Dear Jewish Millennials, It’s Not Your Fault.

Dear Jewish Millennials,  

These are confusing times for the Jewish community. The statistics are scary, the future is unclear, but we do know one thing: we know where the power lies.

According to studies, other generations consider Millennials less patriotic, less hard-working, more entitled and more self-absorbed. Unfortunately, according to a Pew Research Study, your generation is also quite hard on itself, agreeing with these traits. On the flip side, your generation has many positive attributes, including: an ease working in teams, multiculturally tolerant, independent, family focused, sociable, and your generation highly values collaboration, diversity, creativity and being mentored.

These positive and negative attributes are not limited to those in the Jewish world. Millennials of many faiths, in the United States, consider themselves “less religious.” According to one survey, 35% of the Millennial generation use the term “unaffiliated” as compared to the total population, which was at 22.8% in 2014.

We see how this plays out in the Jewish community. For the last decade, synagogues and other Jewish institutions have wondered where you have been and when you are coming back. And you have likely been pressured by family to attend and/or join.

Many Jewish institutions have seen their membership rosters shrink, their seats empty on Shabbat and holidays, and a general graying of their communities. When answering surveys, 32% of you consider yourselves “Jews of no religion.” For synagogues, this means less dues coming in, fewer children in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah pipeline, and a growing concern for the future of the Jewish people.

Your parents, and frequently grandparents, may use love, or guilt, to get you to join the ranks. Synagogue boards are putting pressure on their clergy to find a way to bring you back, and they are willing to pay for any program, event, building renovation or consultant that might help meet this goal. As a former congregational rabbi, I know the panic and despair that permeates every board meeting and the tactics they resort to, in order to cover rising costs despite a shrinking membership. This concern has also led me to research the unaffiliated (often called “The Nones” based on how they answer the question of religious affiliation) especially as it pertains to the Millennial generation.

We all know that that young adult night of bowling or that event at a local brewery will not get you to join a synagogue. What might get you into synagogue is going with bubbe on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or to your niece’s Bat Mitzvah, but that alone won’t make you stay. It will not compel you to come regularly on Shabbat and the many other Jewish holidays and spend an hour to three hours (depending on the denomination) to sit through services, listen to a sermon, and maybe hear the story of the miraculous birth of the Bar Mitzvah boy, whom you most likely have never met.

All of this is not your fault. It is your parents’ generation’s fault. And honestly, it is not even their fault entirely. It is about much bigger trends. Social, religious, and political forces that came into play when the Baby Boomer generation was young are the causes. This generation saw women enter the workforce, divorce become acceptable, the Vietnam war, government scandals and the civil rights movement. This in turn shaped the Boomers into individuals who questioned authority, delayed marriage and children (and had fewer of them), sought their own path and welcomed a pluralistic society. The decline in synagogue attendance and Jewish institution membership started back in the mid-sixties, way before you were born. It has only become more visible over the last decade as your generation has replaced the Boomer generation in prominence. In addition, individuals who were young adults in the 1940s and 1950s are passing away, leaving empty seats and coffers in their wake.

As a member of the Millennial generation, you are aware of your Judaism. It is part of your identity. You follow news about the Middle East and Israel and many of you have been on Birthright trips. You have Jewish and non-Jewish friends and celebrate Jewish holidays with family. You are excellent parents of infants and young children, and you contribute to a pluralistic society that faces many economic, political and environmental uncertainties. Given all of this, where must the Jewish community go and how can we get there?

While I cannot predict the future, here are a few things I do know.

I know that the definition of God as taught to you in Hebrew school, is not necessarily applicable to you. I know that the synagogue has diminished relevance in your life, but that some of you will go back when your children are of Hebrew school age.

And I know where the power lies. It is in your hands and your hearts. You have the power to shape your Judaism your way. You can create communities that are meaningful to you, with rituals that take advantage of the best our tradition has to offer, combined with values that you would be proud to pass on to your children and share with your friends.

It is time to forget about all the studies, and creatively build communities that work for you. And as you do so, the institutional Jewish community will follow.