Ottawa’s Limmud conference this month drew mostly an aging crowd, a worrying trend, organizers say.
There’s a visible absence of youths and young professionals at Congregation Beth Shalom, where the conference took place, said synagogue president Ian Sherman, who estimates about 85 to 90 per cent of the congregation is 50 years of age or older.
Limmud, an international organization based in the United Kingdom and run by volunteers, is, according to its website, “dedicated to Jewish learning in all its variety… [through] events with a lively approach to Jewish learning.”
Referring to one of the many programs at the conference, a panel on “Why do young adults turn away from shul?” Sherman said he feels discouraged to see so few young adults at shul.
“There has been a dramatic decrease with a capital ‘D.’ It counteracts my feeling of optimism that shul life can be better. It’s depressing,” he said.
Young adults at the conference said they are finding it increasingly difficult to relate to the tradition of attending shul regularly.
“I think it’s well-known that we’re losing young adults,” said Samantha Banks, 25, a young professional who was one of the panellists.
“I didn’t go to Jewish day school, I didn’t go to Hebrew school, [I] did my bat mitzvah and I go to shul three times a year,” she said. “And working with young professionals, I would say the majority of my [peers] are similar to this way of practicing.
“It’s interesting because we’re so Jewish-hungry: we wear our Jewish stars around our necks… It’s something we want to do and we’re proud to do,” Banks said. “We go to our universities and rally because we’re proud of it, but going to synagogue doesn’t seem to be a priority for young Jewish professionals.”
Carleton University student Jordan Stenzler, 22, said he believes the relationship with shul weakens for his generation as they age.
“Once you get into high school, you’re not as involved and you lose your connection,” he said.
Both Banks and Stenzler stressed their relationship with their faith is not the issue and point out barriers that make going to shul less appealing for their generation.
“I believe we go to shul because our parents brought us to shul,” Banks said. “When we move away from our parents, we don’t have people to go with, we can’t afford it ourselves, we don’t understand what the heck is going on, we can’t relate to the leadership of the congregation and we have no friends there.”
The service can be four to five hours long, and young adults say they place priority on their postsecondary studies and jobs. Stenzler said he sees going to shul as “a second workday.”
A shortened service would be more effective in drawing in youth, they said, because it would show the rabbis have chosen their lessons carefully.
“Shul-hopper” panellist Eric Trottier said a lack of understanding of the lessons because of language barriers can also be frustrating.
“We want to learn and we want to be here,” he said, and suggested that providing Hebrew translations should become more the norm, and “creating Jewish literacy from the ground up” should be a priority so that future generations can better understand and become more involved.
Banks, along with two of her peers, brainstormed solutions with three local rabbis and the audience in an interactive panel during the conference.
The speakers agreed that creating a mentorship program, organizing social and networking opportunities, and sharing new experiences – religious or otherwise – could increase youth involvement.
“We need to make the shul a place that is welcoming for things other than learning,” Banks said.
One congregation successfully attracting this young, urban demographic is the Glebe Shul, named for the Ottawa neighbourhood where it was founded by Rabbi Michael Goldstein and his wife, Stacy, in 2011.
“Why people, I think, have migrated to the Glebe Shul, is because even though the leadership is Orthodox, it’s a very welcoming environment. It’s not imposing or restricting, and it lets you practise how you want to practise,” Banks said. “Our generation is full of culture, full of pride, but traditional practices don’t necessarily fall within our day-to-day [routines].”
Rabbi Goldstein said his shul, known as “a shul without walls,” attracts young Jews who are “not particularly interested in religion,” but who crave a sense of community and belonging after moving to Ottawa for work or university.
“Shul needs to be completely re-imagined” to establish a strong relationship with Jewish youth, he said.
Sherman said he welcomed the suggestions offered and intends to collaborate with other local synagogues to implement some of the more creative ideas the discussion generated.
Banks proposed that shuls should host tailgating parties before sporting events and then discuss lessons learned after the congregation watches the game.
“We’ll be doing that,” Sherman said, laughing.
“It’s nice to know there’s an emerging generation out there that still cares.”