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Generation map

Sociological theory offers lens for synagogue renewal

Who are the people in your synagogue?

Perhaps more important, who are the people not in your synagogue?

One way to answer those questions is to divide the population into groups. According to one school of sociology, the best form of grouping is by year of birth. Because they share formative experiences, the theory goes, generations share recognizable characteristics.

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Arlene Holtz discusses generational theory as it relates to synagogue life, Monday evening at JFNNJ. Courtesy Arlene Holtz

“There are four adult generations at the table,” says Lisa Harris Glass, director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative. “Each is so unique. How do we as synagogues address their needs?”

This question will be the topic of a program Monday night, Sept. 12, put on by the synagogue initiative, which is a program of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation.

“Our whole programmatic push this year is about meeting people where they live and understanding their differences,” said Glass.

Presenting on the generations will be Arlene Holtz, a retired middle school principal who works with Philadelphia’s Jewish education agency. She learned about generational theory while researching a seminar on the American Jewish family. “I came to see that there are currently – for the first time – four generations alive and members of synagogues,” she said.

The oldest generation, she said, is “The Silent Generation.”

“These are the grandparents, people who were alive during the War,” she said referring to World War II.

Larry Yudelson
What: Table for Four. A Synagogue Leadership Initiative workshop for synagogue leaders, lay and professional, to learn what makes each generation tick, what they want/need/like, and how to serve them.

Where: Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, 50 Eisenhower Drive, Paramus

When: Monday, Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m.

Then there are the “Baby Boomers” – born from 1946 to 1964; “Generation X,” born 1965 to 1979; and the “Millenials,” born from 1981 to 2000, the oldest of whom are just turning 30.

“Understanding who these four generations are gives a different lens, a different way of looking and seeing who the people are who are in our synagogues, and who are not in our synagogues,” she said.

Holtz said that synagogues are not made up of people “in a big whole. There’s different kinds of people. Programming that might appeal to Boomers might not appeal to Millenials and vice versa.

“For example, Xers and Millenials are much less interested in formal institutional affiliation and worship. They do identify strongly as being Jews, but are much more interested in informal, non-institutional kinds of worship. A challenge is to understand what is it they’re looking for. How do we hold on to the Silent Generation and Boomers who are still members of our synagogues, and also create programing attractive to the Xers and Millenials,” she said.

Holtz said that the preferences of the younger generations are not simply a reflection of their youth. “When a Millenial ‘grows up’ and becomes 45, 50 years old, they won’t become like the Boomers. I’m a Boomer. As I grow older, I’m not growing into becoming who my parents were. I continue to have my Boomer identity with me throughout my life. So the chances are that Xers aren’t going to ‘grow up’ and change.”

She said that in her Philadelphia synagogue, the impact of the post-Baby Boom generations can be seen in a “multi-age alternative service that started out in the basement. So many people have come to the alternative service that it has moved to the main sanctuary. What the Boomers and Silent Generation may have loved in terms of the beautiful High Holy Days worship service, maybe the younger people are more attracted to a much less formal service, where the choir is not trained voices, but of anyone who wants to sing, and the accompaniment is of everyone who wants to play an instrument, and they don’t care if the kids are running down the aisles.

“What I think is key, is to ensure that each of these generations is represented on the synagogue’s ritual practice committee. It needs to have Millenial and Xer voices. That’s the challenge. If you don’t have the Millenial and Xer voices represented, how are you going to have the programming that attracts and engages them?

“You can’t go so far into the other side that you lose the older members of the synagogue. They’re crucial too. Everyone counts. Everyone matters.”

She described a hypothetical example of a synagogue which surveyed members about Friday night services. On the whole, a majority liked them as they were. If the results were to be broken down according to generations, however, they would reveal that the Millenials uniformally hated the choir.

“That’s the strength of using this kind of lens in thinking about a synagogue,” she said. “The challenge is how do we keep our synagogues vibrant for all our generations.”

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