Young adults defy traditional Jewish outreach


NEW YORK, March 6 (JTA) – Don’t call them “Generation X.” “Young adults” won’t do either.

And unless you want to sound the death knell for your program, don’t even think of calling it a “Jewish singles” event.

That’s some of the advice coming from the front lines of Jewish outreach to a largely unaffiliated demographic group – Jews who range in age from just out-of-college to late 30-something, and have not yet had children.

For years, the American Jewish community tended to focus almost exclusively on senior citizens and families with school-age children – in short, those Jews most likely to pay to join a Jewish institution.

But amid a flurry of new efforts to engage unaffiliated Jews and – to use the lingo of “Jewish renaissance” promoters – create “multiple entry points” to Judaism, 20- and 30-somethings are getting some attention.

That age group – approximately 23 percent of the American Jewish population, according to the North American Jewish Data Bank – will be the focus of a March 12-13 gathering in Washington sponsored by the federation system’s Renaissance and Renewal Pillar and the Schusterman Family Foundation.

The Washington event will bring together a handpicked list of 40 leaders, most in their 20s and 30s, to brainstorm about outreach to young Jews.

A number of participants are from established institutions, like the religious movements and federations, but the majority come from new Jewish programs specifically for 20- and 30-somethings. They include:

* Makor, a Manhattan cultural venue housed in a stylish brownstone that looks more like a Starbucks cafe or a nightclub than a Jewish institution. Makor offers concerts, movies, classes, community service projects, a kosher vegetarian restaurant and networking groups for young artists, musicians, film makers and Internet entrepreneurs.

* Gesher City, a budding national organization that serves as a clearinghouse for Jewish events of interest to young people and facilitates contacts between Jews with shared interests. Founded in Boston, it now has affiliates in Washington and Baltimore, with plans under way for New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami and Seattle.

* The Joshua Venture, which is offering $30,000 fellowships, leadership training and other resources to eight 20- and 30-something “social entrepreneurs” launching projects in the arts, Jewish learning and social justice.

So how is this generation different from those that preceded it?

The number of Jews in their late 20s and 30s who are single has grown during the past decades because many Jews are waiting longer to marry and have children.

David Morrison, president of Twentysomething, a marketing firm that specializes in said age group, describes them as mobile, eager for adventure, busy, “grasping for a sense of belonging” and plugged into technology.

“The idea of setting down roots in a Jewish community is not high on their priority list right now,” said Morrison, who will be one of the speakers at the Washington gathering.

Morrison, himself Jewish and 20-something, said he is unsure how to translate his somewhat contradictory findings – a yearning to belong combined with an unwillingness to set down roots – into Jewish policy.

He suggested that the Jewish community offer more opportunities for young people to connect on the Internet, perhaps even offering religious services on the Web.

He also advised synagogues to do a better job of welcoming newcomers at events and to consider shortening services, because young people are “racing to temple if they have time and from temple to somewhere else.”

Leaders of new programs geared to 20- and 30-somethings said their constituents are interested in Jewish activities if they relate to personal interests such as hobbies, community service or professional development.

Amy Tobin, a Joshua Venture fellow, is creating a project for Jewish artists at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center because she thinks the arts are a good venue for exploring Jewish identity.

“I don’t necessarily feel comfortable in synagogue, and I’m not looking for singles events because I’m not looking for a partner, but I haven’t seen much else out there,” she said.

“But I know people go to the theater and poetry readings and read books, and I know people read about and see things that have to do with their own personal identity or something that resonates for them,” Tobin said.

Rabbi David Gedzelman, Makor’s creative and rabbinic director, said most people are drawn to his center by arts and entertainment programs, but they increasingly are signing up for Jewish studies courses as well.

New projects like Makor and Gesher City also address the fact that many young Jews not interested in going to synagogue are seeking things to do, and like-minded people to do them with.

“Everyone wants to feel connected,” said Alison Corton, national director of Gesher City.

But that does not simply mean participating in cultural programs or socializing with other Jews.

Corton said that the Gesher City’s most popular programs have been Jewish text study sessions and distribution of free or discounted tickets to High Holiday services. Gesher City also has helped match people with synagogue members for holiday meals.

Less successful, say those involved in programming, are efforts to get 20- and 30-somethings to become paying members of institutions.

Makor’s Gedzelman said he has been stymied so far in attempts to create memberships, but informal networks – such as a Hebrew club and a group for Internet entrepreneurs – are thriving.

Another lesson has been the importance of proper marketing.

“You can have great programming but can throw the whole thing away with the wrong labeling,” Gedzelman said.

“We never use the language ‘singles’ ever, even if that’s our goal in a particular context,” he said. “You call something ‘Jewish singles’ and the healthy, interesting, attractive people you want to attract are going to say, ‘I don’t need that, to be in that context means I’m desperate.’ “

Recommended from JTA