The below post originally appeared as part of a blog series on Connected Congregations, curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA
Federation of New York.
by Yoni Sarason
All of us in Jewish life are wondering how to reach the unengaged—and particularly young adults. At NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, we work with both mainstream and grassroots organizations, including many synagogues, to help them find new ways to connect with Birthright Israel alumni and their friends. While I do this work professionally, I’m also part of the demographic we’re trying to reach. Here, I’m offering eleven ways that synagogues can connect to the unengaged:
1. Lead with your “Why?” Most of us market what we do– the products or services we offer– instead of why we do it– the worldview, or passion driving us. It’s not enough to say what you offer, you must lead with your mission in all things. How does Judaism and Jewish community provide value for young adults, or for that matter, for the world? How does your spiritual community offer access to these ideas and a platform for building these relationships?
2. Relationships > Membership. Young adults get our positive social reinforcement through relationships, not through our membership. Think about how people come to be in relationship to your congregants, staff, and content. Where do those relationships form? Who is responsible for them? And how are you following up with people? A rabbi who takes meetings in a coffee shop will seem a lot more approachable than one stuck in her/his office. Do you have a welcoming team who can commit to setting up one coffee date a week with someone new to the community and do follow-up?
3. Content matters. You aren’t competing with other synagogues, you are competing against bars, restaurants, concerts, movies, and television. Your value-add is depth and meaning, so don’t shy away from it, don’t water it down, and don’t infantilize.
4. Take your show on the road. Young adults are far more likely to be living in the dense urban core of your city. If your building isn’t where the young people live, bring your services (metaphorically and literally) to them. Many emerging spiritual communities take advantage of galleries, living rooms, coffee shops, and other unconventional and yet, accessible venues. What they lack in grandeur or pomp, they more than make up for in warmth and intimacy.
5. You have two ears and one mouth. Listen more than you talk. Are there young adults who are children of congregants, who might be willing to come in for an evening? Hold a focus group and buy them dinner, or take someone who just moved to town out for coffee. Understand what needs they have that a synagogue/spiritual community might be able to deliver. Then, help them create it.
6. Put your money where your mouth is. As in much of the Jewish nonprofit sector, synagogues talk about young adult engagement, but find it more challenging to actually invest in it. Designate a point person who has the bandwidth, resources, authority, and autonomy to actually engage. If you don’t invest in young adults, and give them real opportunities to learn, lead, and live Jewishly, they will find other things to do with their time. Give young adults a chance to speak from the bima, to participate in discussion, and to organize events, but don’t force them onto a board or a committee.
7. Be open, welcoming, inclusive, and genuine. We Jewish young adults are from more diverse backgrounds than ever. We are LGBTQ, we are from families with two, or one, or no Jewish parents, we don’t understand movements or denominations in the same way our parents did, and we might not know any Hebrew or melodies.
8. Understand who is it you want to connect to. Do you really want to connect to young adults who are probably not making a lot of money? Or are you really looking for young families? Be honest about who you want to reach and why. Young adult programming shouldn’t be targeting young families; the two are at different life stages and won’t relate as well to each other. Have you thought about empty nesters, who used to be members but don’t come anymore now that their children are out of the house? Maybe you should reach out to them--they are a lot less fickle than young adults!
9. Recognize your assets. Are you hiring a lot of part-time Sunday school, Hebrew school, or b’nei mitzvah teachers? Look to hire from the local student or young adult pool. You probably pay more an hour than most of us are used to, we are more accessible role models for your students, and you can organize educational and social events for this cohort of young adults you’ve just recruited to come to your space.
10. A rising tide floats all ships. Recognizing that you're not alone in your challenges is important, but more important is adopting a collaborative mindset. How are you working with the other organizations who also want to invest in young adults? Can you pool resources to multiply impact? Work with your local Moishe House, federation Young Leadership Division, or whoever is available to provide your rabbinic expertise towards their programmatic goals.
11. Social media is a multiplier, not a savior. Social media can amplify the great things that you are already doing, but it only works if the people that believe you are doing great things share those things.
Yoni Sarason is the Midwest Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.