Jewish organizations seek out the missing millennials

Risa Alyson Cooper, centre, shows off the newly opened Bela Farm
Risa Alyson Cooper, centre, shows off the newly opened Bela Farm

The last Jewish event Claire went to was “probably the matzah ball,” a singles mixer, 15 years ago.

Although she attended Jewish schools and summer camp and went on a Birthright Israel trip, Claire (not her real name) has felt the distance growing between herself and the organized Jewish community.

“I became very biased by the insular ideas my family espoused, [that] because I’m Jewish, I have to support Israel, I have to give to B’nai Brith.”

Now 35 and married, she said she’s an anomaly when she looks at friends she went to high school with, nearly all of whom are Jewish and who have taken a more traditional approach.

“I lost one of those friends recently, because we had a huge argument about Zionism,” she said. The breaking point was when she said that Israel and the Palestinians were equally responsible for the troubles in the Middle East.

While the organized Jewish world is reaching out to millennials, there remains a disconnect, a group of people like Claire who find the community lacking. The challenge is acute, because if a younger generation is not recruited to boards and committees and doesn’t develop a habit of Jewish charitable giving, the larger community will suffer.

“What we need to do, and it’s been recognized, is to really enhance the participation and engagement of young people under 40 in the organization, if the organization is going to continue to thrive,” said Steven Shulman, campaign director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

“For young people, engagement and making that charitable gift are absolutely on the same line. In fact, making that charitable gift is usually the outcome of meaningful engagement, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Shulman said.

Engaging that newer generation is a challenge, said Yacov Fruchter, director of community building and spiritual engagement at Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto’s largest Conservative synagogue.

We can’t assume “that everyone feels absolutely that they need to contribute to UJA… We can’t assume that everyone feels it’s important to be part of a shul,” he said.

But all is not lost, believes Fruchter, who has previously worked at Hillel Montreal and downtown Toronto’s Annex Shul.

“What I do know is there are tons and tons of young Jews who are very committed to leading a meaningful Jewish life. Sometimes that will be within an existing institution, and sometimes that will be about creating their own space.”

The institutional Jewish community has tended to focus too heavily on developing leadership, he believes.

“A lot of people don’t want to be leaders. They want a place where they can find community and intimacy,” Fruchter said. “Some of the older institutions, whether it’s UJA or sometimes really large synagogues, have a reputation of not being intimate and not being flexible,” a reputation he believes is not deserved.

“A lot of these institutions have done a really good job of creating experiences, based on those who are coming to the table… and they are always looking for find ways to engage new people.”

At UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, that outreach includes in-depth career mentoring for younger professionals by people who can discuss both their career path and their Judaism. Birthright Israel trips and follow-up programming also reaches about half the eligible 18-to-26-year-olds, said Ilana Aisen, director of federation’s Centre for Jewish Identity.

The federation has also made a commitment that a “significant percentage” of those serving on boards and committees will be under 40, Shulman said. As well, a senior executive director has just been hired to oversee and connect all the programs for people under 40.

Still, the landscape for connecting with the younger generation has changed, Aisen admits. “In general, in North American life, the membership model has undergone radical change, certainly we see that. UJA and synagogues are learning and experimenting with ways to engage with people.”

In some cases, the best approach has been to let younger people run with their own ideas, she said, pointing to the success of Shoresh, a Jewish environmental organization.

In Montreal, one of the flagship programs is the Jewish Chamber of Commerce, which encourages networking both within the Jewish community and outside it, said Simon Bensimon, director of Federation CJA’s GenMontreal.

But even a young person who often participates may not consider themselves part of the Jewish community, Bensimon said. “‘Affiliated’ and ‘a member of the community,’ maybe we should stop using those words,” he added.

Yet for every person eagerly joining one of Federation CJA’s food tours or attending Toronto’s innovative speakers’ series, there are others who find the community has little to offer.

Sarah, 30, grew up going to Jewish schools and summer camp, but finds the Toronto Jewish community has little to offer now that she is an adult.

“I don’t feel like Judaism let me down. I feel like the community did,” she said in an interview. “A lot of the people I grew up with who are still involved in organized Judaism are into really superficial [materialistic] things.”

For some of these disenchanted millennials, a more progressive Judaism seems to hold the answer. Yet Isaac, who grew up in St. John’s, said he explored less establishment-oriented shuls, but hasn’t found them fulfilling.

“I don’t have a relationship anymore to institutional Judaism. The idea of a progressive shul sounds great. The idea of something like that always appeals to me, but then the times I’ve gone to something like that [a progressive shul or gathering], I end up feeling like the practice doesn’t have a link to the past in the same way, so it’s not totally satisfying.”

For Pia Berger, 33, currently one of the co-ordinators of a Toronto group called Grassroots Shabbat that formed about four years ago, an alternative approach is the only thing that makes sense for her.

The group, which organizes its monthly events via Facebook, meets for a communal Shabbat dinner at a different member’s home one Friday evening a month. She said that, typically, between eight to 20 people attend.

For her personally, a sense of alienation or disenfranchisement from more traditional or institutional forms of Judaism partly stems from feeling like much of traditional Judaism is quite sexist. The Grassroots Shabbat space is one in which “everyone is welcome.”

She noted that one of the first things the group does after the spiritual/religious component of the evening – which varies from simply saying prayers over the candles, bread and wine to a more extended Shabbat service – is go around the room and introduce themselves while stating the gender pronoun they prefer.

“When you attend Grassroots Shabbat, then, immediately your identity is affirmed. I don’t know how many [other] Jewish gatherings there are where you’re expected to immediately announce your preferred pronoun. That to me speaks of the inclusive nature of these gatherings,” she said.

Berger, who stressed that she can only speak for herself and not the group, which is extremely diverse in terms of religious backgrounds, politics, etc.  said that most people in the group likely identify as progressive or “left-leaning” and some may feel alienated from the politics of a lot of “the established Jewish organizations.”

“A lot of the Grassroots Shabbat members take issue with a lot of Israeli policies and want to talk about being uncomfortable with that. They very much identify as Jewish, but they don’t identify with the direction Israel has taken. It doesn’t say in our description that we’re anti-Zionist so much as we want to problematize what Zionism is,” she said, adding, “So these conversations do come up [at our gatherings].”

For many millennials, the unquestioning approach they believe Jewish institutions have taken to supporting Israel is problematic.

“I think Israel is a really important part of Jewish life,” said Leora Jackson, a board member of Makom, a downtown Toronto grassroots community. “But the same way that my domestic politics are not the politics of my parents, my Israel politics are not my parents’ Israel politics. Jewish institutions frequently follow a lot closer to the politics of my parents, and that makes me uncomfortable participating in their programs.”

After some “shul-shopping,” she was attracted to Makom’s diversity, informality and vibrant Friday night services. “It wasn’t just trying to attract young professionals, but was a community for people who lived in the neighbourhood.”

Jackson, who grew up going to synagogue with family regularly, said when she looks at her friends, unless they are traditionally observant, few are affiliated with any Jewish institutions.

“You have to start from the standpoint that it’s important to be connected. Then you identify what are the [important] things you want to connect about.”