The Kiruv Movement fails to take advantage of the valuable studies done on the Jewish community at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. Many of these studies point to practical programming opportunities that would change and upgrade the way we do Kiruv.
One common denominator to all studies is that most Jews – even intermarried ones – feel very Jewish. For example, a study done in 2018, called Unlocking the Future of Jewish Engagement, surveyed 22-40 year-olds who were without children and found the following:
- Nearly all Jewish young adults engage with being Jewish in some way, though only one in eight report feeling very connected.
- For many, a yawning gap exists between current levels of Jewish engagement and their professed desire for a Jewish community or a rekindling of positive past Jewish experiences. These characteristics suggest openness and a possibility for future connections if they could come up with meaningful ways to do so. Most do not have present-day examples of more relevant expressions of being Jewish as adults.
- Many already engage with holidays and Shabbat, and some are interested in exploring Shabbat more.
- The top factor of Jewish engagement centered around cooking and eating food, followed by Jewish humor, learning about Jewish history, and diving deeper into personal Jewish ancestry.
- Additional on-ramps for Jewish engagement include an appreciation for Jewish values and a desire to know more about or have a deeper connection to Israel.
Other studies show that far too many people see themselves as not educated or equipped to “do Judaism” on their own terms, and instead feel forced to passively consume Judaism. At the same time, passively consuming Judaism is not fully appealing or satisfying to many as it doesn’t take into account who they are as complete people with talents, questions and complex thoughts. So they may shun Jewish opportunities entirely – perhaps until there are children available for religious instruction and direction.
Broader studies of Millennials show that, far from being materialistic and superficial, Americans in general crave a sense of belonging, identity and meaning. The aspiration to become a better version of one’s self comes from there, not from egocentric selfishness. In fact, data shows that almost half of Millennials would move to less paying jobs if they offer a better sense of meaning and serve a greater purpose than themselves.
Jewish Millennials don’t want a watering down our tradition; rather they want higher stakes and loftier aspirations rooted in Jewish wisdom. If then, why don’t Millennials just join one of the established Jewish communities out there, even Conservative or Reform? This is because:
- Millennials are looking for more intimate groupings.
- They want something that has a Tikkun Olam component, i.e. they want to know that the community will help them not only to become a better version of themselves but also that it will help them make the world a better place. This allows them to gather for a purpose larger than the group itself. Think: Transformation of self and world.
- They need community with their own, not something built around families.
- They don’t want communities imposed upon them but rather to actively be involved in creating their communities around a shared purpose and collaborative behavior. (Look up descriptions of Intentional Communities.) They want to be co-creators, not to be given a community. They want to help build it, and they want to know that all others who want to be a part are made to feel welcome. Look again at that last point.
- People join and much more importantly stick with community long-term, because they care about people and people care about them.
- They are looking to be nourished spiritually and stretched intellectually, but they need this to show greater sensitivity to their needs to feel honored as living, complex beings in a complex world.
- The world has become fuzzier and harder to make sense of, and Millennials are looking for those engagements which doesn’t reduce things to easy black and white categories.
The summary of all this is to work together in creating a cooperative community. Millennials will self-obligate if they feel that they are partners and feel a sense of shared ownership. The obligations of such a community can (contrary to the average Kiruv-approach) include financial contributions, volunteer roles, and regular (at least monthly) attendance.
One working example of this is Moishe House. To stay in one, you have to obligate yourself to a certain amount of activity that includes Jewish young adult engagement. All programming is planned and executed by peers. Moishe House reports that prior to their involvement with Moishe House, only 32% considered themselves leaders or role models. After participating that figure rises to 81%. Almost one in three people (31%) reported that Moishe House led them to take on leadership roles within other Jewish organizations or activities.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the Education Director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and a senior advisor to Olami. Many of Rabbi Edelstein’s foundational publications addressing the world of Kiruv appear on OlamiResources.com: Series on Kiruv and Chinuch, Commentary on Chumash and Yom Yovim, The Laws of Outreach, as well as contributing articles.