We are losing the future.
We are losing millions of Jews right now — and other Jews, who are connected now, have a responsibility to find them and give them a chance at a meaningful Jewish future.
Even as Orthodox institutions continue to grow, and despite the noble efforts of many organizations, non-traditional Jews are disappearing rapidly.
Our synagogues are built for receiving worshippers, not seeking them out, and most of the established institutions have been rejected overwhelmingly. Most Jewish professionals I’ve spoken with think that without significant change within the next 15 years, those millions who have left us will not have anything to return to. Yet from under the rubble comes a most unique Jewish generation, and an opportunity: Millennials.
Millennials are people who have reached young adulthood in the early 21st century, which roughly translates to birthdates in the 1980s and 90s. They are a generation that is hard to characterize because they are rarely found in familiar places on the spectrums of identity, politics, and religion. Most millennial Jews don’t remember a time when Israel was a unifier, received little in the way of Jewish literacy, and were educated at a time when the lessons of Judaism and the Holocaust were increasingly universalized, so the most particularly Jewish platforms on which much of our institutional life is based do not support them.
Simply put, these are Jews who through no fault of their own have little motivation to remain connected and therefore need new pathways into the Jewish world.
Now the good news. There are hundreds of Jewish millennials who have chosen to build these new pathways.
I know this because in May I went to Brooklyn for Collaboratory2019, a conference hosted by UpStart, an organization that partners with the Jewish community’s boldest leaders to expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and how we come together. Whether someone is starting a new Jewish venture or reimagining what an existing one has to offer, UpStart gives them the entrepreneurial tools and network they need to build the non-traditional Jewish community of the future. This includes business, creative, and technical support both to new Jewish ventures as they get off the ground and to established institutions as they reimagine their offerings and adapt to the changing Jewish community. UpStart also connects organizations that are building the future of non-traditional Jewish life with funders looking for guidance as to where and how to invest in the growing network of initiatives.
UpStarts partners with ROI Community every year to put on the Collaboratory, and this year’s host convener was UJA Federation of New York. The Collaboratory attracted almost the full range of Jewish identification. One of the great challenges of such a gathering is how to make all participants feel comfortable despite the wide range of ritual practice. Of course the food at the conference was strictly kosher, but its organizers went beyond that minimum. For example, it was both sensitive and innovative that at the opening cocktail reception there was a well-displayed poster that offered lapel buttons offering four different options for greeting others, ranging from shomer negiah (no touching) to handshake to high five to full-on hugging. This is exactly the kind of inclusive sensitivity that our increasingly diverse community requires.
Among the sessions I attended three stand out.
The first evening was highlighted by CollabraStory: Why We Gather, which was led by Yoshi Silverstein of Hazon, an organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish life and contributing to a more environmentally sustainable world for all. The mix of group singing, Torah thoughts, and brilliant storytelling fostered a sense of comradery, and while the presenters and their presentations were far removed from my traditional worldview it was easy to see how other viewpoints and innovative models could spark positive change and growth in the Jewish community.
The next morning’s group session was led by author Priya Parker, who shared her expertise in both designing effective gatherings and conflict resolution. I recommend her excellent and highly practical book “The Art of Gathering” to all Jewish organizations, and being present as she modeled these skills was a treat.
In line with the goals of UpStart, this was a deep dive into how we gather, why we gather, and how we can design innovative forms of gathering that will attract young Jews.
Most thought-provoking for me was the session called “building the Jewish community of the future,” created and led by UpStart board member Harry Nathan Gottlieb. The session brought together five exciting voices from the Jewish community, four of them millennials, who contributed 10 ideas to revitalize the Jewish future. Imaging ourselves as proxies for the Jewish world, attendees were asked to decide which five of those 10 ideas would best contribute to a revival of Jewish life in North America, and then we had to whittle that number to two. To appreciate the diversity and innovation of the conference, allow me to briefly describe the panelists: David Yarus, founder of the popular Jewish dating app JSwipe; Rabbi Sarah Luria, who is both the executive director of Beloved, a self-described home-based, open-hearted Jewish community that has been compared to a Reform-led Chabad-style house, and the founder of ImmerseNYC, a feminist community project that reconnects Jews with the beauty and meaning of mikvah; Elad Nehorai, founder of Hevria, described on its website as “a home for the creative an out-of-the-box Jews who feel they don’t have one”; Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul NYC and a passionate advocate for Shabbat as a tool for social change; and Sarah Hurwitz, formerly a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama and the author of the upcoming “Here All Along: A Reintroduction to Judaism,” about her rediscovery of Judaism, and a passionate advocate for Jewish literacy.
As the reader can see, these panelists represented a wide range of opinions, and all of their ideas were valuable, but for me the greatest value of the session was to hear from mostly millennial Jews who were on the outside and now are building and contributing to innovative Jewish organizations.
I would be remiss if I did not admit that as an attendee I was not much in my comfort zone politically, religiously, or strategically. At the same time, I know that without these Jewish entrepreneurs, who are contributing ideas, energy, and personal resources to the Jewish future, it is possible that all of nontraditional Judaism soon will be lost. Our movements, federations, Chabad houses, et al won’t even meet these Jews on their way out of the chain of Jewish history. Yet there is still a chance, there still is time, and there is so much youthful energy that we still can save our future.
These newly, truly connected nontraditional Jews will have a different way of manifesting Judaism, they will present complex problems of Jewish lineage, and they will be increasingly progressive, both socially and politically. It is hard to know how they might integrate with the existing committed Jewish community. Still, our community has fumbled away two generations of opportunity, and in doing so we can no longer dictate how the future might look. Our responsibility is to a Jewish future that undoubtedly is better served by having a million truly connected Jews.
There still is time for this generation to save the remnant of American Jewry for Jewish life. The millennial Jews I have met at this conference, at retreat centers like Camp Isabella Friedman, and through the UpStart network, give that future a real chance. To quote UpStart CEO Aaron Katler, “We must allow ourselves to imagine … and we must take every opportunity to do that together. We believe that the collective wisdom, vision, and hard work of our network will lead us to a thriving Jewish future”.
To this hope and prayer, let us say Amen!
Elchanan Weinbach is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Montebello. He has been a pulpit rabbi for 13 years, a school head for 15 years, and a consultant, presenter, or scholar in residence in New York, Kansas City, and Florida, and at LimmudLA.