Want to Know What Young People Want? Ask!

 In The Tide

By Rabbi Elan Babchuck 

About a decade ago, a friend of mine was hired as an associate rabbi of a large synagogue community. She was given a healthy portfolio of responsibilities—teach, preach, etc.—and also tasked with a new project devised by the elders of the community: build a young adult community exclusively for Millennials. Working on the assumption that the leadership had created this project after consulting closely with Millennials in and around the community about what they were seeking—after all, no institution would ever launch a program before speaking with people, right?—she set out to create a menu of offerings for this emerging community of young folk all around the city. 

Per the instructions of the leadership, the events would all be free of charge, staff-driven, focused on social engagement, and only open to Millennials. With these guideposts in mind, she began to build a following—small at first, with slight increases over time. The events were generally fun, attendance was fair, but she wasn’t gaining much traction in growing the community, and she was burning out while trying to balance her in-synagogue obligations and those of serving these young adults. 

About six months into the work, she invited 10 of the “regulars” to a meeting to strategize. Wanting to create an upbeat and energizing atmosphere for the meeting, before her guests arrived, she set up the room by arranging 10 chairs in a semi-circle facing a whiteboard, and putting colorful sticky notes and markers on each chair. Using her design thinking background, she wrote an ambitious “How might we” statement on the board, informed mostly by the instructions given to her by the synagogue’s leadership: “How might we build a young adult community for Jewish Millennials without asking of their time or their money?” 

As guests arrived and found their places, she noticed several of them staring at the board, some with confused looks on their faces, others with blank stares, and one seemingly upset. 

“Rabbi, with all due respectwho said we didn’t want to pay for anything or volunteer to help out?” asked one of the regulars. 

“I love the sticky notes and everything, but I don’t remember anyone ever asking me if I only wanted to hang out with young people. I spend all day working with young people, all of my friends are the same age . . . maybe I came to this community looking for something different,” said another. 

“And I really don’t like the idea of the synagogue ‘building’ a community for me. Anything I do that I really care about, I want to be involved in building it, too,” a third chimed in. 

The conversation continued this way for another 15 minutes until the rabbi decided to wipe the board clean, scrap the meeting agenda, and address the group. “I’m sorry . . . I had no idea that I was trying to build a community based on all of these faulty assumptions. When I started the job over the summer I didn’t even have time to ask questions about any of my projects, so I just took the baton and hit the ground running. That was my mistake. But now that we’re here, and it’s clear that you all care about whatever this might become, what do you want it to be? What are you searching for?” 

That was a turning point not only for the conversation (which yielded great ideas for co-created programs and events) and for the community (which is thriving to this day), but for my friend’s rabbinate (which is as fulfilling as ever). 

The landscape for ministry is shifting, calling for a new approach to faith leadership: one in which faith leaders ask before answering, embrace curiosity over conviction, and hold the ancient in sacred tension with the emergent. Once we have successfully made this shift, then and only then will religion adapt to better meet the needs of today’s rising generations. Then and only then will we be able to identify timeless human needs that transcend centuries of precedent bestowed upon today’s faith leadership. Then and only then can we innovate around religion’s ancient offerings and—to quote Rav Avraham Kook—“the old shall be renewed, and the new shall be made holy.”1

Emerging Opportunities 

While Glean Network has been up and running for three years and counting, we stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us, who invited their peers and followers to recognize the emerging realities of the day, to reframe those realities as opportunities to serve, and to reimagine the role of their religion in light of those opportunities. And as we build on their work, some patterns of opportunities to better serve the needs of rising generations have emerged. Here’s what we’ve found so far. 

Many young people yearn: 

  1. To feeland beknown. Anonymity may rule the internet age, but not for young folks. 
  2. To show up whole in all contexts, without having to subvert or hide any facets of their identity. 
  3. To give back. Contrary to some stereotypes about young people, Millennials are extremely generous, and want to give of their time and talent, as well as their treasure (which is more scarce than that of their elders). 
  4. To be rooted in the ancient—wisdom, practice, narrative, ritual, or something else. Think of the rise in the practice of astrology among Millennials
  5. To be in multigenerational settings, especially among elders. Consider the remarkable efforts of Nones and Nuns
  6. To experience purposeful friction that sparks growth. While technological advances have created opportunities for “friction-free” transactions and lifestyles, there remains a significant appetite for experiences of learning, community, and relationship that invite friction, that can be difficult at times, and that present opportunities for growth for all involved. 

You Never Asked… 

A participant in one of our fellowships recently shared a story about an interview he did with a former community member who had grown up in the congregation but recently moved to another city as a young adult. The interview—which took about 45 minutes and spanned a wide breadth of topics, stories, and reflections—gave the pastor a great deal of insight into who this person is, including many gleanings that he had never known about. 

At the end of the interview, the two stood up and hugged, celebrating a renewed and deepened connection after years of being in community together. As they embraced, the pastor—much moved—leaned towards his community member’s ear and said: “I can’t believe how much I learned about you today. I wish I had known this stuff 10 years ago!” 

His former congregant paused, and then with a wry, loving smile, whispered: “You never asked…” 

About Rabbi Elan Babchuck: 
I’m a rabbi and an entrepreneur, and spend much of my time exploring the rich intersections between these two traditions and the abundant possibilities therein. I’m committed to leaving behind a world that is more compassionate, connected, and just than the one I found. In pursuit of that commitment, I am the Founding Director of Glean Network, an incubator and network for faith-rooted leaders who are reimagining the role of religion in America, and Director of Innovation at Clal, a think-tank focused on the future of faith in America. I’m blessed to live and learn with my wife and our two children in Providence, RI. I read broadly and voraciously, cook adventurously, and finds sanctuary on the rock climbing walls of New England. 

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