As a perennial and regular worry, the Jewish community has had few concerns rivaling “continuity.” Our recent history in America has been relatively unmarked by anti-Semitism, and while this is a positive, its absence has contributed to a communal obsession with continuity.
From young leadership programs to Birthright, outreach programs have been engineered to keep the younger generations connected. Yet the organized Jewish community, by focusing on continuity, is doing the community a disservice. Rather than focusing on giving the younger generations the tools to define their involvement and their identity — empowerment and enfranchisement — the vast majority of the organized effort has been geared toward retention and replacement.
Jewish young adults are not interested in being talked at. No amount of Jewish-themed bar nights, holiday-related parties, or outreach classes will successfully recruit the next generation of leaders and followers in a community that doesn’t serve their needs. Jewish young adults want Jewish community on their terms. Independent minyanim, Moishe Houses, urban kibbutzim, Birthright Next Shabbat dinners, local peer groups such as the Morristown-based Jersey Tribe — these are the kinds of programs and new models of organization being pioneered by Jewish young adults.
The motivating factor for far too many “establishment” programs is, sadly, refilling seats — that is, grooming “young leaders” to one day assume important positions in existing organizations and bureaucracies. That is not an attractive proposition for most young adults. What they want is meaningful empowerment now, not in 20 years.
Enfranchising young people means investing in Jewish life, perhaps using the micro-investment model already in use in the larger not-for-profit and corporate world. Micro-investing means offering relatively small but meaningful investments to young Jewish entrepreneurs who are already engaging their peers in pioneering ways. These, in turn, can serve as springboards to reach and empower new and unaffiliated young Jewish adults.
The organized Jewish community need not reinvent the wheel but work through partnerships to expand already successful ventures. For example, while federation Young Leadership Divisions are having a hard time reaching Jews in their 20s, Birthright Next’s program Next Shabbat has been reaching thousands in that group. This program allows alumni to hold a Shabbat dinner once a month with the financial support of Birthright Next. Alumni must preregister on-line and are reimbursed up to a certain dollar amount for the program after providing either a picture of the attendees (or, if they are shomer Shabbat, their contact information).
Next Shabbat empowers young Jewish adults to create the type of Jewish experience and community they want to be a part of. Birthright Next branches offer non-invasive support by holding regular Shabbat practice dinners several times a year on weeknight evenings.
The organized Jewish community has a huge role to play in young adult Jewish life but only if it is willing to focus less on retention and replacement and more on engagement, empowerment, and enfranchisement. The young Jewish leaders pioneering Jewish community on their own are going to continue to do so without institutional support — but they shouldn’t have to.