What Young Jewish Adults Want

As we grapple with the opportunities presented by new technology – and particularly with how we use it to reach young adults – we should be guided by their desire for more accessible information about what we offer.

listening-with-headphonesby Joelle Asaro Berman and Marci Soifer

How can we know what young Jewish adults want?

If we want to get serious about answering this question, we must create as many opportunities as possible to listen to (and learn from) them.

In this spirit, we’d like to share what we discovered by listening to Birthright Israel alumni throughout the process of designing NEXT’s recent High Holidays Initiative. These lessons are relevant for anyone working to engage young adults in Jewish life.

Lesson 1: Don’t create programs for young Jewish adults. Instead, help them create their own.

For our 2013 High Holidays initiative, we offered resources for Birthright Israel alumni to craft their own Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experiences for their friends.

More than 300 Birthrighters signed up to host holiday celebrations for more than 3,900 of their peers! We offered them a full online toolkit, as well as a small subsidy to help cover the food for a Rosh Hashanah meal or Yom Kippur break-fast.

In turn, they created celebrations that reflected their own unique identities, interests, rituals, and peer communities:

“We began our time together with an hour of yoga in the yard to welcome the day,” says Jenni, a host from Colorado. “Then, we gathered and said prayers over the food and ate together. One of our guests brought a Torah and we read from it. We sat around for hours eating and talking about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and what part of our lives we want to elevate for the coming year.”

Katie, a host in Chicago, IL, shared that “bringing together trans people, straight people, queer people, people from across the spectrum of Jewishness (entirely unaffiliated to Modern Orthodox), former Birthright Israel participants, interested potential Birthright Israel participants, and plenty of people who fall into none or multiple of those categories resulted in wonderful conversation, song, and more than a few l’chaims.”

Jenni and Katie’s experiences show that Birthrighters deeply shaped their experiences and imbued them with the meaning that only comes when one creates something of one’s own. For some, the holidays represented an opportunity to sustain the connections and meaning they first experienced on their Birthright Israel trip; for others, it helped them build new communities where they live that genuinely reflect who they are.

When developing programs intended to engage young adults, start by inviting them to the table. Create a space where they can explore authentic expressions of their Jewish identities, and then help them bring their ideas to life. Offering them your support – be it infrastructure, influence, mentoring, funds, resources, venue space, or access to your network – will give them the opportunity to realize their vision for Jewish life in partnership with those of us who can make it happen.

Lesson 2: Technology is not a goal, it’s a tool. Let your users shape it.

In addition to empowering Birthrighters to create their own holiday experiences, we also wanted to make sure they could find and access all of our community’s myriad High Holiday events and celebrations. So, we developed an interactive map that helped them sort through more than 550 opportunities in 45 states.

This year’s High Holiday events map was the latest incarnation of a tool that we’ve been experimenting with since 2011. During pre-launch user tests, Birthrighters expressed their desire for more information about each event, as well as a way to search the map’s events according to a varied list of their own preferences.

In response, we created a richer filtering mechanism, enabling users to find opportunities at synagogues and independent spiritual communities, as well as holiday dinners, break-fasts, and learning opportunities. This – combined with filters that indicated LGBT-friendly events, egalitarian services, and Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform worship options – resulted in a 120-percent increase in usage compared to that of last year’s map.

As we grapple with the opportunities presented by new technology – and particularly with how we use it to reach young adults – we should be guided by their desire for more accessible information about what we offer. Invite them to test your product while you’re still designing it, and create as many opportunities for feedback and learning as possible.

When you see trends in their feedback, it’s likely that other potential users will share that feedback as well. The more flexible we can be about adapting our products to our users’ needs, the more successful we’ll be.

Lesson 3: Jewish life happens in the company of friends, or at least a familiar face.

User tests of our High Holiday events map also revealed that young adults want to connect with their peers before they ever walk in the door of a Jewish event. In response, we built a new feature on the map that enabled them to easily share event information on Facebook and Twitter, allowing users to find friends who might also attend. We know that this is only the beginning of how to enable young adults to build these connections.

In a survey given to map users after the holidays passed, respondents expressed a desire to connect directly with others (even strangers) who planned to attend the same events, as well as the professionals and organizations hosting the actual events. These were the two most popular suggestions we received for future iterations of the map.

When we welcome young adults into our communities, we must find ways to start building one-on-one relationships between them before, during, and after events. We must also reach out and introduce ourselves with the intention of following up, learning more, and building a more familiar bond. The more we facilitate these relationships, the more willing young adults will be to walk in the door, and invite their own friends as well.

The Next Step

You can start by asking a few of the more than 280,000 Birthright Israel alumni here in the U.S. how they want to connect to Jewish life. You could be the key to helping them channel their curiosity and energy into something radically new and exciting.

When we listen, learn from, and foster deeper relationships with young adults, a more sustainable and vibrant community will emerge – one that becomes less about what “they” want, and more about what we can build together.

Joelle Asaro Berman is the communications manager at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Marci Soifer is NEXT’s assistant director of Learning Networks.