The empty seat next to you in synagogue

The secret to bringing them back into the community is creating a new type of community for them.

Religious scripts lie on a shelf during a morning prayer inside (photo credit: DAVID W. CERNY / REUTERS)
Religious scripts lie on a shelf during a morning prayer inside
(photo credit: DAVID W. CERNY / REUTERS)
This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews worldwide will head to their synagogues as we usher in the New Year. However, there will be many Jews missing from their seats this year. Millennial participation in synagogue worship has been in decline for many years, but the problem has become far more severe in the last decade, as millennials are aging into their 30s and are still not coming. As a result, Gen Z and their children are not so likely to come either, which further perpetuates the situation. The reality is that traditional synagogue worship, and indeed institutional Judaism in general, holds far less appeal to millennials than ever before. It doesn’t matter if it is Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, nor for that matter if it is a Y or Jewish community center. Younger Jews are by and large not interested in this kind of participation.
The conventional wisdom in Jewish institutions is that the declining membership in synagogues, federations, JCCs and the like imply that younger Jews are simply less interested in Judaism in and of itself. However, new research tells a different story.
According to a newly published research from Hakhel, the main reason for disaffiliation from traditional institutions is not tradition itself, but rather the structure of our institutions, which do not offer enough of the search for meaning that millennials crave. Luckily, this search does not despair people, but rather motivates them to create and experiment in new forms of Jewish communal life. They create Jewish intentional communities that revolve around tikkun olam, social justice, combating climate change or arts and culture. They are rooted in Jewish education and attract growing numbers of Jews who seek meaning and don’t want to do it by themselves.
Furthermore, this phenomenon is not confined to the United States. All over the world, from Eastern Europe to Australia to South Korea, we see the same phenomenon: diverse groups of Jews, fully inclusive and inspiringly pioneering, organized with the intention of intensifying their own search for meaning and amplifying their positive impact on the world through joint social ventures.
THE RESEARCH found that millennials feel that people’s will to express their identity is far more diverse than the existing institutions. Some described the traditional institutions as no longer appropriate. Others used a more dramatic language, referring to them as “dying institutions.” According to the research, only 30% of millennials attend synagogue, and less than 10% of them are involved with federations. This brings us back to Rosh Hashanah, as nearly two-thirds of Jewish millennials won’t be attending services with their families.
Those of you who started reading this piece hoping to learn the magic trick that will re-attract millennials back to their synagogues might be disappointed at this point, as this is not very likely to happen. However, keep in mind that this evolution happens every several generations. The secret is knowing how to embrace those transitions, take advantage of the opportunities they present and shape together the next phase of our communal lives.
The secret to bringing them back into the community is creating a new type of community for them: Jewish intentional communities which bring them together around a shared purpose. The broader Jewish community needs to support and embrace these new forms of community. Not all of them are going to succeed, but with the proper professional and financial support, as well as global networking, similar to the type Hakhel is offering in partnership with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the chances of their success increase significantly. The second phase will be to find the way to connect these communities back into the larger network of Jewish institutions; not in order to replace them, but rather in order to strengthen them.
Communal life is a vital component to maintaining Jewish identity. We need to help Jewish intentional communities grow in the Diaspora because by doing so we’ll lead the way to a connected Jewish future. Jewish institutions can choose to ignore this global phenomenon and hope it will fade away and that people will simply circle back to traditional synagogues. But this is not going to happen. If these new communities fail, the probable alternative is complete assimilation.
The writer is the founder and general director of Hakhel, the Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator.