Jewish millennials drifting from traditional organizations

Only 30% of millennials surveyed interested in joining synagogues

Hakhel's Sixth Jewish Intentional Communities Conference at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut in March (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hakhel's Sixth Jewish Intentional Communities Conference at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut in March
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Tradition” evokes Tevye the milkman’s singing in Fiddler on the Roof. However, according to a recent study of Jewish millennials in 51 communities in North America, Europe and Australia, the millennial generation is disengaging from traditional organizations like synagogues and community centers.
The study was commissioned by Hakhel, an incubator for Jewish “intentional communities,” which are smaller, more informal groups organized around mutual interest and social activism. Hakhel works hand-in-hand with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. The report was conducted by the Do-Et Institute in Israel, which focuses research and strategic consulting in the social-economic sphere.
The results revealed that the disengagement with traditional Jewish communal organizations like synagogues and community centers “is far worse than previously documented,” the study noted. “Only 30% said they had an interest in joining a synagogue, and only 7.5% had interest in activities of Jewish Federations and their community centers.”
The research showed that millennials prefer to participate in intentional communities rather than join traditional institutions.
“These groups are growing rapidly and are particularly attractive to young families: adults ranging in age from 26 to 45 with children, which account for nearly 79% of its members,” the survey found.
Asked what type of Jewish communities interested them, respondents identified four key areas: “Mutual interest in a specific issue like agriculture, ecology, food and music; networks for professional development or as a platform for doing good; conserving a specific cultural set such as Israelis living abroad or Russian-speakers seeking to maintain a connection to their native culture; and Jewish identity, as respondents said overwhelmingly that they don’t drift away from their Jewish identity but from old-fashioned institutions.”
The study also looked at how millennials viewed Israel, “and the results were equally alarming, according to the research: the younger generation is less committed to the State of Israel. In other places, lack of knowledge and education is causing young adults to form misconceptions about Israel, which keeps them from showing interest and forming a meaningful connection.”
The survey did identify an opportunity to re-frame the discussion around Israel using shared values instead of political and/or financial support.
Despite the dipping connection to traditional structures, nearly 84% of respondents were interested in greater Jewish learning, holidays and life-cycle events, nearly 70% showing interest in Jewish education, 46% in Jewish arts and culture, 28% in social justice, and 15% in sustainability issues and farming.
“The organized Jewish community has been well aware of the drifting of millennials from its ranks for many years,” Aharon Ariel Lavi, founder and general director of Hakhel, told The Jerusalem Post. “What this research shows is the extent of that disengagement on the one hand, but also the creative alternatives that are sprouting from below on the other.”
He explained that events, creative gatherings and solutions are being formed from a grassroots level instead of being organized by professionals in the traditional structures.
Lavi said that some of the intentional communities have also opened Sunday schools or have organized arts and culture activities, which “are not just for the Jewish community, [but] for the [local] people around them.”
In Melbourne, one of the intentional communities has started making food parcels, which they deliver to Holocaust survivors and elderly members of the community. This is usually something done by professionals, but in this case it’s being done by the community itself.
“Every two weeks they get together, they cook together, they sing together, and then they study together,” he said. “Then they go around the city and deliver the packages.”
He made it clear that emphasis on Jewish culture and education plays a big role during these events.
Asked why we are seeing this change, Lavi said that there are several reasons.
“One reason is external,” he said. “It’s part of a huge global trend of younger people moving away from traditions. For now, younger people are looking for more flat organizational structures as opposed to hierarchical structures. There’s nothing we can really do about it as the Jewish community are a small minority in the world.”
A second reason comes from the Jewish inclination of tikkun olam – to make the world a better place like social justice and climate change, he said.
Lavi explained that the millennial generation doesn’t feel the relevance to the traditional structure in which their parents grew up.
“All Jewish organizations do something today about the environment, or they have something to say about gender equality,” he explained. “It’s not that they’re neglecting these issues. But [millennials feel that] the pace and the energy in which traditional structures are tackling these issues is not enough.”
Lavi said that this is what has led to something much more centralized being formed, that the formation of these social networks or intentional communities has become “the solution to deep loneliness” because of this detachment. “The community is the solution. The second most important component in Judaism is community – with the first being family.
He said that what encouraged Hakhel to form and bolster these social networks was the idea that “we can’t conceive Jewish identity existing outside of the context of community.”
It started seeing the intentional communities forming, and they joined forces with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to offer solutions.
Lavi also made it clear that Hakhel is “by no means creating a Jewish underground. The long term plan is to find a way to connect the social networks or intentional communities with the traditional Jewish structure and organizations. Establishing that connection is the challenge.”
In addition, Lavi also said that there is a silver lining in the report that shows there is a deep desire by millennials “to learn and to be a part of Jewish learning and holiday/life cycle events. The interest is clearly there, but the problem is connection to organized communal organizations. We were thrilled to see the high level of commitment these millennials have, and what they are really telling us about how the Jewish community must be shaped in the future.”
Dvir Kahana, director general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, said that “the survey has provided us with a road map on how to reach millennials and it is imperative we follow it carefully.”