This week we looked at Birthright alumni and their Jewish involvement (or lack thereof) after they leave college. One of the big issues revealed by Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, was the lack of programming for young Jews after they leave college. The problem is one of outreach. Young Jews are given this fantastic opportunity in college and then when they get back there are groups like Hillel and Chabad to keep them active. Once they leave college, though, what happens? Sure, if you live on the Upper West Side you’ve got lots to do. But if you live in, say, Bergen County, who is reaching out to the young Jewish crowd that doesn’t quite fit in with the other families in shul?
Last month, I wrote an editorial on just this topic.
Since the main article was about Birthright alumni, I’ll come clean. I am a Birthright alumnus. I went in May 2000. It was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on and definitely my best in Israel. I remember after I came home to central Pennsylvania, I would watch the Christian channel on TV because it had specials about bringing Russian Jews to Israel and I wanted to go back.
I went at the end of my freshman year of college. I was already involved with Hillel and already had two semester of Hebrew under my belt. I can’t say for sure that Birthright heavily influenced me, but maybe it did. I double majored in Jewish studies. I became active in Chabad when it came to campus two years later. And I went into Jewish journalism. I’d say I’m a Birthright success story. But in high school I was president of my BBYO chapter and I did decide to take Hebrew instead of Japanese in college, so I was already on the derech.
But now, like some of the young people I interviewed in my article, I live in a northern New Jersey suburb. I’m surrounded by kosher restaurants and shuls, but they are filled with young families. I can count the locals in my demographic without taking off my shoes. They are out there. I know they are. Back in December I went to a singles Shabbaton and met a handful of other young single Jews from the area. But we need more than the occasional Shabbaton intended to get us hitched. We need community. We need community events to draw us together.
Jewish communal leaders cannot expect one event to carry young people through until they have their own families and can bond with other Jewish parents dropping their kids off at Hebrew school. More is needed and it is needed urgently or the Birthright experience will become just another distant memory and we will lose this generation despite the fantastic college experiences.
I’m going to step down from my soapbox now and open it up to you. Is the Jewish community ignoring its young adults? And what can we do about it? Suggestions?