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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dr. Benji Levy

Great Jewish Products – The Access and Distribution Needs Work

Judaism has great products, but not enough quality access or distribution and the ‘Jewish Americans in 2020’ Pew Report makes this clear. Those traditionally connected to Judaism are growing substantially and the number of those disconnected is growing as well, both of which need greater support.

This new research shows that the Jewish youth of America are very different to their parents and the community has not fully adapted. For example, while around 17% of those over 50 years old classify themselves as Jews of no religion, it is 40% for those between the ages of 18-29. On the other extreme, around 5% of those over 50 labelled themselves as orthodox and whereas 17% of those under 30.

Whereas the equivalent 2013 report did not deal with why younger Jews engage less or in what ways they do if at all, this new survey shines light on some of these crucial questions. Among those that do attend religious services in some way, 92% find it spiritually meaningful, 87% feel a sense of belonging and 83% say it helps them feel connected to ancestry or history, whereas only 42% do it to please a family member and 22% out of guilt. Judaism has clearly become more of a choice and those that do opt to engage find it meaningful. Regarding those who do not attend religious services the most common response was ‘I’m not religious’, which is a sad indictment for those who, like me, feel these settings should be perceived as offering something for everyone. Interestingly those that did attend did not say ‘because I am religious’ so there is a clear asymmetry and this perception requires addressing.

Judaism is more than a religion and lived beyond communal centers or houses of worship and this was shown with 70% of those under 30 cooking or eating traditional Jewish foods often and 37% celebrating Shabbat in a way that makes it meaningful to them. These non-binary expressions are complementary for traditional observance, and the study shows that the more one is involved in the cultural activities, the more they engage in traditional service and vice versa.

There is a large group that do not go to synagogue because they ‘express Jewishness in other ways.’ Among them, 77% sometimes or often enjoy Jewish foods and 74% share Jewish culture or holidays with non-Jewish friends, 55% visit Jewish sites when they travel and 47% read Jewish literature. It is clear that these people must be met where they are so that they do not feel alienated because of their knowledge, observance, background or personal expression. This point is crucial and can be missed, however, it is important to note that it is is one of context – not content. Judaism cannot be sustained via food and culture alone – it needs to be relevant and meaningful, but at the same time, no matter how relevant the content is, if it is in an irrelevant context, away from the people, it is useless. Rather than Judaism waiting for people to come and access it, we need more ambassadors and platforms for Judaism to get to the people.

The majority of Jewish young adults (nearly 60%) according to a 2020 report by Atlantic57, say that spirituality is important to them. One participant in that study captured what I hear a lot: ‘I feel like I get that [spirituality] much more from yoga than I do from my Jewish religion right now’ — and this supports the statistics outlined in the Pew report, namely, while there is great work out there, we are simply not getting it right for enough people. While yoga is restricted within one area of life, Judaism offers pervasive wisdom that can imbue every aspect.

The young adult period (across all faith groups) seems to represent a sort of ‘moratorium period,’ in which, by and large, individuals distance themselves from the communal and spiritual institutions that may have served them previously. This has been only exacerbated by the recent pandemic and tension in Israel. Jewish young adults are growing more disconnected from brick-and-mortar frameworks, reflecting a clear lack of interest in traditional organized religion. But herein lies the great disconnect in our Jewish engagement efforts. For many, connectedness to Jewish life was tied to traditions and relationships (most often family members) and this was reflected on greater levels in the Pew report among older participants. Nevertheless, when young Jewish adults are asked what a Jewish community means to them, the Atlantic57 report states that they conjure terms like ‘synagogue’ and ‘Torah’ from which they often feel an emotional detachment. This needs to change.

Jewish adults indicate that they value informal communal gatherings, Jewish themed events and Shabbat meals with friends and family. While these sit among a range of experiences at the heart of Jewish life, they are not always perceived in this way. For many, activities like yoga have replaced Jewish practice as immersive, localized, dependable, and persistent forms of engagement that offer moments of quiet amidst the noise around and foster a greater sense of community and belonging. So the question becomes, in light of ‘Jewish Americans in 2020’, how can we reframe Jewish engagement in a way that will be better received?

In the past decade and in response to the plethora of generational changes, initiatives began to emerge and grow, addressing the need to find Jewish meaning for Jewish young adults by enabling the growth of localized communities created for and by young Jews themselves. These initiatives vary in style, structure, and scope and include peer-to-peer (e.g., OneTable and Moishe House), Jewish professional led (e.g., Base Hillel and Repair the World), localized engagement (e.g., GatherDC and JHub), and immersive experiences (e.g., Honeymoon Israel and Trybal Gatherings). Yet, while these initiatives have met some of the needs and rhythms, research suggests that they are still only reaching a small segment of the total population.

We should first and foremost understand the needs of young adults, and focus on providing concrete opportunities for active engagement in a palatable way for them. When I was leading Mosaic United, we conducted independent research and convened over 30 leaders in this space focusing on what we may need more of. We found that offering organic, relational-engagement programming tailored to the individual with real Jewish content has potential to provide the most impactful answer to the question of how to best engage. This needs to happen through traditional avenues and beyond them, online and in-person, creating an interconnected ecosystem of connections leading to depth, community, transformative education and a greater quality of Jewish life (part of the why behind why it is important to be connected). By increasing the number, size, and depth of hyper-localized Jewish communal engagements, I believe that more young adults will be engaged in their own place and in their own time, experiencing a greater sense of identity, meaning and belonging.

Feelings are fleeting and beliefs fluctuate, but concrete actions and opportunities for active engagement can be grounding and unifying. To ensure some of the issues among young people in the next Pew Report will change the trajectory, we need to offer hyper-localized, organic, and relational-engagement activities, with strong educators and leaders, speaking to individual interests and fostering a greater sense of Jewish community.

As published in the Jerusalem Post:

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