We cant turn our backs on disaffected young people

Our cover story on young Jews who go or don’t go to services was the perfect way to start the first issue of j.

First, we’re just a week away from Rosh Hashanah. Second, the disaffection young Jews feel toward religion was spotlighted just last week with the release of the National Jewish Population Study.

Steven M. Cohen, a senior NJPS consultant and Hebrew University professor, said, “As a group, American Jews may be moving in two different directions simultaneously: increasing Jewish intensification alongside decreasing Jewish intensity.

“It may be the most and least involved are gaining at the expense of those with middling levels of Jewish involvement.”

Since trends generally start on the West Coast and slowly move east, we may be seeing even more disaffection among young Jews in our region.

It was always a ritual that when parents of a young family reached their 30s, they would send their children to religious school. But here we are seeing young parents who didn’t have b’nai mitzvah or any Jewish education. They probably won’t be sending their children to get the Jewish education that they missed.

On top of that we have one of the largest interfaith relationship rates in the nation. Local demographer Gary Tobin, who did a study of our community 12 years ago, now estimates that 70 to 80 percent of local Jews are marrying non-Jews.

Some of these families will expose their children to a Jewish upbringing, but statistics have shown that most will not.

So where does that leave our local Jewish community?

This week’s story provides an important glance at the reasons people go or don’t go to synagogue. Perhaps if our rabbis had a better understanding of the negativity, they would find ways to attract those who don’t go.

That will take some innovative thinking. It will probably mean a very short alternative service, perhaps a High Holy Days young adults service. Other ideas include having such services run by a young rabbi who may better connect with young congregants. Also, it likely should be a service with little or no Hebrew.

In addition it probably should be a free service. The young non-goers don’t understand why they should pay to pray. That doesn’t mean that a rabbi shouldn’t explain that a synagogue needs money to keep its doors open. But that explanation should come later. Let’s invite them in with a warm, friendly approach.

But perhaps we shouldn’t invite them into a sanctuary, which could be off-putting to some. Maybe a service for non-goers should be more informal, held either in the social hall or on the lawn outside.

And maybe during Rosh Hashanah we should offer those non-goers refreshments.

Yes, it’s beginning to sound less and less like a service, and traditional Jews may take umbrage at that approach, saying it is “watering down” Judaism. But the fact is, while some disaffected Jews do reconnect to old traditions, hundreds of thousands do not.

What’s important is to bring those young people into a synagogue. Show them Judaism isn’t something that belongs just to their parents or grandparents. Make them feel that it can be fun to be a Jew.

If we lose this young generation, we are dooming Judaism in America. The NJPS already points out that our numbers are decreasing, with 5.2 million Jews in America compared with 5.5 counted in the 1990 study.

We can’t afford to turn our backs on those disaffected young people.

We wrote our cover story to initiate a debate in the community on what should be done to attract them. We suggested some ideas here, but we want to hear your thoughts as well. E-mail us at [email protected]