The "Milk + Honey" Shabbat service at Burning Man in 2018. (Photo/Michael Fox)
The "Milk + Honey" Shabbat service at Burning Man in 2018. (Photo/Michael Fox)

Today’s youth are seekers, so let’s creatively show them Judaism

Year after year, the refrain grows louder. Around Shabbat tables, from synagogue bimahs and in the pages of media, so many lament that the next generation of American Jews are disconnecting from their Judaism.

The famous Pew Study of 2013 documented a rapidly changing Jewish community in which many — particularly young people — are less interested and less engaged in Jewish life. Many believe this is an existential challenge that could ultimately destroy Jewish life as we know it in America.

In the face of this handwringing and hysteria, I see a very different reality.

Jewish institutions often fail to attract young people because we don’t package Judaism in a way that resonates with them. Like any product, service or idea, Judaism needs to be marketed. We need to reach future generations through creative channels with innovative products so that they, too, may share our love and passion for Judaism.

The truth is that young people want a Jewish future. I’ve seen the evidence firsthand. I have always admired the work that the Avi Chai Foundation has done to support extensive research on millennials and Generation Z — it has informed my own funding. Perhaps our single greatest discovery is that younger generations are far more open to the act of seeking than older generations. With this understanding, I have been determined to nurture this curiosity and connect young people with their Judaism in ways so few institutions still do.

I started by reaching out to younger generations in the spaces they know best — music festivals. At events from Coachella to SXSW to Burning Man, I organized aspirational programs, from Shabbat gatherings to 1 a.m. Torah readings after a night out. Despite a surplus of other places to go at these events, our ability to create meaningful moments though a Jewish lens was widely embraced.

Years after, I still receive calls from these same young people looking for professional and personal connections in the Jewish space. This tells me that the way we’ve curated our programs and how we connect them with others is highly valued. It is through these experiences that I can confidently say that I can teach younger generations to love and embrace Judaism, and in doing so find value and happiness in their lives.

This fundamental belief is why I recently signed the Jewish Future Pledge, a new initiative formed to encourage Jews around the world to commit 50 percent of the charitable dollars set aside in their estate plan to Jewish causes. I acknowledge that designating half of one’s giving is certainly no insignificant ask. However, I think that it is necessary from both a Jewish and a marketing perspective, particularly as we chart the long path toward pandemic recovery.

According to Jewish law, a farmer isn’t allowed to collect the fruit at the edge of his farm for profit. Instead, he must leave 10 percent of his tithing to the community. Philanthropic giving today should work the same way. This Talmudic passage encourages intention in caring for our own community that I try to emulate myself and teach my children. During times of crisis, such intention should be elevated.

Living near Silicon Valley, I hear the word “disruption” a lot. Any successful product or app is a disruptive force on what came before.

The Jewish world needs to be disrupted, too — in a good way, of course.

Committing to the Jewish Future Pledge is one of my ways of doing this. And today, more than ever, we know that future generations will need a Jewish community that we ourselves can’t even imagine. And our kids need our support in easing the burden as they rebuild when this pandemic subsides. Young people will be looking for a lifeline — be it economic or social — and we need to be there for them when that happens.

I implore my fellow philanthropists to join me in this effort and fulfill our sacred responsibility to take care of our own in the same way other communities do. We need to ensure that a Jewish community will exist even when we are not around. Let’s come together to ensure and secure a vibrant Jewish future for all.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Suzanne Dryan Felson
Suzanne Dryan Felson

Suzanne Dryan Felson is a serial entrepreneur, fashionista, unapologetic perfectionist and philanthropist. She lives in San Francisco.