One Solution: 20-Something Synagogue Engagement
by Rabbi Donald Kunstadt
I carefully read Reform Judaism magazine’s “Forum for the Future” – it was well-written and deserves all of our attention. Two messages rang clear throughout all the writings: These devoted young Jewish leaders are not joining congregations; however they are searching long and hard for Jewish community. Clearly they are not finding the community they want within established congregations which are largely designed for an older member. The entrée to membership has most often been the question, “How are we going to educate our children?” – an irrelevant one for most 20 somethings.
Though a singularly focused 20-something with deep commitment to Judaism might want serious Jewish study, he or she is probably not going to be comfortable studying with 50-year-olds and older. There are generational differences.
Each congregation needs to spearhead a chavurah community for the young adults within their midst. Every congregation can proactively do this with larger congregations forming multiple units of these artificial communities. This is exactly what the young people are writing about – searching for community – and many of them are finding it within the communities they themselves are creating. It is an idea first popularized in the 1960s and gained strength in the ’70s and ’80s, but now not so much talked about. Every congregation could reach out like fingers into the community to establish these networks to bring our 20- and 30-somethings together. Synagogues need to be creating these communities as part of our outreach. Exactly what they would do within their various chavurot would be up to each of autonomous group, from a Shabbat dinner together to an afternoon of hiking. The important thing is the Jewish bonds would be created and strengthened, and communities would be built, albeit small ones.
Will these people be members of the congregation? While they are in their 20s and early 30s, we should give away a membership to anyone who wants it while they are placed within these chavurot. The model should be similar to what many rock groups do today: They give away their music on the Internet precisely because if they didn’t, it would be stolen anyway. They have a back-loaded, financially viable model through their concerts and the sale of merchandise. Similarly, we give everything away to our 20- and 30-year-olds as we involve them in these chavurah faith communities, and develop commitment and loyalty, which will evolve as they mature. Later on, if the relationships are strong, as they create families and move through the cycles of life, they will support congregations.
Who will pay for all this and who will run it? It doesn’t take all that much to organize a chavurah. I personally have organized many in my career, and it only takes a few hours’ time at the initial meeting and the foresight to help pick a few charismatic leaders who are on board with the task. If the group finds common purpose, it will sustain itself and flourish.
The chavurah movement is an old idea that needs to be carefully promoted once again by each local synagogue to reach our young people.
Rabbi Donald Kunstadt serves as the rabbi of the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, AL, a position which he has held since 1987.
Originally posted at Finding Meaning