Panel sheds light on why millennials avoid synagogue

How does a shul make itself more hip so it can attract and engage a new wave of younger congregants? That was the idea behind a workshop held last week in San Francisco.

A group of nearly 50 people, ranging in age from 40 to 60, queried a panel of three local Jews in their 20s about their religious upbringings, how they view Judaism and the role it plays in their lives.

At right, 20-something panelists (from left) Robbie Heeger, Gavi Elkind and Benjamin Bechtolsheim photo/abra cohen

“The reason we had this conversation was not only about the millennials, but about having us all think a bit differently about Jewish life, community and engaging these kids,” said Rabbi Marvin Goodman, director of the Synagogue-Federation Partnership.

The partnership, which has been around for seven years, is a collaboration between the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and more than 30 Bay Area synagogues. It aims to build connections, encourage community participation and bolster the sustainability of synagogues.

Participants in the two-hour long discussion on Feb. 28 were encouraged to tweet their questions, which were projected on a large screen.

The panelists at the event, held in the library at Brandeis Hillel Day School, were selected because they are part of the millennial generation, a group of around 80 million people in the United States born between 1983-2000.

While all three of them said they identify strongly with being Jewish in various ways, none of them belongs to a congregation. And all expressed doubts that synagogues know how to relate to millennials.

“Just because your shul has a Twitter handle doesn’t mean you can engage the younger generation,” cautioned Gavi Elkind, a 26-year-old San Franciscan who attends synagogue only twice a year.

So what is deterring younger people from joining and/or visiting synagogues? While the answer wasn’t ascertained at the event, what the audience did find out is that even though millennials may not belong to synagogues the way their parents or grandparents did, it does not preclude them from being religious.

In fact, many young people are finding Jewish community in other venues, the panelists said.

The youngest, Robbie Heeger, 23, said that the younger generation likes to do things that work for them, and that young adults want a more “authentic version” of Jewish community, such as small gatherings with friends, at flexible times, and without having to pay big dues.

“I lead a Jewish life every day,” said Elkind, who explained her Jewish values are intertwined with her work at American Jewish World Service in San Francisco.

“Authentic” Jewish experiences, the panelists said, involve food and meals, and being in a space that is both safe and accepting, not necessarily in a sanctuary with dozens or hundreds of people, most of them strangers. “Finding the right Jewish community is like putting on a good pair of jeans,” Elkind said.

Benjamin Bechtolsheim, a 28-year-old marketer for Google, said he creates Jewish community through Kabbalat Shabbat and hosting Shabbat dinners at his home.

Bechtolsheim posed a question to audience members, asking if they believe they have “great davening” at their synagogue.

With only a handful of people raising their hands, Bechtolsheim said the experience of “great davening” is crucial to him — and one that he has found with minyans in a variety of places, including spaces one normally wouldn’t view as being religious.

He said he has created such community in his own living room and at places like Mission Minyan in San Francisco. “Having a great davening experience doesn’t have to be inside a specific building,” he said. “It can happen anywhere.”

Figuring out a way to engage and bring in new, young congregants may not be clear, but Goodman said dialogues like this one help to bridge the understanding between generations. Goodman is the rabbi-in-residence for the S.F.-based federation, as well as the executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis.

Many congregations, Goodman said are focused more on survival as an institution than on the community that they help to create. He says that synagogues today look different than they did even 15 years ago, when people joined to send their kids to religious school.

“It doesn’t seem like that model will continue, so we have to ask how to get people into the synagogue,” he said.

Some congregations are trying new strategies. For example, Congregation Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Los Altos Hills with more than 1,400 member households, is trying to entice younger congregants by offering $36 annual dues for anyone under the age of 36.

As for the discussion last week, Goodman said it was just a small step in figuring out how to engage the younger generation of Jews.

“I think both groups learned just as much from each other,” he said. “If there were more discussions like this, I wonder how many millennials would feel as distanced from synagogues as they currently do.”