Using Our SMARTs to Engage Jewish Millennials
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 17 – Engaging Millennials with Jewish Peoplehood What Does It Take? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By No’a Gorlin
In her article, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk” (The New York Times, 26/09/15), Professor Sherry Turkle points to evidence that technology’s ubiquitous presence in our lives today has led, among other phenomena, to a decreased ability among people to converse meaningfully. The result: two individuals meet for a face-to-face meeting, but only touch on subjects that can handle frequent interruptions. “They don’t feel as invested in each other.”
How does this affect the internalization of Jewish Peoplehood among millennials? In my experience working with young Jewish leaders around the world, I have learned that none of us are strangers to the fact that in today’s over-stimulated world, we need to consciously designate specific time slots for work, exercise, family, volunteering and culture. Finding the extra time and mind space to explore the abstract notions of “Jewishness,” “Jewish Peoplehood,” or how one connects to these personally is an even greater challenge.
The problem is clear. But what is the solution?
Successful young leaders demonstrate that the solution lies in learning to make Jewish exploration fit within the jigsaw puzzle of today’s carefully crafted lives. Taking the tried-and-true SMART model from the professional world, this simple acronym may be the key to working with the millennial generation as it navigates its Jewish connection.
Specific. Break down the intangible objective of “connecting to the Jewish people” into tangible tasks. Rather than putting out a general call to create a more relevant Jewish community, challenge your audience to create their own Passover Seder that their friends would enjoy.
Measurable. One needs only to glance at a smartphone to understand that today’s leaders like to see immediate, measurable results. Why not frame Jewish engagement similarly? Build touchpoints to Jewish life and community as increments that can be reached, achieved and checked off with confidence. Took part in a community service day? Check. Understand the meaning behind Tu B’Shvat? Check. Hosted a Shabbat dinner? Check.
Attainable. We are all part of a generation of achievers and are motivated by a sense of purpose and the promise of progress. Therefore, we can expect our connection to the Jewish world to follow a similar pattern. We must shift our thinking from an all-or- nothing approach, and instead internalize the notion that connecting to one element of Jewish community at a time is not only possible, but can be seen as progress. If you are an environmental activist who feels connected to the Jewish community through the lens of Jewish environmental texts, you’re off to a great start – and, for some, Dayeinu.
Relevant. Whether you are a scientist, a painter, an LGBTQ activist or all of the above, it should not be impossible to find opportunities to explore your Jewish connection in settings that jive with your diverse worldviews and interests. Are you passionate about human rights? Attend a panel discussion with leaders from the top Jewish human rights advocacy organizations. Are you a devoted chef? Join a cooking workshop and learn how to fuse traditional Jewish foods with current culinary trends. We must learn – and demonstrate – that our Jewish identities and our other identities can interact in meaningful ways.
Timely. The rabbis of the Talmud made a case for setting aside regular times for studying Torah (Pirkei Avot 1:15), lest it fall off of our to-do lists. This principle is no less relevant today: a call to become more generally involved in the Jewish community is much more difficult to answer than a call to attend this year’s Purim celebration. Opportunities to participate in Jewish communal life should be time-specific and time-bound to fit with the jam-packed and highly structured agendas that are so common today.
Over the past few years, ROI Community and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation have created tools for millennials to create grassroots experiences for themselves and their peers to connect Jewishly in fun, relevant and meaningful ways. Shabbat and holiday celebrations have proven to be particularly effective starting points for millennials to connect to the Jewish narrative in a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely way.
There is a Jewish adage that explains that even more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. This ancient custom of weekly “pauses” has helped the Jewish people maintain a sense of peoplehood throughout the generations. In our case, I see “Shabbat” not only as the traditional, weekly Sabbath, but as the metaphor for taking a pause from the daily grind of the digital era to connect to one’s family, one’s community and one’s Jewishness, in order to explore the more abstract notion of Jewish Peoplehood. This understanding should guide us as we explore ways to engage Jewish millennials with Jewish Peoplehood: create “pauses” – from Birthright trips to Jewish values-based conversations at the Friday night dinner table – that young people can relate to due to their 21st century relevance and their SMART design. In so doing, millennials will connect to their Jewish roots, and they will lead by example, ensuring Jewish continuity for generations to come.
No’a Gorlin is the Associate Executive Director of ROI Community, an international network of activists and change makers who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens. ROI Community is an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.