hudson’s giving birth to Target), or might generate the lessons needed to change the legacy institution.
JMEP represents this kind of effort to embrace, rather than resist, disruptive innovation. To develop the necessary resources, the answer was a response not just by one congregation, but by a larger partnership of dozens of congregations along with movement partners, the local Federation, and philanthropists. The hope is that by creating relationships, inspiring community, and building Jewish knowledge and expectation, this next generation will be drawn into synagogue communities. And meanwhile, we will use JMEP to understand these young Jews, and start to make the changes necessary to be communities they will be drawn to if and when they seek out a “legacy” synagogue.
3. Aim For Impact
Much of synagogue life is about the numbers – is membership growing or shrinking. But we measure JMEP’s success on the strength of the network and the Jewish profile of each client. Our director tracks each interaction he has with a client (using a highly customized Salesforce database), and the connections they have with each other. We don’t just want to see growth in the number of Jews we interact with; we’re interested in the strength and meaning of their connection with each other and with Jewish life.
A refrain we hear often from our clients is, “I know where the Jewish programs are in D.C. The problem is I never feel they help me make new connections to other people or to Judaism.” Instead, a JMEP interaction usually begins over coffee (or a drink) with the director. It continues over a Shabbat dinner with a small group in the director’s home, or Torah study in an intimate weekly beit midrash, or a Hebrew reading class, or biking group, or community service project. Each experience is recommended based on what we learn about the client.
This person-by-person, interaction-by-interaction approach is diametrically opposed to the 1960s synagogue model of institutional efficiency (one clergy member for 300 households, and programs that are successful if large numbers attend). Detractors remind us of its high personnel cost and labor intensity, but we know that it’s just a matter of spending differently, not spending more. Given our shift to personal user metrics, we know the impact of every dollar on each client we reach. An investment of this kind will undoubtedly return to us an understanding about this population as they age and stage into our future kehilot.
A JMEP Success Story
In the end, Michaela and Jeremy had a meaningful Jewish wedding with a rabbi they will continue to know and learn with, and a community in which they are now fully engaged. They participate in a small learning group in their rabbi’s living room, and celebrate Shabbat with new Jewish friends. And when, God willing, they are ready to have children, they’ll have a Jewish home to share, and be ready to find their next synagogue home as well.
Rabbi Rami Schwartzer is the Community Rabbi of this new project, and the Director of the Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington, D.C.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal serves as founding rabbi of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and is an advisor and board member for the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project.