Showing our True Selves to Young Adults

We will disappoint ourselves and millennials if the only invitation they receive from us is to perpetuate what has been.

By Andrew Fretwell

Questions are the core of our Jewish experience, and thus, to the way we teach and engage. Last month, Rabbi Zac Kamenetz spoke to the need of placing essential questions at the center of BBYO’s educational framework. Questions also frame our personal Jewish journeys; for us professionals who help guide young Jewish adults on their Jewish journeys, the essential question we must address is: How do we ignite millennials to step into the role of Jewish change agents?

Jewish change agents are Jews who have worked within and beyond the Jewish community to create a world more closely aligned to their ideals. This is predicated on the meta-essential question that cuts across Jewish text and thought: How ought this world look, and how do we get there?

The results of asking and then acting upon this question are community building and inspired social change. Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, recently spoke about our radical, change-focused heritage and its relevance today. We are fortunate to look back on a strong chain of those who have wrestled with bettering and changing the world, from Moses and Esther, to Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Milton Friedman and Ben-Gurion.

For millienials, the opportunity to join in this tradition is one of our most compelling invitations into Jewish life. Pew shows that American millennials rate “helping others in need” the third most important thing in their lives, bested only by “being a good parent,” and “having a successful marriage.” Repair the World’s study on young Jewish adults’ volunteering attitudes and habits from 2011 reinforces that they see service to others and the world mainly through a universalist, as opposed to Jewish, lens. So how do we – the people doing this engagement work – step into this as a Jewish tradition and guide millennials to join us?

To help them claim their heritage as change makers, we must serve as “ishiot l’dugma” (“one to be modeled after”) to them and bring our most authentic selves to the table. To check for this authenticity, let’s ask ourselves the following “gut-check” questions:

1. What is the world I envision versus the world I see?

We cannot invite others to change themselves, their community, or their world without our own vision and vocabulary for what constitutes a “better world.” We can throw around the term tikkun olam (repairing the world), but it’s ultimately a Rorschach test, reflecting how we prioritize values. We become better able to engage others in Jewish life when we are able to clarify and constantly re-evaluate our own answer to this question.

2. Where and how is my Jewish community bridging that gap?

If we want to invite millennials into the Jewish community to create change, that invitation is only meaningful if support for that change can be found within the Jewish community. What resources and networks are supporting the change that you’re working toward? It’s on us to know what is at our disposal: networks, funding, existing change-making efforts, leaders, and whatever else we need.

3. What am I doing personally and professionally to bridge that gap?

All change starts as a personal decision. If achieving change is not something you consider when making daily decisions, find a more compelling or achievable vision. The more organically we can integrate our personal ideals with our professional work, the more compelling our engagement efforts with millennials will be. Those who work for cause-based organizations have the opportunity to focus on specific issues; those employed by communal institutions like JCCs, synagogues, schools, camps, or independent minyanim have the opportunity to model a “better world” on a micro-level.

These gut-check questions challenge us to clarify the project – the opportunity, the community – into which we are inviting young Jewish adults. Answering them requires seeking out new experiences, knowledge and insights. But doing so in itself is a reward and enables us to put our own skin in the game and present an authentic vision of the Jewish community to those we seek to engage. We will disappoint ourselves and millennials if the only invitation they receive from us is to perpetuate what has been. We will succeed when we ask to them to join us in forming a personal vision, connecting with similarly motivated peers, and increasing our agency to impact the world around us.

Andrew Fretwell is the New York Community Activator at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. He welcomes your questions, comments and ideas at