Buried, but not severed, Jewish connections run underground for twentysomethings
“When I was an undergraduate I felt I had a real role to play, creating new programs at Hillel. Then, after I graduated— BOOM!—in the course of one month I was a non-person in the Jewish community. No voice, no community, no place to go.”
by Lisa Lepson, Brown ’95
A national report recently concluded that the four instructions most responsible for fostering Jewish “continuity” are Jewish summer camps, Hillels, community centers and synagogues. There is a terrible error in this formulation. Lisa is left out, as are almost all I Jewish adults in their 20s, too old for camp and college, not setfled enough, or prosperous enough, to join a Jewish community center or a shul.
As continuity commissions and rabbis and journalists gnash their teeth over slippage in Jewish identity (a summer New York magazine cover read “Are American Jews Disappearing?”), a significant population of young adults is living through a Decade of Jewish Latency, and it looks like a developmental stage that has never existed before.
While many of the parents of current twentysomethings were already parents themselves in their 20s, today’s post college adult is likelier to be single than married, geographically mobile rather than stable, and have less confidence in the future than his or her parents had (according to data from the polling firm of Yankelovich Partners). A consequence of this prolonged period of familial and professional uncertainty is that the specific needs which in an earlier generation drew young adult Jews to the doors of Jewish institutions (affiliating to have a nursery school for their kids, for example) just don’t exist in the realities of urban twentysomething Jews in the 1990’s.
So—what are the needs driving the choices of Jews in their 20s? And how can Jewish institutions begin to meet them?
LILITH decided to find out.
We could see first-hand—from the articles LILITH has drawn by young Jews exploring their Jewish identity issues and from our undergraduate and postgraduate interns (like Lisa Lepson, whose quote began this article)—that many Jewish-identified women and men fall off the Jewish map in their immediate post college years. Some are back on the scan of the Jewish community in their late 20s if professional networks bring them to (or at least invite them to) “Junior Associates” programs at the various Jewish charities and cultural institutions. But in their vulnerable years immediately after college, there is virtually no community of Jews—even in New York City—with which to identify and with whom to hang out (making some exceptions for the religiously observant). Lots of these post-college age young adult Jews say that they do not feel connected to the Jewish world. Worse, they feel that they have no instrumental role in those organizations which do try to draw them in.
So when the Continuity Commission of New York UJA-Federation put out a request for grant proposals in 1995, asking for ideas about reaching underserved populations, LILITH invited Ma’yan, The Jewish Women’s Project, a program at the JCC on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, to join us in a project that would be a magnet for twentysomething Jews in the city and its suburbs. Needing an acronym (naturally), we settled on V.O.I.C.E.S.—Visions of Identity and Choices for Engaging Singles/Young Adults. The project had two goals: providing the aegis for programs created by (and attractive to) Jews in their 20s, and transforming the ways in which Jewish institutions think about and plan for this target audience. What we’ve learned in the two years the VOICES project has been underway can provide some models, we hope, for this transformation.
How Does This Work ?
As a first exercise, we invited a few current and previous LILITH interns and their friends to look at the New York Jewish Week, the Village Voice and San Francisco’s Jewish Bulletin. What activities listed there interested them? The responses were surprisingly positive, and everyone liked the Jewish hiking group in San Francisco, which advertised that “this is a normal way to meet people.” And yet one participant confessed, “I would never, ever pick up a Jewish paper to find something to do on the weekend,”
Initially we thought that what would help Jews in their 20s feel connected to New York’s multiform Jewish world would be large-scale events—a film festival, perhaps, a night of improv, a special lecture series—announced in the media they read (like free or “throwaway” neighborhood papers and the Voice). The UJA-Federation grant, supplemented with funding from individuals and foundations, provided modest support for programs. But what we discovered early on, to our surprise, was that the young adults we were attracting to monthly steering committee meetings— between 6 and 15 participants —wanted more of the same: small-scale gatherings where peers could interact. One resource LILITH provided to this self-selected steering committee was advance information about events of Jewish interest, invitations to free or low-cost Jewish cultural, educational and entertainment activities (art gallery openings, book-signing parties, a memorial service for Yitzchak Rabin) and content with which to enrich their Shabbat dinners and Jewish holiday experiences (for example, an office copy of Marcia Falk’s new Book of Blessings was welcomed at a Shabbat dinner). What were the activities participants wanted to repeat? Small-group get-togethers to watch videos in people’s apartments. A picnic in Central Park. Shabbat meals in one another’s homes, not in a catering hall, a synagogue, or the “party room” of an apartment building.
