Investing in Our Infrastructure: Why Congregations Matter Now More Than Ever

The recent issue of the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, included an article written by Rabbi Aaron Miller. For this special symposium on millennial engagement, Rabbi Miller wrote about Investing in Our Infrastructure: Why Congregations Matter Now More Than Ever. We are pleased to share this article with you.

A Roman matron once asked Rabbi Yosi what God has been doing since the six days of creation. Rabbi Yosi replied, “The Holy Blessed One sits and matches couples; the daughter of this one to this one, the wife of this one, to this one…” The matron replied to R. Yosi, “And this is God’s occupation? Even I could do so! How many male and female servants I have! In a moment I could match them.” Rabbi Yosi replied, “If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult in the eyes of the Holy Blessed One as splitting the Red Sea.”[1]

In the congregational work that many rabbis do, there is no one metric to evaluate our success or failure. Do congregants like our sermons? Are we able to support families who have lost loved ones? Do we offer comfort in the hospital? Do our B’nei Mitzvah students feel at home when reading Torah? Do adult learners enjoy our classes? Do we collaborate well with lay leadership? When evaluating a congregational rabbi, the metrics are fuzzy.

In addition to the usual responsibilities of a congregational rabbi, I run 2239, Washington Hebrew Congregation’s young professional community for DC-area Reform Jews between the ages of 22 and 39. With the invaluable support of my senior rabbi, Bruce Lustig, my clergy colleagues, the Washington Hebrew staff, our congregational leaders, and a visionary team of young professionals, Washington Hebrew’s 2239 has grown exponentially over the years. Our monthly Shabbat experience, Metro Minyan, gathers in large venues near one of DC’s metro stations, drawing in 150 – 250 (or more) young Jewish professionals to celebrate Shabbat together. We inspire commitment to tikkun olam through service learning opportunities in DC and throughout the nation. We read Jewish books together, and our Passover Seders and High Holy Day services are always at capacity. Yet with the millennial outreach work I do, the metrics seem to boil down to one: how many Jews have met and gotten married?

As a rabbi serving Jewish millennials, I am asked this question subtly or more overtly whenever I describe my work. So when it comes up, I put on a smile and talk about Brian and Michelle. Brian, by his admission, had not been Jewishly engaged since graduating college. He then went on a 2239 service-learning trip to New Orleans and reconnected to Judaism more deeply than ever before. Brian started coming to Metro Minyan, where a few months later, he met a Jewish woman named Michelle. After dating for a year and a half, Brian proposed to Michelle at Metro Minyan in the same room where they first met.

I love this story. I love losing count of how many millennial Jews, both gay and straight, come to 2239 events, meet each other, and leave together (I assume to study that week’s parasha, or whatever else millennials might do together on a Friday night). Jews absolutely meet each other at 2239 events, and my rabbinate is full of anecdotes.

But underneath it all, I am filled with anxiety and can understand R. Yosi’s hesitation. Getting people to fall in love is God’s work, not some project for a Roman matron – or even a rabbi. I am anxious because I know that numbers are more honest than any anecdote I may collect over the years. Looking out in the pews of 200 Jewish millennials who may come to a Metro Minyan any given month, statistics suggest that 142 of them, 71% of America’s non-Orthodox Jewish millennials, will marry non-Jews. And that’s just the intermarriage rate reported by the 2013 Pew study. Writing now three years later, that number is probably higher and will continue to rise.

1,325,000. This is roughly the number of Jewish millennials in the United States, and this is the number that keeps me up at night.[2] To be clear, “Jewish” is as hard to define as it is to count the number of millennials who fit that description, but with millennials making up a quarter of the U.S. adult Jewish population of 5.3 million, any solution that is not scalable to 1.3 million is not going to do what we need it to do. If in-marriage is our programmatic finish line, we are abandoning 71% of our future. A million Jews have just been shown the door, and they probably will not miss us very much.

“How many Jews are meeting each other, marrying, and having children?” is a great question whose answers respond to the wrong problem. Decades ago, this was the most important question we, Jewish professionals and philanthropists, could ask, because in-marriage seemed to be the only thing that could inoculate the Jewish future against assimilation. But the 21st century has exposed the uncomfortable truth. The greatest challenge facing progressive Judaism is not Jews marrying Christians or Muslims or atheists, but Jews who have become indifferent. If we don’t make Judaism matter to the largest generation in American history, nothing else is going to work.

If the purpose of millennial Jewish programming is to get Jews to meet each other and have Jewish babies, then online dating might have been our silver bullet. But are transformative Jewish experiences – Shabbat, tikkun olam, adult-level learning – simply less effective attempts to do what JDate or JSwipe or JWed do already? The end goal of millennial Judaism needs to be more than marriage. In order to reach it, we need to ask a better question: How can we, the Reform Movement, get Judaism to matter more? What if our goal was not – “how can we get more Jews to fall in love with Jews?” – but instead, “how can we get more Jews to fall in love with being Jewish?” What if, regardless of who our millennials date and marry, they have been so inspired by Jewish living that the families they create together will be Jewish?

