Big Ideas for the Jewish Future: The Boomerang Effect

Don’t write them off yet. They are in their 40s and 50s. They are affluent, highly educated, and full of energy. They are unaffiliated. And they are suddenly asking big questions.

These days Jewish funders have all but written unaffiliated Boomers off for dead. Of course the focus on Gen-Xers and Ys is critical. The National Jewish Population Survey sounded an alarm about intermarriage and disaffection that no Jewish leader can afford to ignore. On the other hand, a myopic obsession with NextGen Judaism would be a huge mistake to make.

Every seven seconds another Boomer turns 50. Boomers may have walked away from Judaism years ago, but right now we have a rare opportunity to reach them as they begin to ponder midlife and consider the mark they are making on this world. They are unfulfilled at work. The money they’ve earned hasn’t brought them meaning. They have seen people they love become ill or die. They’ve watched marriages crumble. When they look in the mirror they are noticing new wrinkles and gray hairs; when they look in their souls they are noticing a new restlessness and a yearning for connection to something sacred and timeless.

Some may argue that Boomers searching for meaning can simply turn to the structures that already exist — the synagogue, the adult education program, the JCC. But the Boomer I am describing here is no different from the 20-year-old we are now trying so hard to reach through a host of new, hip, creative, cutting-edge programs. These Boomers have not been inspired by the institutions of Jewish life. That’s why they left in the first place. They are bored in temple. A surgeon I know explains the problem this way: “I grew up on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Why should anyone expect me to be inspired by Jewish opera or Chasidic tunes?” This surgeon is not a lazy Jew, and he’s not a shallow Jew either. He is a starving Jew looking to be challenged intellectually and nourished spiritually.

Retailers know that Boomers represent a huge consumer market. That’s why the Gap introduced relaxed-fit jeans. And it’s why the cosmetics industry is making billions on anti-aging products. Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, a market research and consulting firm offers this advice: “If you have a product or service or company that can help Boomers fulfill (their) quest for vitality in any aspect, you’ll be successful.”

I stumbled on this question accidentally. Five years ago, a colleague of mine, a rabbi in New York, called me to see if I could check out an organization his 25-year-old brother had become involved in. The following Sunday morning I found myself at Agape, a nondenominational church in Culver City led by the charismatic Rev. Michael Beckwith. There were 2,000 people there on their feet pouring out their hearts to God.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss as I took in this powerful experience. Why can’t Judaism move thousands like this? Then I read the names of the Agape prayer leaders and was shaken to see so many Jewish names. Agape is attracting Jews who believe deeply in God, who want to pray, but who cannot find God in a synagogue.

After that morning at Agape I began interviewing unaffiliated Jewish seekers. I wanted to know what moved them. I wanted to understand why they would go to a church or a Zen center or to yoga, but not to synagogue. In response to these conversations, a group of eight of us founded Nashuva, an outreach organization that seeks to draw young, disaffected Jews back to a soulful Judaism that is committed to social justice.

Nashuva has struck a chord with 20-somethings. But to our surprise, a new sub-population, one we had not targeted, surfaced in our midst: Boomerangs — unaffiliated Jewish Boomers in their 40s and 50s who were raised as Jews, became disaffected early on, and for the first time in their adult lives are looking for ways to return to Jewish life. Although at Nashuva we continue to inspire and activate Jews in their 20s and 30s, enthusiastic Boomerangs have also become integral to our organization.

People reaching midlife who dive into a new passion usually become groundbreakers. The great scholar Rabbi Akiba was 40 when he began to study Torah. Philanthropist Les Wexner was in his late 40s when he set out to solve the problem of uneducated Jewish leaders. Michael Steinhardt was the same age when he founded the Jewish Life Network. Look what American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger has been able to achieve in the Jewish arena after a life of public service in the secular world. So why shouldn’t there be a Wexner fellowship for potential leaders in their 40s and 50s? Why isn’t there a Makor for Boomers? Why can’t there be a Jewish service corps for Boomers?

So many innovations in Jewish programming today are being created by Boomers for the next generation. What would happen if these same Boomers tried to create cutting-edge programs to inspire their own generation of unaffiliated Jews — their own brothers and sisters, their own colleagues at work, their own neighbors down the street. It may not be a sexy pursuit, but it certainly is a worthy one.

Boomerangs are hungry, and they have much to offer the Jewish community if we can inspire them and draw them back in. Alongside all the worthy projects that are now surfacing to capture the imagination of Gen-X and Gen-Y, we need to remember that Boomers are poised now to return to the passion and idealism of their youth. If we want to be a vital community we ought to invest serious time and money into launching creative and innovative programs and services that will welcome Boomers back. A generation that was inspired by JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King Jr., may very well be ready to heed a new call.

