What Jewish Millennials Want

This article was co-authored by Rabbi Ben Spratt.

We are creatures of expression living in an age of expression. We are deluged daily with information and opinion, with pundits and preachers proffering perspective. Many of us spend hours every day spreading philosophical truths and culinary creations on social media. But when we express, we cannot fully absorb. When we are transmitting truth, we cannot receive it in the same moment.

As rabbis, we feel this most deeply about our work with emerging adults ages 13 to 34 - the generation known as Millennials, the largest in American history. We watch a Jewish world desperately trying to convince this rising demographic of the essential nature of Judaism. We try again and again to express to Millennials what they "really" want and need, and why Jewish community is an answer to many of their struggles and support for their aspirations. As congregational rabbis, honored to serve Congregation B'nai Jeshurun and Congregation Rodeph Sholom, respectively, we do believe that Jewish community needs these Millennials, and that these Millenials need Jewish community.

And yet, too often we speak rather than listen.

In our work together, we wanted to try something different: to create a community not only for Millennials, but led by them, as well. We are calling it Tribe. We took months this past summer to form an Advisory Board of Millennials who could shape the program and tell us their needs. We cannot purport to have heard them out adequately, but we cannot help but feel inspired by what they have already shared.

This is what some of them shared with us - their wants, their needs, their hopes from the Jewish community, in their own words. We have found inspiration in them and hope that they in turn inspire more listening within our own program, as well as in the wider Jewish community. We hope that as Tribe's leaders offer some expression, others in the Jewish world will create the space to absorb and listen.

Adam Stone: While Judaism and the world at large have changed, we still want heritage, tradition and community in a way that fosters relationships and personal connections in a practical way. We all have busy lives and schedules - but we still want to find time to preserve and perpetuate Judaism in a way that's accessible, meaningful and convenient for us.

Blair Albom: I joined Tribe to help create an innovative outlet for young New Yorkers to explore their Judaism socially, professionally, and spiritually. As Millenials, we don't necessarily want to fit into existing models of Jewish expression like the synagogue, because we recognize that "being Jewish" doesn't necessarily mean doing what our parents did. My hope is to build a community that re-defines what it means to be Jewish in the Big Apple.

Ariella Abuaf: Having been raised by parents on opposite ends of the religious spectrum, I came away with a different sense of Judaism than most of my peers; for me it's not the religion that matters, but the sense of community I gain from cultural events. My mother, a scientist, would cry at the mention of God's non-existence, whereas my father, a self proclaimed atheist, belongs to not one, but two Synagogues. These paradoxical role models reinforced my affinity towards a cultural Jewish lifestyle, when I go to Jewish events I am seeking ties to the arts, traditional cooking, friends with shared backgrounds, and family bonding. When I look to the future, I see my Judaism focusing around these every day activities, not what is prayed about in Synagogue.

Ezra Levine: As an over-stimulated Millennial, it's important to have an outlet for relaxation and reflection. Judaism, and Tribe by extension, provide a much-needed breather from the daily grind by continuously reminding me of what's truly important and to be celebrated - friends, family, health, good food and wine, and the importance of being in the moment.

Pamela Fogel: As a Jew, I've spent my life gravitating toward the community aspect of Judaism. I'm a bit spiritual, not quite as religious, but I always feel comforted and uplifted having like-minded Jews around me. These are Jews who have shared similar upbringings, embrace similar values, and practice similar traditions. As a Jewish Millennial at the outset of "true adulthood," I'm looking to find and enhance that community - I hope it will be one of openness - a community that recognizes that in 2014, there is a broad spectrum of what it means to be Jewish, and accepts and welcomes all.

Erica Tanne: The traditional synagogue structure no longer provides the same draw that it did for our parents and grandparents' generations. Tribe provides a fresh approach that is accessible, mindful of, and solicitous to the needs of young Jews. It creates a framework through which millennials come together to cultivate relationships and bolster Jewish practice in an exciting and meaningful way.

The brilliance of our Advisory Board has made evident that we need to listen more to Millennials and cannot possibly heed their truths while trying so fervently to express our own. We look forward to sharing more of their words and their insights and amplifying their vision for Tribe.

In some ways, we see the overarching lesson evident in a classical rabbinic parable (Tosafot on the Babylonian Talmud in Chullin 108b):

If one takes a kosher spoon, and dips it into a boiling pot of creamy clam chowder, the spoon is no longer kosher. The spoon absorbs the essence of clam through heat and contact. But the spoon may be purified, in the very same manner in which it was tainted - immerse it in a pot of boiling water, and the pure waters will leech out the clam essence, and voila, a pure spoon emerges. But a question arises - as the essence of clam is expressed, why wouldn't that simply taint the boiling waters, and therefore mean the spoon was again becoming unclean? The reason: when something is expressing, it cannot absorb.

When something is transmitting, it cannot receive at the same moment. We should all take more time to receive what Millennial Jews have to share.

We are grateful to our communities, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York for their support of Tribe and ethos of collaboration.