Sam Arnold
Sam Arnold

Embracing Gen Z and Beyond: An Insight into 21st Century American Judaism

Shabbat Shalom!!

First, I would like to begin with saying thank you to Rabbi Estrin for inviting me to share words of both what I will call Torah and what I hope will be an inspiration with all of you, the Congregation of Moses Kehillah (Community). From the opportunities, I have gotten to Daven, Read Torah, and more on this Bimah to the kindness that I have received from so many, this incredible community is one that has become my fourth home after the campus of Western Michigan University and it is both an honor and privilege to be able to be a part of it.

Just as Rabbi Estrin has done throughout her time here at COM, I would like to introduce something new to begin what normally is the Sermon spot. This is something that you all will never have to do again if you choose as a community not to. However, I thought this Shabbat morning would be a great time to try it. Let’s sing: Niggun-Magevet!

That sounded great, and I hope you noticed it added even more joy to the already present that was right here in this very sanctuary!

In 2020, there was a fascinating new Pew Study released by the Pew Research Center highlighting the Jewish world. The last one had been done in 2013, and so when it was released many Rabbis rushed to find out really what we already knew: Jewish life, practice, and just Judaism as a whole shifted. From Jewish practice to affiliation and more, the data represented a Jewish world that many have come out fearful of. There are fewer people going to Shul on Shabbat, interfaith marriages rising, fewer people keeping Kosher, not as many people filling the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Oy Vey-the list of complaints (that we already knew about by the way) goes on. But, for myself, the data that caught my attention was highlighting how young United States Jews (my age and younger) are similar and different from those Jews in the United States who are my grandparent’s age and older. That article can be found here: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/06/08/how-younger-u-s-jews-are-similar-to-and-different-from-older-u-s-jews/

Interestingly enough, it turns out that “younger and older Jews in the United States don’t differ much on belief in the Kadosh Baruch Hu (God) or Synagogue attendance” (Diamant, 2021). Jews 18-29 are “just as likely as those 65 and older to say that they attend religious services at least monthly” (Diamant, 2021), and with a four percent difference, about as likely to say that “they believe in God or some higher power” (Diamant, 2021). At a broader level, it was also found that within both groups as well “seven out of ten people say that they at least sometimes cook or eat traditional Jewish foods” (Diamant, 2021) like Challah, Matzah Ball Soup, and more. At the same time, “⅓ of people in both groups say that they at least sometimes mark Shabbat in a personally meaningful way and that being a part of a Jewish community is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them” (Diamant, 2021).

This data, however, that I just shared with you only illuminates one part of the 2020 Jewish Story. Yes, Young American Jews and Older American Jews do have many things in common. However, the Judaism that I, some right here in this Sanctuary, and around the world, live are actually quite different.

You see, younger Jews are “more likely than older Jews to not identify with any institutional branch or stream of American Judaism (41% vs. 22%)” (Diamant, 2021), and “only about four-in-ten Jewish adults under 30 identify with either Reform (29%) or Conservative Judaism (8%), compared with seven-in-ten Jews ages 65 and older” (Diamant, 2021).

At the same time, Jews 18-29 are less likely to feel more emotionally attached to Israel, say that Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them, and even that they have a lot in common with Israeli Jews (Diamant, 2021). Not to mention, Younger Jews question more about what a family can look like, and how Judaism gets passed from one generation to the next. Unlike my grandparent’s generation as well, my Jewish generation is “less likely to say that the Holocaust is essential to their Jewish identity” (Diamant, 2021).

If this data was not enough, it is young Jews who are illuminating Diversity, as “15% identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian, some other (non-White) race or ethnicity or multiracial, compared with just 3% among Jews who are 65 and older”(Diamant, 2021). At the same time, the survey finds that “Jews ages 18 to 29 are less likely than Jews 65 and older to say they are straight (75% vs. 96%), and more likely to say they are gay or lesbian (7% vs. 1%) or bisexual (13% vs. 1%)” (Diamant, 2021).

In case it was not obvious from all of these statistics, young Jews are more diverse in their opinion, beliefs, and more than any other generation prior. But what raises concerns from Rabbis, Educators and more is that younger Jews don’t feel that Jewish communities have welcomed them like they have welcomed others, and as a result, makes young Jews not feel that Judaism is a big part of their lives. As a young passionate Jewish person who strives to live by Jewish Values daily, this opens my eyes even wider because it tells us that Synagogue communities like this one amongst other Jewish institutions are not doing their part to be as inclusive and open to young Jews like myself as they possibly can be.

I cannot speak about every single Jewish institution across the country because let’s face it, I don’t know about every other institution across the country. But, what I do know is that right in this very Sanctuary, the problem of young jews being welcomed and valued exists. You might ask: Sam, how did you know? My answer: I asked them, and listened to what I found to be at times hard to hear. I heard stories surrounding how some young people in this Sanctuary believe that they don’t have a voice because it is the older generation that runs the Shul. I heard from some young people in this sanctuary that they were once told their Jewish practices were considered wrong and that because of their thoughts on Torah and other topics, they were told not to show up. I also heard from some in this sanctuary that they have been stared at or frowned upon because their knowledge of Jewish stories, rituals, and more is not like those around them.

For both this Congregation and other Congregations that I hope want to be around for many more generations to come, this is not only alarming but disappointing as well. Therefore, I pose the question: What can be done to clear the damage that has taken place and make this community and other communities a place for young Jews to thrive in and feel welcome? I do not have all the answers, but I do have some that I am going to share with you now.

