On the first Friday of every month while I was at university, my friends and I would hop into an Uber and head downtown to a banquet hall to join up with about one hundred other young professionals for the monthly “First Friday” Shabbat. Young Jews gathered together for a night of food, drinks, and schmoozing. There was no hidden agenda and no barriers to entry. Everyone was welcome.
Young people, young Jews, were gathered together, enjoying themselves, connecting with Judaism without ever being pressured to practice in a certain way, to show up to services, or to pay dues. The model worked. It engaged young Jews and got them excited to celebrate Shabbat together. Of course, it took great funding to make the project work, but those who organized it understood the importance of connecting young Jewish professionals to their Judaism while in school and in their first jobs.
Identifying and connecting these young people to young Jewish communities is crucial to the future of our Jewish collective. It starts from the moment that a person leaves the Sunday school they grew up in, and it reaches through the university years into the first jobs and all the way to marriage and children. Young people must be connected to their Judaism and have a desire to take part in all that the Jewish community has to offer.
In my role at Hillel at Miami University, I worked to create these first connections with incoming freshmen. I reached out to youth group advisors, rabbis, and educators across the movements and throughout the country in order to get contact information for the rising freshman class. Before new students even arrived on campus, we had started the job of building relationships, educating them on the many opportunities and programs Hillel has to offer, all with no strings attached. For example, university Hillels across the country are inviting rising freshman to mixers in their hometown, giving them the opportunity to meet other Jewish freshmen and even creating opportunities to meet potential roommates so they do not have to go into the random roommate pool.
But the work of connecting our young people to our Jewish community cannot be the responsibility of only a few people scattered throughout the country. It must be the goal of each and every Jewish professional. No matter the work we do, Jewish professionals, along with the Jewish community as a whole, long to see the Jewish collective thrive and grow. We must understand that connecting our young people to our religion will determine the future of our community. We are not in competition with one another. We are partners in creating the future of Judaism. Creating the interface which will allow names and contact information to flow freely from one community to another was a major step in this process. Youth workers across the region know that Miami Hillel is looking to connect with students before they have even committed to Miami. And this has allowed students to feel welcome and even increased participation in the freshman class.
Study after study shows us that young Jews are disengaging in droves, distancing themselves from a Judaism that they see as rigid, overbearing, and not relatable. But the truth is that, through the work I have done and the experiences I have had, I see that there are ways to engage the youth. But it is only through a steady dedication to this work that we will see it grow. We must be willing to create a nationwide network, connecting our youth to the Jewish communities that they are moving in and out of. Simply put, Hillel and Chabad houses will never be able to capture all the young people without the help of the Jewish leaders in each community. Young professional networks will not be able to engage all that they are able unless religious leaders preach the power and enjoyment that these organizations can bring. Newly married Jewish couples will not come to know each other unless we are the matchmakers for new chavurot. The First Friday model is not the only example of how organizations and social groups can successfully engage young Jews. We must tap the resources at our disposal, capturing the interest of young Jews in the programs we design. Programs focused on social interactions, networking, or even going to the gym can help to create this community of individuals, a community of Jews outside of the synagogue setting.
For so long we have been stuck in the model that the synagogue must be the center of Jewish life. Yet this is simply not true for the young people in our country. While the synagogue continues to be an important aspect of our community, it is no less or more important than the many organizations that long to engage young people where they are, drawing them in, and creating relationships and impressions that will last a lifetime. We must realize that the synagogue is not in competition with these organizations, but a partner for creating a Jewish community that will last through the trials and tribulations of time, weaving the fabric that is the Jewish people for all time.
Ben Azriel is a third-year rabbinical student who spent both his second and third year fellowship at Hillel at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio working to develop connections and programming for students in the Miami community.