When synagogues around the world convene High Holy Day services later this month, many will notice that there are more empty seats this year than in years past, and that young Jews are the ones conspicuously absent.
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It is no secret that today’s American Jewish community has a youth problem. In my movement, for example, only about 8 percent of the average congregation is between the ages of 18 and 34, and disaffiliation rates among the young are rising.
As a rabbi who is passionate about combating these trends, I have taken advantage of as many opportunities as possible to reach out to and learn from young Jews who feel synagogues aren’t built for them. What I have learned is that they feel traditional synagogues are too rigid, have too much entrenched power, and are complicated by excessive bureaucracy. To a generation that embraces rapidly evolving norms on wedge issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, same-sex marriage, and religiously blended families, synagogue culture often feels stagnant and behind the times.
At the same time, many of the young Jews I have met yearn for spirituality, wisdom, and meaning. I have heard them ache for real community and emotional prayer. I have seen them excitedly connect with inspiring, relatable rabbis. I have listened to longings for a Judaism that speaks to their deepest hopes and struggles. And I have seen the frustration of young Jews who knew deep down that the soul of Judaism is a passion for justice and fairness, and yet the synagogues they encountered were places of inequality that did little to inspire efforts to repair the world.
The searches and struggles of these Jews have led me to conclude that any attempt to modernize synagogues must be guided by the five key values: transformation, inclusion, holy community, dynamism and joy. These are the values I urge Jewish communities worldwide to take on for the new Jewish year, 5775, which is fast approaching.
Young Jews long for a Judaism that encourages self-improvement and repairing the world: “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8). The synagogue that wants to succeed in engaging young Jews will help people fulfill those imperatives by developing prayer experiences that inspire and uplift. They will craft relevant learning opportunities that challenge and spark personal growth. And they will work to translate prayer and study into action, leading people to pursue justice, kindness, dignity and peace.
Young Jews identify strongly with Judaism’s axiomatic beliefs that all individuals are created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26), and that human dignity outweighs all other Torah precepts (Babylonian Talmud, B’rakhot 19b). To that end, the synagogue that wants to engage today’s young Jews will strive to be as inclusive as possible for people of all ages, relationship statuses, genders, sexual orientations, denominations, and religious backgrounds. They will also adopt full egalitarianism, building an atmosphere of informality, and becoming non-judgmental about where people fall on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge and observance.
Young Jews get that transforming the individual and the world are group efforts, requiring the presence, support and companionship of others: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). The synagogue that wants to engage today’s young Jews will nurture communities where people are committed to coming together to enhance each other’s joy, hold each other in times of need, help each other discover the answers to life’s deepest questions, and feel responsibility and empathy for one another.
Young Jews seek Judaism and Jewish communities that constantly evolve and grow. They believe one can love Jewish tradition and simultaneously encourage its perpetual evolution. After all, Judaism has always been in process, and change itself is a core Jewish value: It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today (Deuteronomy 5:2-3). This requires synagogues to have a sense of loyalty to the tradition and, simultaneously, a willingness to challenge the status quo.
Young Jews are searching for happiness in their lives, and they intuit that spirituality and religion should be joyous: “Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing.” (Psalm 100:2). So many religious communities make the mistake of assuming that since doing God’s work is serious business, it must be done with austerity and formality. The authentic Jewish way to serve God is through friendship, singing, dancing and laughing. This is also what a vibrant 21st century Judaism requires.
Synagogues that want to succeed in engaging today’s young Jews will strive to include people of all backgrounds in invigorating and innovative Jewish life and community. They will inspire congregants to better each other, the world and themselves. They will illuminate authentic and traditional Jewish pathways for growth and transformation on all levels, especially making an impact toward a more just and peaceful world.
The ones that are serious about this renewal will start this year.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.