In the recently published book “Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21st Century” edited by Warren Hoffman, there is a chapter devoted to Millennials and Generation Z. To start off, the chapter highlights a group of young Jews who are gathered together on a Saturday afternoon at the beach close to where they spent a Shabbat retreat together. One of the participants, Mike, stated that it was time to go get ready for Havdalah and immediately another participant stated: “So, what’s Havdalah?”(Hoffman & Steinberg-Egeth, 2021). Mike shot up and stated, “How do you not know what Havdalah is?” (Hoffman & Steinberg-Egeth, 2021). A few minutes later, someone else at the beach explained it. A little background on these two people makes us understand that Mike was a traditional Jew who immersed himself in the community every chance he got, while Josh on the other hand was trying to find a Jewish path that worked for him.

Not surprising (at least to me), this is an example of young Jews today. There is someone who knows a little more than someone else about Jewish things, and there is someone else who is seeking to learn. Yet, the barrier as the story illuminates, is that Mike was disgusted that Josh did not know. I’ll be honest: I understand where Mike is coming from, as I have felt that frustration before as well. Rather than teach someone else about it, it is easy to just be frustrated. But, in actuality, it is this barrier that shuts young Jews off to Judaism even more. As a result, categories have been created where one either is a part of the unaffiliated or the I went to Hebrew School for ______ Years group and they tend to not mix at all, and if they do, it is a recipe for disaster. With that said, what synagogues and other communal places have not realized as well is that young Jews are very much information-driven. They like to know information (hence people of the book), and it shows that there is a yearning to gain knowledge to connect to something and possibly even someone Jewishly.

What we learn from this is that to embrace young people, this community must be willing to meet them where they are at Jewishly. This means that for some of us, we have to face the hard reality that Jews walking into the Synagogue space might not know the reasons for why we do certain things. At the same time, it teaches that those who are knowledgeable must be open to teaching those who are not as knowledgeable. This is linked to parents in the home teaching their children. I will also add that one does not want to be talked down to, as if they are less than someone else. Because of that, as Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages) teaches us, the teacher and the student (while maintaining those titles) are ultimately seen at the same level as one another, where student and teacher can learn not only together, but also off of one another as well (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

Finally, the story above did not take place in a Synagogue. What this teaches us is that Judaism can be found and accessed anywhere. I believe that there is a need for Synagogues and Jewish Institutions. Yet, not everyone my age feels that way. There are those who feel more comfortable delivering food to senior citizens, farming with Jewish organizations like Hazon and Repair the World, and even volunteering to march down the street as Rav Heschel once did to feel “their feet praying.” Because of that, it takes flexible leaders to want to meet young people where they are at, not make them always come to them, and provide programming and opportunities to illuminate these comforts. As Rabbi Estrin and Rabbi Spivak, both Rabbis of this very Congregation (Congregation of Moses) have shown this community, Jewish values, ideas, and thoughts can be found whether in a park, painting, or watching a favorite Disney movie.

Therefore, what do I suggest for this community and others? I suggest that questions be asked to the young Jews of this congregation so that one can understand what they would like to see. I suggest spaces be built that are welcoming and allow for anyone (no matter who they are and where they come from) to be able to enter and be able to find meaning. I suggest we think about what authentic Judaism looks like, and how values of joy, gratitude, and obligation guide the work, programs, and more that take place within this very space. Finally, I suggest (and I’ll demonstrate this one) that we combine our thoughts of “what” we want our Jewish practices to be with the “why” we want it, so that meaning is at the forefront of our own Jewish lives.

In Siddur Lev Shalem and elsewhere, there are Congregations that don’t always daven and read the Prayer for Those who Serve the Community (one of my Favorite prayers a part of our Shabbat Liturgy). However, I would like to suggest as well that this Congregation (COM) and other Congregations around the world start to recite that prayer (if not already doing so) because it shows that we all play a part in making our own communities and potentially others thrive.

I started off my words this morning with a Niggun, a wordless melody, not because I wanted to make everyone in here sing more than they have to. But, rather, because a Niggun is elevated by everyone, and it makes us all equals. We all have a voice, and if we unite our voices together as one community, I am sure B’H that this community and other communities will be able to thrive and serve as a place others call home for many more generations to come!

Kein Yehi Ratzon: May this be Hashem’s will!

References:

Diamant, J. (2021, June 8). How younger U.S. Jews are similar to – and different from – older U.S. Jews. Pew Research Center. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/06/08/how-younger-u-s-jews-are-similar-to-and-different-from-older-u-s-jews/

Hoffman, W., & Steinberg-Egeth, M. (2021). Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21st Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

About the Author
Sam Arnold is a Junior at Western Michigan University majoring in Early Childhood/Elementary Education and minoring in Comparative Religions, with the goal to receive a master's in Jewish Education and pursue the Rabbinate. He is the 1st and 2nd Grade Teacher, Co High School Teacher, and the K-3 Team leader within the joint Religious School of Congregation of Moses and Temple B'nai Israel in Kalamazoo MI, and serves as President for Western Michigan's Hillel. Sam is a part of the first-ever NEWCAJE College Cohort, a Hadar Davening College Fellow, and has studied underneath Cantor Leonard Gutman of Congregation Shaarey Zedek learning and gaining respect for the art of Davening. Finally, Sam looks to inspire others to live their lives filled with passion, joy, and meaning, just as he is on a daily basis!
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