Thursday, May 21, 2009 | return to: views, opinions


Gen Y Jews are ready to be counted, and counted upon

by Sarah Leiber Church

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Until this year, I had never counted the Omer — the ritual of marking each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot with a nightly blessing.

But when Passover came to an end this year, I felt I could use more of that “liberation” our tradition speaks of. Armed with no more than a leaflet and my enthusiasm, I began counting toward Shavuot,  which begins Thursday, May 28.

As I had hoped, the short nightly study gave me a frame for my days that grounded me in something outside of myself, something powerful.


VChurch, Sarah Leiber
Sarah Leiber
But what I didn’t expect was the response when I told friends about counting. One turned me onto a daily online resource. An “unaffiliated” friend shocked me by pulling a book on Kabbalah from his backpack. My housemate asked, somewhat hesitantly, if she could count, too. As a first-year teacher in Oakland, she has not had an easy year (facing staggering class, language and resource battles).


To her, and the rest of us, somewhat obscure Jewish practices — not only of celebration, but of daily commitment — can begin to feel valuable and relevant.

As we sat pouring over “Seasons of Our Joy,” a primer on Jewish holidays, it struck me — the irony of young adult Jewish outreach.

Here we are, young Jews looking for something to hang our hats on.

But what do many of us face when approaching the Jewish community looking for “young adult” events? Cocktails, cocktails everywhere and not a drop of depth.

Sure, a dance party is a good way to get us 20- and 30-somethings through the door. But what makes us stay is feeling connected to something lasting, to something that came before us.

Things are different these days. While members of the Boomer generation couldn’t stand to be like their parents, my contemporaries are often not only friends with their parents, but sometimes  — gasp — they even ask them for advice.

In my opinion, we’d turn to Judaism, too, if it felt accessible to us.

After all, when people are searching — for a career path, for the education to match, for a partner, for a community — wouldn’t a great place to turn for support and guidance be a faith community?

But that turn is not being taken.

I often look at this problem through the lens of my day job as a community organizer: One of the central tenets of organizing people to do things is to involve them in the process of getting it done. Give someone a picket sign, ask someone to draft a brochure; there are no better hands for a project than those of an excited new leader eager to add his or her own thinking, strategy and drive.

Young Jews, too, want to roll up their sleeves, a fact that has been borne out in study after study. Service learning is on the rise, as is community engagement around progressive values and civic participation — and all this is happening among a group of young Jews that is supposedly “directionless” or “unreachable.”

A 2004 study titled “OMG! How Generation Y is redefining faith in the iPod era” showed that civic participation is high, even among the least-religious young adults. So arguments about us not being “joiners” paints an incomplete picture.

Sure, getting us into synagogue might be like herding cats, but hand us a hammer and you might just have a new house for a low-income family. We’ve been largely credited for President Barack Obama’s rise, and through him we are calling for a new era of responsibility.

In this changing context, even programs such as Birthright Israel, long lauded and well-resourced, fall short of the tough task of sustained involvement. A recent study commissioned by Birthright found that even after being given a free, all-expenses paid trip to Israel, participants have only modest engagement with post-trip events — they’re still “tourists” in their own community.

While everyone likes free stuff, or an open bar, I’d argue that those entry points are not the best way to truly engage my generation.

The big welcome sign for young adults, and the community resources to support it, should point toward give-and-take engagement, something that welcomes our leadership.

And as has been learned by the organizations that welcome deep engagement, if we as young Jews are rolling up our sleeves to participate and lead, we are also crafting, challenging and molding something that could appeal to us and our friends.

Even if it takes commitment, even if it takes time, we might just want to count the Omer — and be counted by it. Having spaces to grab hold of the Judaism that speaks to us, and to build something of ourselves into it, will keep us coming back.

Sarah Leiber Church is an Oakland resident. She is the program director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.


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