Boomerangs will bring with them not only their skills and passion, but billions of dollars. They have accumulated enormous wealth on their own, and they are now about to inherit their parents’ wealth as well. Is it wise to neglect them?

A Day in Church

It’s 8:20 a.m. on a bright Sunday, and people are streaming from hard-to-find parking spots into a converted office building in a Culver City industrial park. This is the unassuming venue of Agape International Center of Truth, spiritual home to some 10,000 Angelenos. Outside the auditorium, greeters stand ready with programs and a smile, special badges for “new friends.”

The service room is massive, big enough to seat 1,100 people in banquet chairs, along with space for the band, the 250-member choir and the stage. The ceiling pipes are exposed, warehouse style, and the art on the wall is abstract Native American.

There are trees and flowers on the stage, and water spills soothingly over an iridescent rock in a tiny pond up front.

Agape has been described as a United Nations, and the surrounding scene lives up to the reputation. There is every shade of white, brown and yellow in the room, an equal number of men and women, evenly split young and old. At the 11 a.m. service later today, a sign-language interpreter will stand on stage.

Before services, members are invited to a half-hour guided meditation. The service, accompanied by a band, starts with a gospel-style anthem, and most people in the room seem to know all the words and the hand motions. For newcomers, the words are in back of the program, so no one is left out.

“Use me, Oh God, I stand for you/And here I’ll abide as you show me all that I must do.”

There is more music, some readings and prayers by practitioners, those who have completed four years of training at Agape’s classes.

But the real show starts when the Rev. Michael Beckwith takes the stage.

Beckwith takes off with a rapid fire assault of words and doesn’t pause for a good five minutes. But while the style is fire-and-brimstone, the message is personal inspiration, affirmation. He is talking about taking chances and heeding your intuition, your internal voice of God — your personal revelation.

“There is a transformation that must occur, a transforming effect of your life. It is an upheaval, it doesn’t feel good, the decisions you make from a revelatory state do not seem to be congruent with the way you are living your life,” he bellows, enunciating words to give them a musical effect. “Heretofore you may have been living your life having an agreement with mediocrity, or with some kind of agreement with some kind of false sense of security based on your little life you are living. But you know by now that there is no security in anything but the realization of your oneness with God.”

His words and thoughts are not simple or overly generalized, yet they somehow touch each person in the room, as nods, shouts and tears affirm that Beckwith is talking about their own lives.

“Our role here is to inspire you to have a revelation to allow that change to take place,” he says. And a little later, “The kingdom of God will be achieved when everyone lets themselves be themselves, lets God shine through them.”

He takes listeners with him, through passionate and tumultuous diatribes, slows down with the humor and emotion of his own personal anecdotes. Then he takes them back up again, shouting in singsong and hopping all over the stage, then brings them back down through soft, soothing words that feel like a blessing, then calls everyone to join together, with music, in spontaneous prayer.

It is a breathtaking performance, one that makes it obvious why Beckwith is the centerpiece of Agape, the personality that keeps them coming back.

But if Beckwith inspires with his words, that inspiration is quickly given an outlet as the music strikes up again, and everyone joins in to sing “I Had a Revelation,” with Rickie Byars, the choir leader who will marry Beckwith this month. Like the opening and closing hymns, everyone knows the words. Most people have their eyes closed, many are crying.

Once a month is choir Sunday, when the performance by the 250-member volunteer choir brings people by the thousands — literally lining up around the block hours in advance.

That is usually when the celebrities come out, too. Hilary Swank thanked Beckwith when she took home the best actress Oscar at the Academy Awards last March.

But it is not just celebrities who feel welcome. As the services draw near the end, new members are asked to rise. Everyone in the room turns toward a newcomer near them and holds their hands out, palms facing the one standing. Everyone intones together:

“You are the spirit and likeness of God. You are a unique way love intelligence operates on earth. We honor you, we spiritually support you and we thank God for you. Welcome to Agape.”
Even the collection basket is passed in a way that feels like a spiritual exercise.

“I invite you to share from your heart. Let us turn within and let us begin by giving, let us give thanks for our lives, allow for the consciousness of gratitude and thanksgiving to well up from inside you.”

Nearly everyone in the room drops something into the baskets. After services some people go to meet with practitioners for a personal prayer session. Others line up to get a hug a from Beckwith, who stands at the door to personally greet each congregant.

Outside, people meet old and new friends in the crowded book store, or drop by a table advertising a spiritual journey to Bali.

And inside, the hall is already beginning to get crowded for the next service, where Beckwith will turn it on again.