The Coming Boom

by Audrey Lichter

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, Jewish communal energy is wasted on the young.

Attend any meeting – especially in the post-Pew Study era – and you will likely hear a good deal of talk about the vital importance of youth engagement. Professionals in this field are tasked with creating ever more innovative programming for millennials and funding initiatives that cater exclusively to Generations X, Y and Z.

“Next Gen” is suddenly the snappy, double-syllabic catchphrase of the age.

So pervasive is this belief that it often seems to me as if Jewish continuity – or the future of the Jewish community itself – hinged entirely on attracting the under-30 set.

Indeed, as I sat in a session on “Analyzing the Pew Study” at Limmud NY last week led by Dr. Steven Cohen and Rabbi Leon Morris, the woe-is-us-unless-we-engage-the-Next Gen theme was sounded. Dr. Cohen himself stated, rather dramatically, ”we should put all our community resources in making sure young Jews marry each other”

Having come to Limmud to promote my project, Chai Mitzvah, which focuses on adult engagement across the demographic and denominational spectrum of the Jewish community – serving college students at Northwestern University Hillel and a feisty 100-year-old woman at the McAuley Senior Home in West Hartford CT alike – I could keep quiet no longer.

I took issue with Cohen’s point publicly. “Yes, the youth are quite literally our future, but any society or group that neglects its elders is doomed,” I stated. “Any effort that so utterly fails to mine the gifts of the previous generation is hobbled or seriously handicapped.”

After all, who will influence the 71% of intermarried young people (outside the Orthodox community) whose children will need engaged and energized grandparents? Who will fund and create exciting and sustainable programs and serve as mentors and role models for the young, overextended, and exhausted young parents and young adults?

“Extend a hand in welcome to the youth, yes, but stand tall on the shoulders of those who are waiting to be of service. To do otherwise is to cultivate a compromised community,” I added.

Speaking my mind felt good and I resolved to do it more often. But my challenge to Cohen wasn’t just a personally cathartic experience. You see, after five years directing Chai Mitzvah’s growth from a handful of local groups into a global network built on the principles of on-going adult learning, spiritual growth, and social action, I am harnessing the energy of an idea whose time has come and sharing it with my community.

I see the Jewish future and it includes Boomers and Empty Nesters as well as Next Gen.

Stuart Himmelfarb, the co-founder of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform would agree with that assessment. Working together with David M. Elcott, Himmelfarb founded B3 on the belief, according to their mission statement, “that the intersection of Boomer engagement and generational connections has the potential to transform our communities – and help them deal with the challenges of the 21st Century.”

Himmelfarb’s thinking is in line with that of Scott Shay, who articulated the need for Jews to engage in lifelong Jewish journeys beyond their bar or bat mitzvah in his book Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry. The creator of Chai Mitzvah, Shay envisioned a turnkey, affordable, community-building project that is geared towards adults of every age, including that powerhouse demographic: Baby Boomers.

Since it was launched in 2008, over 1,000 adults have or are currently participating in this unique program. The program’s five major elements are: learning about their Jewish heritage, participating in new rituals, engaging in social action, joining community discussions on timely and important topics and celebrating their achievements at the conclusion of their 9-month course of study. We are currently working with over 60 congregations in 50 cities in the United States from across the denominational spectrum and in Canada, South America, and in 14 sites in Israel (under the name Masa Chai).

What the communal leadership is overlooking is the fact that adults with grown children generally have the time, focus, and perhaps even the motivation to transform Jewish community in partnership with the existing institutions. Working from within, enabled by the personal and professional relationships they have formed over decades, these adults are the ultimate Klal Yisrael vehicles of transformation, adept at Do It Yourself (DIY) makeovers and renovation.

Using our curriculum and materials, Chai Mitzvah is tailor-made for the DYI generation. While we provide the network and resources, Chai Mitzvah is intended as a grass roots initiative that can flourish anywhere – in synagogues, Jewish Federations, among interest groups such as writers, artists or environmentalists, or among friends. There is no complicated application process, overhead, or algorithm involved: whenever a group of Jewish adults come together, a Chai Mitzvah group can be formed… and we are working on building a virtual way of participating as well.

While Chai Mitzvah will continue to partner with individuals, Jewish communal organizations, informal chavurot and social groups, synagogues are our most logical partner institutions. Even in this post-denominational, post-membership, independent minyan era – synagogues are the organic home for our program, therefore, our goal is to have a Chai Mitzvah chapter in every synagogue.

For the immediate future, our mission is to inspire synagogues to adopt our program, becoming part of the global Chai Mitzvah network. While we have been working “retail,” “synagogue by synagogue,” our dream is for the large synagogue organizations – United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Orthodox Union, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Movement and Renewal or other such groups – to adopt Chai Mitzvah, putting it on the menu of member services already being offered.

After all, Chai Mitzvah was created not to compete with but to support their many exciting and innovative programs. Virtually cost-free, turnkey and community building, there is no downside… and everything to gain.

As the mother of millennials, I want the Jewish community to continue to serve my children and their families, developing important new ways to keep them involved. However, I wish that synagogues and the Jewish communal leadership could move beyond the myopic view that youth engagement is all-important and engage the passion and potential of the most powerful Jews in the Pews: the Boomers.

Audrey Lichter is the founder and Executive Director of Chai Mitzvah an innovative engagement program for Jewish adults founded in 2008.