What Would a Synagogue Run by Millennials Look Like?

Interested in finding out what it would be like if a large conservative synagogue was run by millennials? Some time, stop by the offices of Congregation Etz Chaim.

Over the past year and a half, three of our key senior staff positions–our senior rabbi, program director, and youth director– as well our board president, have been filled by people in their mid to early thirties. Admittedly, our soon to be rabbi emeritus, executive director, and education director are not millennials: but I would argue that at least two of the three are “millennials at heart” (I won’t tell you which ones).

Why would a millennial want to work in a synagogue? And in particular, when some studies would argue that working at a synagogue is a little like getting up to bat with two strikes in the bottom of the ninth? Perhaps, it’s because practically speaking synagogues as workplaces jive well with the kind of working environments that millennials typically seek. Watching our parents’ horrific commutes, millennials love to work local.  We also love to enter “helping professions.” We enjoy the flexibility that working at a synagogue affords: my entire team works demanding hours and weekends, but we also don’t take for granted the ability to run to the doctor or to take our children to swim practice without anyone making a fuss.

However, more significantly, the true reason that I believe my millennial team invests in our community is because we believe that synagogues remain the best vehicle to collaborate, innovate, and engage the next generation of Jews in Jewish living.

Where else, but a synagogue, can you find an already built in core of volunteers who are already on some level invested in your vision? Together, my millennial team see ourselves as partners in supporting the sacred collaborative work that each of us does in conjunction with the members of our community.  Each of us has our standard responsibilities that come with the job description, but we understand that formal responsibilities are not really what our jobs are about. In a word, nearly everything we do is collaborative.  I have never once heard the words “that’s not in my contract.” No one on my senior team comes to punch out a clock and go home.

As a result of our collaborative efforts, over the past year and a half we have begun to create a foundation that encourages others in our community to collaborate with us.  Last summer, we rented out a local subdivision pool where many people already go to swim, held a Tot Shabbat service in a kiddie pool before sundown, and had challah and pizza.  What was pleasantly surprising was not only the large turnout, but the fact that Jews who heard Tot Shabbat from across the pool decided to join us. After having an outdoor Shabbat service, we discovered as a community the need to get back to nature.  Members of our community then came together to build an outdoor sanctuary modeled after the ones we see at Jewish summer camp.  In the future, we see this as a vehicle for collaborating with other groups in our community to bring music and other media to this space.  Like other millennials, we understand that social media is a critical tool to invite our community into our conversation.  We’ve launched a successful 20s-30s group that is now led by millennials outside of my team.  It rarely meets in the synagogue, but in hot spots all over the city.  In the age of internet and increased openness, millennial synagogue leaders must look beyond our four walls, and see our institutions not only being about buildings, but as kehillot: sacred communities that have a presence beyond the four walls.

While the trend in the greater Jewish community has been to disparage synagogues, or even, I would argue, to subtly encourage the next generation of Jews to seek spiritual community elsewhere, my team sees in our community an amazing opportunity to create change from within.  I am proud every day to be part of a community that rather than ignoring millennials, sees us as a critical voice toward building a vibrant spiritual community for the Jewish future.

About the Author
Daniel Dorsch is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. He also serves a Vice President of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. He enjoys barbecuing in the winter, wearing jeans to work, and spending time with his family.
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