October 17, 2019

Jewish Youth Are More Spiritual Than You Think

Working in Jewish media, I’ve learned that much of what constitutes Jewish thinking in the United States amounts to fretting about whether the next generation will be Jewish. 

It will be. 

Maybe not all, but a great deal of them will be Jewish. The question is: What kind of Jews will they be?

Most likely, they will be the type of Jews who spend a great deal of time fretting about whether the next generation will be Jewish. 

What do kids want? How can we make kids see Judaism as relevant? Can we offer yoga at synagogue? Can we, as was suggested in a recent Jewish Journal podcast, “remix” Judaism? Can we get people to just light candles on Shabbat? Can we get them to consider giving up pork?

We can’t force anyone; that’s a failing strategy. So perhaps, we should beg them. Perhaps we should seduce them. Perhaps — and this is a big one — we should trick them. We can slip Judaism into their lives like a heartworm pill into a glob of peanut butter and feed it to them.

But what if these strategies not only are losing ones but also insulting ones?

Speaking as a young, liberal, millennial Jew who is a practicing Jew, I believe this perspective on outreach is based on a series of myths, stereotypes and misconceptions about millennials and about Judaism.

Here are some of the big ones:

Myth One: Judaism Is Weird and Lame!
Traditional Judaism stinks. It’s boring. It’s hard. It’s irrelevant. And it’s full of bizarre and unmodern practices like putting a box on your head and reading about an ancient Temple where animal sacrifices were performed. Young, liberal Jews want a Judaism for today!

No. 

Young, liberal Jews want a Judaism that’s in line with their values. We want a Judaism that is welcoming to gay and trans worshippers, and treats women and men with equal dignity. We want a Judaism that won’t judge or scorn our observance level.

That said, we very well might appreciate a dose of the strange, the esoteric and the utterly Jewish elements of Judaism. As recently deceased Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans once wrote, millennials are looking for a religion that is inclusive — but not stripped of its ancient particularities.

“The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird,” Evans wrote. “You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality.”

Myth Two: Judaism Is Hard!
Young, liberal Jews want a Judaism that’s fast, easy and cool. They don’t like commitment. They like social functions and bright colors. You need a fun rabbi with Beto O’Rourke-style skateboarding and table-standing skills to really wow these youngsters!

Young, liberal Jews don’t want something easy. We want something real. When something is real, we can dedicate and commit. Millennials have not abandoned the pursuit of committed spiritual and ethical lives.

Think of millennials living zero-waste lifestyles; traveling the world and working on organic farms; going to yoga once a day; or traveling to monasteries to do silent Vipassana retreats. None of these things are easy, yet many young people are convinced they are worth the effort.

What young people don’t want is to be pandered to. As a gay, liberal millennial, the Reform movement seemed like a natural fit for me when I decided back in college to explore Judaism’s spiritual foundations.

What I found were temples so desperately trying to reach me that they barely allowed any space for me to reach Judaism. Each Shabbat had a “fun” theme: Jamaican Drum Shabbat, Buddhist Chanting Shabbat, Art Shabbat, Yoga Shabbat. 

At home, I would read books by Heschel, Buber and Kook. I was beginning to learn the religion I grew up with was full of deep mysteries, spiritual treasures and intellectual knots for me to explore and work out. Why were these temples and synagogues so convinced this wasn’t enough for me?

Myth Three: Judaism Doesn’t Do Anything!
Young, liberal Jews don’t care about Judaism. To get them to be Jewish, you must incentivize Jewish practice.

This point was stressed in the Jewish Journal podcast on “remixing” Judaism. Orthodox Jews, stated Roberta R. Kwall, practice religion because God said so, whereas liberal Jews need to be convinced religion will do something for them. Bring their families together, perhaps — or help them disconnect from busy work lives on Shabbat.

But what we do for an instrumental purpose always can be replaced by something that achieves that purpose better. Does lighting Shabbat candles bring your family together? Maybe. However, maybe playing Scrabble does the same thing. Maybe Scrabble is even more fun for the family than a Shabbat dinner. If the point of the thing isn’t the thing itself, then the point is the result, and the means can be replaced.

The only Judaism that will survive is a Judaism practiced for its own sake.

Myth Four: The Kids Must Be Jewish!
The Jews are going to disappear from the face of the earth! They will forget that they are Jews unless we impress this constant anxiety of assimilation onto them as it has been impressed onto us!

The yoga trend in America will die if people stop wanting to do yoga — if they find something else that’s better for their bodies, minds and souls. Like spinning or Pilates. But those who see intrinsic value in yoga — not just in its results but in the beauty of its gestures, language and message — will continue practicing. 

Isn’t this enough? How many yogis do we need? Is one yoga studio full of regularly practicing, dedicated, happy yogis worse than 20 studios? Would it be better to take that one yoga studio and start adding movie nights, tap dance classes and gospel singing to reach more people? 

I don’t think it would. So why are we doing this with our synagogues?

Demographics shift. There aren’t very many Jews in America and there may be fewer in the future.

We can assume those who remain Jewish will do so not because they have been begged, tricked or seduced, but because they fell in love with the beauty of Judaism’s gestures, language and message. 

Yes, Judaism is strange. Yes, Judaism takes effort. Yes, Judaism lacks incentives. 

And yes, these facts make Judaism a hard sell for some young people. For others, this is the appeal.

Why not focus on them for a change?


Matthew Schultz is a writer living and working in Tel Aviv.