We discovered that attracting Jews in their 20s is less about creating events than about creating community. At least in New York (and probably in other places too) there was no need for another Jewish film festival. Instead, young unaffiliated Jews needed someone to go with them to events that were already on the calendar. “Sometimes you don’t have to make the party,” commented one of the participants, “you just have to invite people to it.” A graduate student told us that her friends attended a Shabbat dinner simply because it was at her apartment—but, she added, she wouldn’t have marked Shabbat in the first place if the VOICES project had not been the impetus. Along with her receipts for the food and wine, she sent a note saying, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to host this Shabbat meal.”
Clearly, this neglected population is not a bunch of recalcitrants who want to turn their back on things Jewish. On the contrary, they are often eager to have a connection to Judaism. “I go to services at different shuls on Friday night, I go to meetings of a lot of small Jewish activist groups like Jews for Economic and Racial Justice and Jewish Activist Gays and Lesbians, but according to any community census, I’m unaffiliated!” says Tamara Cohen, 27, Program Director of Ma’yan. The Havurah Movement of the 1970s, which included independent, self-led services and study sessions, worked in appealing to Boomers; we are only beginning to figure out what appeals to Xers. And the Jewish community turns them off and turns them away—setting up barriers to their participation in ways of which communal organizations are often completely unaware.
Here’s an instructional tale. One of the first connections to the larger Jewish community that the volunteer members of the steering committee said they’d like was access to High Hohday services. Shira Zeltzer, newly arrived in New York from Berkeley, was assigned to find out which congregations might accommodate this need. She called more than two dozen synagogues and reported back in disbelief that not a single one was hospitable to non-members or to reduced-fee-paying attendees. Some of the Jewish community centers she approached refused to send out information or program guides by mail, insisting that these young people with full-time jobs come in person during office hours to find out about activities, and in general were judged by one caller to be “extraordinarily unhelpful.” Even more disheartening, her polite requests for information about services were met with responses both rude and discouraging. One e-mailed reply said “College kids with I.D. are free. Kids of members are free. Unaffiliated can buy tickets for an alternative service, S125- $175.” The most positive reaction? “Well, you can come in, but at some point someone will tell you, ‘You don’t belong in this seat.'” Her second and third least favorite responses, she said, were, “Why not come to a singles dance next month instead?” and “Why do you want to come for the High Holidays? Why don’t you come some Shabbat, when it’s not so crowded?”
We first attributed these turn-offs to uninformed institutional summer staff, so follow-up calls were made after Labor Day—with the same negative results. Trying a different approach, last year LILITH sent out letters to executive directors and rabbis of dozens of area synagogues two months before Rosh Hashanah; perhaps because of the “institutional” appeal of a LILITH letterhead, fourteen congregations agreed to set aside four to six tickets free of charge to VOICES participants. We sent out notices telling the people on the mailing list of this offer, and in response LILITH provided detailed information by phone to more than 40 women and men. The keys to the tremendous success of this effort were identifying synagogues with egalitarian services and assuring the participants that they wouldn’t be the only ones their age there. Even those people whose families lived in the area called LILITH saying, as one woman did, that she wanted services that “aren’t as stifling and unappealing as services in my parents’ temple.”
The high participation rate and the turnaround in attitude of the synagogues is the success story here. The downside is that on occasion the community is better off not showcasing its activities. Several of the young adults who used these tickets were “appalled” at the services themselves. “What we saw when we finally got there made some of us ask ourselves why we even came,” one man said. A long-term answer for attracting young people to Jewish programs could be fundamental reform of the institutional offerings themselves.
Who’s in The Driver’s Seat ?
