How Do We Get Millennials Back To Shul?
Picture this. Your 17-year-old son has just come home from school on a Friday afternoon. As you begin to pester him about getting ready for shul, he informs you that he’ll be missing Shabbat tonight in favor of attending a full moon party at the beach with his classmates. Before you can so much as utter a confused protest, he’s out the door.
That’s the reality we’re facing in this Internet Age. With so many unique iterations of spiritual experiences available at millennial fingertips – countless New Age articles, Facebook event invites, and TV programs exploring occult spirituality – we are lucky to maintain the interest of a few young people in attending traditional synagogue services.
Spirituality means something very different to Millennials than it does to previous generations. Millennial spirituality is an escape from the sensory overload of daily life in a technological society. That escape can take the form of drum circle nature festivals (avodah zarah?), secular academia (Greek philosophy?), sports and concerts (Roman Coliseum?) – you name it. Different names, same spiritual escapes. There simply isn’t an appeal for many Millennials in sitting in a dusty Shul, observing the antics of aging regulars and reading the same prayers they did yesterday.
Millennials are aware of countless different options for spirituality that they would have never been exposed to in the pre-Internet age. With so much novelty at their fingertips, why would they choose to do the same old thing?
What is the point of a spiritual experience? Presumably, to elevate one beyond the monotony of material existence – to give the individual a vantage point beyond the reductive paradigm of “What I see is what is there.” Due to the unprecedented exposure, the Internet has given us access to every spiritually fulfilling activity known to mankind. Millennials have more options for spiritual launching points than their predecessors. And suddenly, the same old thing doesn’t seem so appealing.
What the parents of Millennials don’t realize is that our idea of a spiritual experience is dramatically different from theirs. We are the age that has rejected bagel and lox breakfast shmears, Men’s Club socials, and mournful Kol Nidrei services. We’re going to need a very different connection with Judaism than our parents’ if we are to remain Jewishly involved at all.
How do we keep the spiritual core of Judaism alive for the next generation?
It’s no secret that modern American Judaism is failing in its quest to capture the attention of my generation. I can count on both hands the amount of people I know my age who are meaningfully engaged in Jewish life even close to the extent that they are meaningfully engaged in secular academia, backpacking, festival-going or Instagram scrolling.
This is not the Judaism of our forefathers, where God was present in every Torah word, every passing bird, every communal gathering of Hebrews. Most millennial Jews find more spiritual fulfillment in a gathering of social activists than they do in a gathering of nostalgic Jews.
So what do we do? How do we solve this problem? How do we keep Millennials involved in Jewish life, cement their position as the generation that will hand down Torah to their children and keep the ancient traditions alive?
The answer is, as always, within our tradition. Judaism is far more forgiving of foreign wisdom than most religious practices. Judaism doesn’t claim to be the end all be all spiritual path. Rather, it emphasizes the freedom for Jewish individuals to explore spirituality in the way that fits best for them, to “follow their rabbi,” so to speak.
There are 70 faces to the Torah – countless valid approaches to achieving connection with the Divine. Why have we cemented the stained glass windowed synagogue and its tedious Hebrew school program as the last hope for our Jewish youth?
Why can’t there be more Jewish rock climbing retreats, where young Jews pack vans for Yosemite and find some time around the campfire to do Kabbalat Shabbat? What if we had beach drum circles, where we could chant verses from Tehillim to the rhythm of South American percussion? Instead of opening another synagogue, why don’t we open a Jewish bar – a place where disconnected millennial Jews can get together over beers and perhaps a bit of Scripture too? What about a Jewish video game den – where Millennials can get together over a game of Call of Duty, earning their next round by memorizing another Mishna?
The options are endless. But I’ll tell you right now, in the age of the Internet, the nostalgic synagogue can no longer be the locus of young Jewish life. We’re going to have to rethink the way we get Jews together, and the things we have them do once they are. And until we do, the ratio of Baby Boomers to Millennials at services will remain 10:1.
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