How to Get Youth Into Your Synagogue
Millennials. We’re all grappling with similar questions: How do we get them to go to Hebrew school? Or go to Hillel once they’re in college? Or services after that?
I can only answer from my own (millennial) perspective, but my experience has been profound. It is not unique and it is, in fact, deeply rooted in Torah.
“The worship of God,” wrote Mordecai Kaplan, “though desirable as an end in itself, can somehow never be in the right spirit unless it impels one to the service of man.”
Kaplan seemed ahead of his time, but he was just drawing on Torah–a trailblazing force of social justice. The oft-quoted “justice, justice shall you pursue” (D’varim 16:20) says the word twice because, according to commentators, the first time deals with laws of what is right, while the second time refers to the system of how we achieve it: the Torah’s commandments of fair courts and procedures for judgment.
So when, as young people, we do see injustice in the world—when we see violations of the Torah’s vision of not unfairly favoring one person over another, or not “hearing the small just as the great” (D’varim 1:17), it’s a very Jewish thing to react.
What has motivated me as a Jewish young person is that in every issue I’ve worked on, I encountered the particular injustice of society not hearing the small and the great alike. Let me explain. My journey has taken me from starting a Jewish environmental group in college, to volunteer lobbying with American Jewish World Service, to directing communications for a homelessness non-profit. My homeless services and housing agency was constantly getting its government funding cut despite its incredible success in helping the homeless become contributing, permanently housed, members of society thus saving taxpayers money on incarceration, health care, and foster care. While we didn’t have money in the state budget for these services, somehow lawmakers found a few hundred million dollars here or there in special tax deals to hand out to well-connected corporate lobbies. In my experience, more often than not, the “small” are the vast majority of people using their common sense, and the “great” are using their outsized influence to sway public policy away from the public interest and towards their own narrower interests. And this, to me, is a direct violation of what we learn in Torah.
As a Jewish young person upset by injustice, I decided to take action in my own community. I joined my synagogue’s social action team to meet more community members. I officially joined the synagogue, and soon thereafter gave a d’var Torah on how affordable housing in our neighborhood was being gobbled up and flipped by developers who had an “in” with the alderman, to whom they’d made campaign contributions. Three people approached me immediately afterwards, concerned about what is happening in our backyard, and I took that as a sign that the community may want to do something.
One of the congregation’s rabbis, a fellow millennial, took it upon himself to organize a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of action. About 80 people attended and we held five break-out sessions with organizers of different campaigns. I led a session on the intersection of civil rights, over-incarceration, and the campaign contributions of private prisons, all of which leads to harsher sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, at taxpayer expense.
From that session, we found a leader who helped organize a future demonstration. From a subsequent event, we found a student who wanted to intern. At all of these events, millennials were well represented and deeply interested and engaged with the issues. They were looking for an outlet for their social concern, and they found it in a synagogue.
The Torah may have blazed a trail for justice, but other traditions have learned and are expanding on the model of how, as religious people, we can continue that tradition. Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the international interfaith youth movement, figured out why young people weren’t showing up at interfaith gatherings. These gatherings largely consisted of self-congratulatory panels and ceremonies, with no meaningful action steps available. So Eboo Patel created IFYC to provide young people of diverse religions the opportunity to do service together. The organization grew, and soon, each young person was not only attending these service opportunities, but also taking a renewed interest in his or her own religion.
I believe that the best way to ensure a strong future for the Jewish people is simple: provide opportunities for youth to engage deeply in an important part of our tradition. The Jewish environmental group I co-founded at Hillel attracted Jews who otherwise would not have stepped into the building. Scores of millennials here in the city of Chicago—myself included—have become paying members of congregations where we feel like worship and service go hand-in-hand.
If you’re nervous about activism on core Torah principles of justice, such as giving voice to the small and great alike, remember—God created the world using the power of the word. If we want the next generation of the Jewish people to take on the responsibility of tikkun olam, helping complete God’s creation, they cannot do so without expressing their voices.
And, quite appropriately, their voices can find a natural home in our own synagogues.
Benjamin D. Singer is the Campaign Director for Common Cause Illinois and serves on the Na’aseh social action committee at Anshe Emet Synagogue. Previously, he co-founded ECO Hillel at Northwestern before directing communications for A Safe Haven and then consulting for U.S. Senate candidates while living in Moishe House Chicago.