It’s not hard to see what turns people off. But what draws them in? A powerful attractor for this population is a sense of ownership of the project at hand. Alexandra Lebenthal, the thirtysomething president of the stock brokerage firm that bears her family name, told an audience of Jewish women recently that “young people often feel as if we have no real power at work.” At a point in their lives when people younger and less prominent than Ms. Lebenthal certainly do not feel “in charge,” a Jewish project that promises—and delivers—a modicum of autonomy is immensely attractive. One measure of their “ownership” of this project is that the committee twice recreated VOICES under different names—first, “The Jewish Conspiracy: Creating Community for Jews in their 20s in New York,” and later “A Tribe Called Jews,” after a rap group.
The initial steering committee brought along friends, apartment- mates, ex-college buddies and other “randomites” to the first activities. (“I brought my friend who’d studied abroad with me in Cameroon. She grew up in New York but has no formal Jewish education,” one committee member told us back at the LILITH office. “She’s really excited.”) Many were artists, grad students, computer mavens. Though not plugged into the Jewish community, these are among the people likely to have an influence on the lives of the next generation of Jews because they are the shapers of the media that younger Jews use.
Broadening the reach, LILITH compiled a mailing list of about 450 women and men in their 20s, partly from friends and relatives of people who come to LILITH events around the country (where forms are circulated asking “Know any twentysomething Jews living in NYC?”). We asked Hillels for names of graduating seniors moving to the New York area after graduation, went on the Internet with the same question, and mailed invitations to such compatible lists as alumni of study programs in Israel. This method isn’t flawless. The steering committee (basically anyone who wants to help plan the next event) rightly felt that they didn’t want to approach people who got on the list only because an aunt had signed them up, and they also didn’t want total strangers coming to events at individuals’ apartments. A two-tiered mailing list evolved; people who returned a postcard to stay on the smaller list (a remarkable 35%!) receive word of regular Shabbat dinners in individual homes. The whole list is invited to larger events in the Jewish community—for example, a day of volunteering through a JCC.
These very different recruitment techniques have brought in participants with a diverse range of Jewish education, background, and ritual experience. Events typically draw people approximately 22 to 27 years old, a younger and less affluent crowd that those who turn out, for example, to Young Leadership events at Federations. This is a fluid population of people who are hovering somewhere between school and a fixed career track. VOICES events become the “welcome wagon” to the New York Jewish community, attracting couples and singles, men and women, across a wide spectrum; the project’s first Hanukah party included a performance artist, a member of a rock band, an executive in a family-owned business, people working for non-profit organizations and at entry levels in the entertainment industry.
Here’s some of that flavor. Planning the Hanukah party, the committee rejected as “too institutional” the LILITH suggestion that they rent space at a club. With support from LILITH’s staff, the volunteers responsible for this event selected Israeli and klezmer background music, investigated kosher caterers and ordered latkes, salad, and sufganiyot as dinner for the after-work crowd, which had been asked to bring canned goods for a food pantry. Over 60 men and women came to the party, held in a downtown loft apartment and promoted as “BYOM” (Bring Your Own Menorah). Few did; anticipating this, committee members provided candles, menorahs, dreidls, and blessing and song sheets. Only about half the partygoers were familiar with the candle blessings, or any Hanukah songs, yet several commented on the pleasure of being with Jews at a Hanukah party after a week of going to office Christmas parties. The LILITH staffer (also in her early 20s) organized a raffle of books and CDs to capture names and addresses of people who were brought by friends but who weren’t themselves on the mailing list. Several of the people there commented that this was the first time since childhood that they’d celebrated Hanukah in any way.
For Tu B’Shvat, the midwinter planting holiday that many of these young Jewish adult had never celebrated, LILITH mailed 170 invitations created by interactive graphic designer Karl Schatz of the steering committee. The Tu B’Shvat seder at a Greenwich Village apartment featured a Haggadah compiled by Ma’yan, and information provided by LILITH: hand-outs about the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and their Outdoor Leadership Training program, instructions for how to lobby Congress to extend the Endangered Species Act, articles on Judaism and the environment. Thirty young people, equal numbers of men and women, many new to the project and several brand new to the New York area, came to learn and socialize, and to eat Israeli fruits and nuts and the other dishes prescribed for this seder. (And 140 more knew after reading their invitations that the holiday of Tu B’Shvat existed!) One measure of the program’s success is that a year later those people who’d come the first time around revised the materials to give the seder their own stamp.
