A couple of weeks ago, “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action” (“A Call to Action”) was published in EJewishphilanthropy.com. We all know that there are tremendous challenges for the American Jewish community. Many Christian denominations today in the United States are experiencing similar challenges in terms of membership and people not wanting to be part of sacred communities.
I have read A Call to Action several times. What struck me immediately was its focus on youth. The article calls for an action plan that has more children attending day schools, participating in supplemental religious schools, attending Jewish summer camps, participating on Israel trips and involved in Jewish youth groups.
My children went to summer camp, were involved in supplemental religious school education and even enjoyed it as they matured. And Israel programs were a very big part, and a major influence in their lives, during their teenage years.
What does A Call to Action mean for synagogues? I am all for a synagogue focusing on youth engagement. But is synagogue life just about “Pediatric Judaism”? If synagogues do nothing to engage parents in worship, in study, culture, and even fun, what happens when these young people become 18 and go to college? Isn’t it important for parents to be role models for their children, in their Judaism and in all aspects of the ways they live their lives?
If the synagogue, and the organized Jewish world, has a laser focus on youth engagement -and parents just serve as the bank and as the driver – will the same youth believe that Judaism is something that should be an essential part of their adult lives? What attachment will parents have to a synagogue when their children are no longer around? Once these youth become adults, will they even think about joining a synagogue? Will synagogue staff be equipped with the skills and knowledge to involve and engage them as adults? With such a focus on programming for youth, what is the difference between this and soccer or piano lessons? Will parents and their children see synagogue youth programming as just another program?
Baby boomers in the U.S. number approximately 65.2 million. Simple math tells us that, with 2% of the U.S. population being Jewish, approximately 1.3 million Baby Boomers are Jewish. Some have retired, and lots will be retiring within the next 10-15 years. And many, have disposable income. I can’t imagine that there are a lot of this cohort who belong to synagogues. This is the group whose members’ children have left, or are now leaving “the nest”. And this is the demographic that is letting their synagogue memberships lapse. Without their children, synagogue involvement, and the expenditure of a couple of thousand dollars, is no longer worthwhile. There is nothing in it for them.
I am grateful that A Call to Action has caused such a stir, at least in the virtual world, anyway. To say that we what is needed is a refocus of funds and priorities on youth is short sighted, and will, in the end, not solve the problem that adults no longer find being part of a sacred synagogue community meaningful to their lives.
I hope A Call to Action causes synagogue leaders to take stock of their youth engagement programming as well as everything that they are doing to engage parents. Such a conversation, and the action plan that comes out of it, can lead to real change.
Check out this article by David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb in response to A Call to Action.