Can Jewish community bring 20s and 30s into the fold

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Don't call them "Generation X."

"Young adults" won't do either.

And unless you want to sound the death knell for your program, don't even think of calling it a "Jewish singles" event.

That's some of the advice coming from the front lines of Jewish outreach to a largely unaffiliated demographic group — Jews who range in age from just out of college to late thirtysomethings who have not yet had children.

For years, the American Jewish community tended to focus almost exclusively on seniors and families with school-age children — in short, those most likely to pay to join a Jewish institution.

But amid a flurry of new efforts to engage unaffiliated Jews and create "multiple entry points" to Judaism — to use the lingo of "Jewish renaissance" promoters — twenty- and thirtysomethings are getting some attention.

That age group — approximately 23 percent of the American Jewish population, according to the North American Jewish Data Bank — was the focus of a March 12 and 13 gathering in Washington sponsored by the federation system's Renaissance and Renewal Pillar and the Schusterman Family Foundation.

The Washington event brought together a handpicked list of 40 leaders (two of them from San Francisco), most in their 20s and 30s, to brainstorm about outreach to young Jews.

A number of participants were from established institutions, like the religious movements and federations, but the majority came from new Jewish programs specifically for twenty- and thirtysomethings.

Among them:

*Makor, a Manhattan cultural organization housed in a stylish brownstone that looks more like a Starbucks cafe or a nightclub than a Jewish institution. Makor offers concerts, movies, classes, community service projects, a kosher vegetarian restaurant and networking groups for young artists, musicians, filmmakers and Internet entrepreneurs.

*Gesher City, a budding national organization that serves as a clearinghouse for Jewish events of interest to young people and facilitates contacts between Jews with shared interests. Founded in Boston, it now has affiliates in Washington and Baltimore, with plans under way for New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami and Seattle.

*The S.F.-based Joshua Venture, which is offering $30,000 fellowships, leadership training and other resources to eight "social entrepreneurs" in their 20s and 30s who are launching projects in the arts, Jewish learning and social justice. Representing the group were Brian Gaines, executive director, and Amy Tobin, a Joshua Venture fellow.

So how is this generation different from those that preceded it?

The number of Jews in their late 20s and 30s who are single has grown during the past decades because many Jews are waiting longer to marry and have children.

David Morrison, president of Twentysomething, a marketing firm that specializes in that age group, describes them as mobile, eager for adventure, busy, "grasping for a sense of belonging" and plugged into technology.

"The idea of setting down roots in a Jewish community is not high on their priority list right now," said Morrison, who spoke at the Washington gathering.

Morrison, himself Jewish and 20-something, said he is unsure how to translate his somewhat contradictory findings — a yearning to belong combined with an unwillingness to set down roots — into Jewish policy.

He suggested the Jewish community offer more opportunities for young people to connect on the Internet, perhaps even offering religious services on the Web.

He also advised synagogues to do a better job of welcoming newcomers at events, and to consider shortening services because young people are "racing to temple if they have time, and from temple to somewhere else."

Leaders of new programs geared to those in their 20s and 30s said their constituents are interested in Jewish activities if they relate to personal interests, such as hobbies, community service or professional development.

The two-day conference began with five people working in different sectors of the Jewish community saying what they would do if presented with unlimited resources to attract and serve young adults. Topics included culture, social justice, spirituality, education and philanthropy.

"Our contemporary Jewish culture values religious study more than culture," said Tobin. "Jewish culture needs to be validated."

Cynthia Greenberg, project director of the Jewish Social Justice Network in New York City, said young Jews "should be asked what are the things that matter to them" — economic disparity, the environment, women's rights — and then be able to get involved in working on that issue within a Jewish context.

Greenberg said it is important to connect work on social justice to the Jewish tradition — "Why do we care about [that issue] if we are Jewish?" is a question that should be addressed — as well as to the wider American experience.

An Atlanta woman attending the conference, Amy Harris, believes the key to attracting Jewish Generation Xers is to "bring Judaism to secular life" instead of bringing secular life to Judaism.

"Interest me in what I want to do," she said, adding that a Jewish group devoted to snowboarding or other "extreme sports," for instance, can bring Jews together, and a Jewish message can be included at some point during the event.

That approach was taken by the creators of Makor, which serves young adults by focusing on Jewish culture. Rabbi David Gedzelman said Makor wanted to "replicate the entertainment opportunities available in the general culture" and "juxtapose" them with Jewish content. Once Makor "gets people in the door," it can then "connect them to something meaningful" in a Jewish way.

On the local level, Janice Sands-Weinstein, who did not attend the conference, agreed with that approach. The executive director of New Bridges on the Peninsula, Sands-Weinstein said young adults coming out of college "want to establish their own identity, and that it's unlikely to expect that Jews are going to go out seeking the Judaism they were raised with."

To reach out to Jews in that age group, organizations and institutions have to meet them where they are, she added. That involves offering secular socializing opportunities within the Jewish community.

"The more we encourage Jews to interact with Jews, the more likely Jews will find their way into the greater Jewish community," Sands-Weinstein said.

New projects such as Makor and Gesher City also address the fact that many young Jews not interested in going to synagogue are seeking things to do, and like-minded people to do them with.

"Everyone wants to feel connected," said Alison Corton, national director of Gesher City. But that does not simply mean participating in cultural programs or socializing with other Jews.

Corton said Gesher City's most popular features have been Jewish text study sessions and its distribution of free or discounted tickets to High Holy Day services. Gesher City also has helped match people with synagogue members for holiday meals.

Less successful, say those involved in programming, are efforts to get twenty- and thirtysomethings to become paying members of institutions.

Allison Stein Wellner, an editor-at-large for American Demographics magazine, pointed out that Jews are not alone — other religious groups are discussing how to get adults in their 20s and 30s more involved in their respective religious communities.

The alienation of young adults from Judaism is one of the community's greatest challenges, said Alison Feinberg, assistant director of the Young Adults Division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. YAD offers a variety of events all targeted to this age group.

"People don't have the greatest associations and memories about being Jewish," said Feinberg, and "when they leave their homes, they don't look back."

Additionally, she said, "San Francisco is not a Jewish city. You have to look to find it, and if you don't make an effort, you're not going to find it."

Because YAD is affiliated with the federation, she is concerned that some people may shy away, believing the goal is simply to fund-raise.

But that's not the case, Feinberg said. While YAD's two-pronged mandate is both outreach and then training future Jewish leaders, "our greatest success is that we're able to bring in so many people and help make connections between people and help people create community for themselves."

An estimated 550 Jewish young adults are expected at YAD's seder on the second night of Passover.

Makor's Gedzelman emphasized the importance of proper marketing.

"You can have great programming but can throw the whole thing away with the wrong labeling," he said. "We never use the language 'singles' ever, even if that's our goal in a particular context. You call something 'Jewish singles' and the healthy, interesting, attractive people you want to attract are going to say, 'I don't need that; to be in that context means I'm desperate.'"

Tobin added that she was struck by the fact that those at the conference — many of whom work in the Jewish community — often don't attend Jewish events.

Discussing the importance of marketing, she said, a Jewish event has to look as good as any other secular event. As far as her peers are concerned, "they need to see [an event] in the Bay Guardian next to something cool." If that's the case, "their non-Jewish friends want to come, too."