Modern Orthodox communities today seem to have an interesting relationship with millennials. We want them, and many rabbis indeed do work to bring millennials into their congregations, but at the same time we are scared of them. We want their participation and the fresh enthusiasm they bring, but we are wary of their demands and fear that they are too quick to innovate. Many ask, will the next generation of congregants strengthen our communities or will they challenge and maybe even threaten our age old organizations?
Studies have shown that millennials are generally less interested in belonging to institutions, and are less deferential to authority and hierarchical structures. Authority alone is insufficient in gaining the trust and respect of millennials, leaving Rabbinic and lay leaders to earn millennial congregants’ respect before they can lead. Practically speaking, this willingness to question traditional authority has led millennials to break away from many of the accepted truths of their parents’ generation. Orthodox Jewish millennials are more tolerant of the LGBTQ community and are more critical of the state of Israel than older community members. They are less enthusiastic about a two-hour Shabbat morning davening, and the JFK Jew, the Just For Kiddush Jew who comes at the end of davening for Kiddush Shabbat morning, is a real phenomenon in many communities. Millennials expect their voices to be heard and valued much as they are in the modern professional world, and they may be impatient with the slow churn of change in traditional Orthodox communities.
So how do we respond to this phenomenon? Some would suggest that we shouldn’t. After all, so many of our traditions are so many years old. Orthodox Judaism existed long before the millennial, and we will exist long after. Perhaps if we are resolute in our practices, the millennials in our congregations will learn to conform to us. At the other extreme, one could argue that we should move quickly to change Jewish practice and policy. They might suggest using the most creative and innovative means at our disposal so that our Jewish institutions can meet the needs of our millennials of faith. After all, with so many young people not believing at all, can we afford not to accommodate those who wish to worship alongside us?
I believe that we must look to the philosophy of Rav Kook for guidance. Rav Kook believed that there are no absolutely good or absolutely bad ideologies, but that each contains some element of Divine light. When confronted with ideas that we cannot understand, or philosophies with which we cannot agree, our responsibility is to seek the element within them that is holy. In doing so, we turn challenges to our way of thinking into opportunities to become better people and to help shape our practice for the good.
When newer members of our community challenge our traditional perspectives on the role of women in Jewish life, or when they question our conventional response to the issues raised by homosexuality, we must see their questions not as threats, but as opportunities. For while these encounters may make us feel uncomfortable, often such challenges stem from our congregants’ sincere desire to have meaningful experiences, choice, empowerment, fairness and spirituality, all of which are beautiful values. If these challenges force us to find a more complex and deeper perception of God, Torah and mitzvot in a halachically and hashkafically authentic manner and a more thoughtful defense of the state of Israel, then we benefit from them.
Truly embracing millennials and being open to their values can actually help save our communities. How many in our communities have gone off the derech, falling between the cracks because they didn’t want to conform, because they found ancient texts boring, because they were told that they couldn’t question, or because they didn’t feel that they had a connection to God when they prayed? Differentiation, which is the buzzword in education today, can serve our communities in addition to our classrooms. It emphasizes choice, highlights personal journeys, and encourages each individual to find truth in ways that are meaningful to him. Introducing real differentiation in a halachically responsible fashion will increase avenues of spiritual growth and connection in our synagogues and communities. Hopefully, by adapting Rav Kook’s model, we will not only make millennials feel comfortable in our institutions, but we will invite them to help shape and strengthen our institutions for many years to come.