5 Innovative Ways to Engage Young Adults in Jewish Life



It’s no secret that engaging millennials in congregational life requires innovative and creative thinking. While former generations of American Jews engaged in congregational life in traditional ways, today’s Jewish young adults in their 20s and 30s want to craft their own Jewish journeys.

The Union for Reform Judaism has been partnering with congregations across North America to innovate young adult engagement as a part of its Communities of Practice work. The full results of this work can be found in a new resource, Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement. Here, we highlight five of the best principles of young adult engagement:

  1. Make sure your online presence is compelling.
    When today’s young adults seek information or want to find new opportunities – including ways to get involved in their local Jewish community – their first stop is the Internet. Consider your congregation’s presence on your website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. Lisa Colton of See3 Communications reminds congregations to be responsive and personal, and to share engaging content. More than calendar listings, the content your congregation shares online should be inviting and newsworthy, helping to connect individuals to others within the congregation. Don’t be afraid to let your congregation’s personality shine online, demonstrating the warm environment you truly seek to build.
  1. Lower young adults’ barriers to entry.
    It’s vital that congregational leaders recognize the real and perceived barriers to young adults’ engagement in Jewish life, says Rabbi Oren Hayon, a congregational rabbi who previously served as director of the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at the University of Washington. For example, he says people in this age group typically have less discretionary income at this point in their lives than older members might. Of course, congregations can’t necessarily just lower or eliminate dues, but they must demonstrate to young adults the value in paying for a Jewish congregational experience. Cultural barriers may also stand in the way of young adults’ engagement: If your building is not easily accessible or is very formal, consider moving programming outside your walls to a coffee shop, restaurant, or someplace else with a more casual vibe.
  1. Embrace do-it-yourself Judaism.
    Organizations that successfully engage young adults in their 20s and 30s have learned how to involve them in planning programming, creating experiences that reflect the organization’s mission and the unique interests of this age group. Jamie Berman Schiffman, Director of Professional Development at Hillel International, explains that this tactic creates programming that appeals to the target audience while also empowering young adults in the community to step forward and take on a leadership role. One successful example of such programming is Congregation Beth Elohim’s Shabbat in the Hood, which “help[s] young, unaffiliated Jews build robust Jewish experiences based on what they want. Evenings can be structured around dinner, learning, singing, prayer, wine and cheese, or anything else you can imagine! You provide the space, we together invite the guests, CBE will send you a rabbinic student with a guitar, a prayer book, or whatever else you think might add to your evening.”
  1. Value quality over quantity.
    Often, we evaluate success by counting the number of attendees – and more equals better. But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture: Large attendance numbers don’t always translate into long-term engagement. But when young adults take part in more intimate programming – small groups coming together to talk, learn, eat, and kibbitz – they are more likely to become engaged and even assume leadership roles. At Temple Shalom in Newton, MA, for example, leaders realized that rather than competing with the large-scale programming being done in the Boston area, they wanted their young adult engagement program – called Shalom Y’all – to focus on forming deep relationships. Their young adult leaders decided that instead of hosting large gatherings at bars, they’d instead focus on smaller cohorts. This realization and ownership of their collective identity opened the door to strategic partnerships within the community.
  1. Give young adults a seat at the table.
    To sustain a successful young adult community, it’s imperative that the congregational leadership supports their work. University Synagogue in Los Angeles is home to a young adult community called Brentwood Havurah, which hosts nearly all of its programming “off campus” and doesn’t require traditional congregational membership. Though synagogue leadership had always had a theoretical understanding of the need to invest and support young adults in their 20s and 30s, that understanding didn’t always translate into practice. To address this issue, Brentwood Havurah’s leadership wanted a seat on the congregation’s board. This request seemed questionable to some board members, but following a campaign to educate the board about the value of this position, University Synagogue’s board not only welcomed a young adult at the table, but rewrote its bylaws to reflect the inclusion of this new position.

Jewish young adults seek meaningful connections to Judaism. Taking these ideas into account, your congregation or community can develop creative ways to successfully engage millennials as they continue their Jewish journeys.

More details on each of these points, as well as additional best principles of young adult engagement is available in the URJ’s resource Strengthening Congregations: Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement. Workshop sessions related to this topic will also be offered at the URJ Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. In the meantime, we encourage you to add your questions, comments, and experiences either in the comments below, or join the discussion in The Tent, the URJ’s online platform for congregational leaders.

Strengthening Congregations: Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement is one in a series of three publications that helps leaders strengthen their congregations by offering best principles and a range of resources. The others are Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st Century Congregation and Engaging Families with Young Children.

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Lisa Lieberman Barzilai

About Lisa Lieberman Barzilai

Lisa Lieberman Barzilai is the Director of the Leadership Institute, which is part of the URJ Strengthening Congregations team. She began her work with the URJ in July 2001 following 14 years of experience as an educator in Reform synagogue congregational schools in New York and New Jersey. Within the URJ and out of it, Lisa has served in various leadership positions: She was formerly the URJ Director of Expanding out Reach, has served on the board of ARJE (formerly NATE) since 1995, and is currently its immediate past-president. She has a Masters in Jewish Education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, which has given her the title of Reform Jewish Educator. She is married to Rabbi Morris W. Barzilai. They live in New Rochelle, New York and have three children: Matti, Zari, and Avi.

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