There was an article recently on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website entitled “‘Engaging’ Millennials Is All The Rage. But Is It The Best Use Of Jewish Philanthropy?” This commentary motivated our younger Birmingham Jewish Federation staff to do some thinking, especially because we spend substantial time engaging millennials in our small, but mighty Birmingham, Alabama Jewish community.
The first time I read the piece, I pretty much just blew it off. It was written by Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He challenged the prevailing wisdom in the organized Jewish community that significant resources and time should be deployed toward engaging millennials — my peer group, young adults in their 20s and early 30s.
I did mention it to another of our younger Federation staff members, Florina Newcomb, as we were talking about planning a Federation event for millennials and helping to fund it. It was my conversation with Florina that led me to go back and read the article again.
After re-reading it, I began to see the problem with the author’s argument. Essentially, he points to numerous “free” opportunities (the consumer might not pay but somebody is paying for it) that have engaged millennial Jews on, what he contends, is a superficial level. Yes, the writer admits Birthright Israel, OneTable and Moishe House — all organizations that work to engage young Jews at zero to little cost on the participant’s end — have had successes.
But, Wertheimer argues that these successes aren’t genuine or long-lasting. He also implies that Jewish organizations may be using a “bait and switch” tactic to get younger Jews involved.
“Events designed for millennials usually are free or require only a modest admission fee. Participants attend episodically and are treated to programming that is light on Jewish content and heavy on socializing. The rationale, no doubt, is that first you have to attract young people who tend to be suspicious of events that seem ‘too Jewish’ or too similar to what an older generation might prefer,” he writes.
“One wonders, though, whether these episodic and mainly social gatherings will lead to lifelong engagement unless participants grow as Jews, deepen their Jewish knowledge, connect with the richness and complexity of Jewish civilization, and grapple in a meaningful way with their Jewish identity. Episodic connection is unlikely to educate individuals about how to live as Jews, and certainly is not a recipe for building commitment to Jewish community,” he continues.
I think Wertheimer’s argument is flawed — Birthright Israel is less than 20 years old and OneTable and Moishe House are even newer organizations. To truly measure the results of the experiences that these organizations are providing young people, many variables need to be examined over a significant length of time.
If someone participates on a Birthright trip at the age of 18 and the criteria for determining success is raising a Jewish family, we might have to wait 10 or more years to find out if Birthright had a real impact, by that standard, on the participant.
Additionally, providing free or low-cost programming to young Jews isn’t just to get them in the door. The purpose is to engage them in our Jewish community — and lowering or removing financial barriers might make it easier to participate.
We must accept that millennials are just that — millennials. No matter how much we try to change them or justify (or not justify) their actions, my generation is a generation that we must depend on for our future, and we must do our best to help them feel like they belong.
Speaking of our future, Wertheimer ends his article by suggesting that the money used to fund programs such as Birthright and OneTable should be instead invested in Jewish education for young children.
While I believe that Jewish education and other Jewish opportunities such as summer camp are extremely important for kids and teens, their parents are going to have to be willing to spend the time, energy and money to engage their children in these activities. And who are these future children’s parents? You guessed it — the millennials.
We at the Birmingham Jewish Federation believe that Jewish experiences of all types for all ages are so important to the cohesiveness and inclusivity of our community. From You Belong In Birmingham to PJ Library to Shalom Birmingham — all programs at the BJF that work to engage millennials — we work to provide Jewish social, educational and social action opportunities for Jews of all ages.
It’s important to our organization that we spread the “Jewish love” among different generations. And while we’re spreading the love, maybe critics can quit chastising millennials — because marginalizing us is not going to do the Jewish community good in the long run.