For Pesach the group created a third-night seder respectful of the observance of the holiday’s proscriptions against eating hametz, and also acceptable to the vegetarians. Necessity mothered the invention of the Baked Potato Bar seder meal! The next year, though, the VOICES third seder was a catered affair, with roast chicken plus vegetarian kugels. “By now many of us are keeping Pesach,” said Schatz, as he designed these invitations as well, “that by the middle of Passover we’ll all be tired of boiled eggs and matzah. It’ll be nice to have a real meal.”
Psychologist and rabbi Edwin Friedman has posited that there are “hinges of time” which open up at transitional moments in our Lives. Doors open on these hinges for communities as well; the immediate post-college years present an opening through which the Jewish community can attract and welcome young adult Jews. But at the same time, these hinges can swing doors closed, and young Jews whose enthusiastic participation could make a difference in Jewish life in so many ways will be on the other side. Maybe—if we’re luckier than we deserve—the doors will crack open again 10 or 15 years hence when members of this latency generation look for a synagogue, a Jewish community center or maybe a Jewish summer camp for their kids.
The Jews We Lose
1. The overwhelming majority of American Jews attend college, and 80% attend only 40 schools. This means that in college, Jews are easily reachable. Many may not turn up for Jewish events, but Jewish organizations at least know where to put up their posters. It’s much harder to reach Jews once they have dispersed after college, but urgent to try. because many important life decisions (what to do, where to live, whom to marry) are no longer made in college.
2. While all Jews tend to many later than the national norm. Jewish women are more than twice as likely as non-Jewish women to remain single throughout their childbearing years (15% vs 7-1/2% according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey). When the community focuses its scrutiny on “family,” all these single women are lost to view.
3. Because intermarriage rates are so high (as you’ve doubtless heard, more than 50% of Jews marrying for the first time will likely marry a non-Jew), recognize that, no matter whom they will marry, young adult Jews need to be attended to as individuals in their own right.
Lessons from “A Tribe Called Jews”
- Invitations and programs must feel fresh and age-appropriate. (Look at our invitations!)
- Authenticity counts. (These are people with very good, sophisticated secular educations; Jewish content can’t be frumpy, condescending or out of date.)
- Everyone is allergic to the “singles” label on any event.
- It’s important to have multiple entry points: music, group discussions, lectures, hikes, ritual.
- While others are doing wine and beer tastings, with lots of outside experts, this crowd wants more grassroots, self-controlled activities.
- Location, location, location. Real estate mavens are right. The micro-climate for activities turns out to be crucial. “I’d much sooner shlep to an event in Brooklyn than go to the Upper East Side,” said several participants, and a Rosh Hashanah luncheon scheduled in a synagogue hall was one of the project’s least-attended events.
- FREE is very important for this population. They are not high earners.
- Personal contact (phone calls, for example) is crucial, since creating community is the meta-message.
- One key to the project’s initial success was LILITH’s use of interns who are themselves in the target population. Providing employment opportunities is a magnet giving any sponsoring organization both a natural connection with recent college graduates and some much-needed credibility.
- Hillels need to see that their members benefit from being tracked after graduation.
- Help with jobs, housing and mentoring. Most Jewish institutions have been defining young adults much older than we do. This younger cohort appreciates many kinds of assistance and support services, from job leads to apartments. (Think of how many young Jews would meet in a building full of studio apartments reserved for them!) And mentoring helps; Jewish agencies providing these concrete supports appear much more user-friendly.
- Invite the target population to such functions as museum openings; don’t just reserve them for large donors.
- Paper the house with young adults. Ask people who are buying whole tables for benefits (and then sometimes have trouble filling them) to set aside four seats or a couple of tables so that Jews in their 20s could be invited. Consider these as “scholarships”; a benefit performance or formal dinner might be just another social obligation to the habitual attendees, but a very positive experience (modeling tzedakah as well as an interesting program) for twentysomethings.