Given the daunting challenges of 21st century Jewish demographics listed elsewhere in this journal, fighting indifference is a more worthy battle – and one we actually can win. Study after study shows that many modern Jews care less about being Jewish than any previous generation. Blame anything you want – religious school or B’nei Mitzvah preparation or membership dues – but the whole picture is much more interesting. For a generation coming of age in a world of increasingly bewildering complexity, pediatric religious tradition does not stand a chance. The only millennial initiatives that will work in the long-run are those that inspire a deep connection to adult Judaism. Millennial life will always feel busy, harried, and overwhelming, but adult Judaism is what can keep us grounded and connected. Adult Judaism- the kind that inspires and challenges the soul, is what makes adult life meaningful, and millennials are hungry for meaning.

Where can today’s Jews find meaning? There are dozens of new projects around millennial engagement – emerging Jewish communities designed and funded to uniquely serve the needs of young Progressive Jewish adults. They are led by inspiring, charismatic (and often young) rabbis who lead rousing worship experiences on Friday nights and major holidays and get millennial turnout that most brick and mortar congregations can only dream of. But then what? Assume that two Jewish millennials meet, fall in love with each other, and through their inspiring Jewish communities, fall in love with Judaism at the same time. They get married, have children, buy that minivan and a Costco membership…what is next? What happens when they, our demographic success stories, inevitably age and/or have a lifecycle event that takes them out of the Millennial community they once called home? What about their kids who need nursery school or parents who seek daytime programming as retirees? What about future Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, trips to Israel, and enduring communal relationships? These initiatives are not only prohibitively expensive for most communities around the country, but they fall short in providing millennials with a lifelong Jewish home.

I would like to suggest another solution: congregations. Not congregations without walls. Not congregations that meet online. Brick and mortar congregations, with rabbis and cantors and copy machines – the very kind that we have been trying to work around for all these years. What if congregations assumed the lion’s share for engaging the next generation and filling the yawning gap between college graduation and nursery school enrollment?

Most Jewish millennials do not feel at home in today’s congregations. We can blame membership policies or worship styles or the dozen other things that Jewish leaders and philanthropists fairly (or unfairly) criticize. But congregations are the key to the Jewish future because in scope and scale, nothing else in our tradition has the potential to address the needs of 1.3 million Jewish millennials. In our people’s brightest and darkest moments, the Jewish need to congregate, organize, connect to God, and connect to each other, has remained stubbornly fixed. Congregations are and have always been the infrastructure of the Jewish people, and an investment in our Jewish infrastructure will pay dividends for generations to come.

In the penultimate episode of the political drama West Wing, C.J. Cregg, one of the series’ main characters, is considering her next career after serving as the White House Chief of Staff. After a number of flashy proposals, she finally meets with Franklin Hollis, a nanotech billionaire, who describes a charity he is starting that he would like C.J. to lead:

Hollis: “I want to find a single problem I can attack. Something which might actually have some kind of substantial effect. Maybe I should be fighting AIDS in Africa. Or maybe it’s malaria. Could be clean air or election reform. I don’t know. But my sense is that you would have a unique perspective on what that could be and how to make it happen.” 

C.J.: “A single problem.” 

Hollis: “It’s a complicated question…” 

C.J. (interrupting): “Highways — Is what you’re looking for.” 

Hollis: “Really?” 

C.J.: “It’s not sexy. No one will ever raise money for it. But nine out of ten African aid projects fail because the medicine or the personnel can’t get to the people in need. Infrastructure’s a problem… Blanket the continent with highways and then maybe get started on plumbing.” 

Hollis: “Also not sexy.”

C.J.: “Makes for a lousy telethon.”

Hollis: “Well, if you think that’s what needs fixing, I’ll give you $10 billion to fix it.”

Congregations are the infrastructure of the Jewish people. In the Reform Movement alone, there are over 850 communities ranging from small student pulpits to 2,000-plus family multi-campus institutions. Congregations might not sound flashy, but if anything can touch the lives of even a fraction of our country’s 1.3 million Jewish millennials, it is the collective efforts of our Movement’s congregations. In sheer numbers alone, no other model comes close.

This does not always mean that congregations work for millennials, and again, it largely comes down to the numbers. High-quality millennial programming is expensive, and with shrinking memberships, congregational budgets are already stretched. If a synagogue board of trustees has to choose between rising insurance premiums or a new Shabbat experience for non-member millennials, the financial concern of the day will usually win. This is why millennial Jewish programming, where it exists, often takes the form of baseball games, happy hours, and kickball teams. These events are relatively easy to plan, they typically break even, and there’s a good chance people will show up. But they fail to inspire and challenge the Jewish soul.

What if we could mitigate congregations’ very real financial concerns with modest and sustainable investments in the congregations themselves? What if congregations received philanthropic support to do the important outreach they are longing to do, not just in Washington or Los Angeles or New York, but in cities throughout the country where millennial Jews have few if any options to connect? Washington Hebrew Congregation’s 2239 model works in Washington, D.C., but imagine if established congregations in Seattle or Atlanta could apply for seed money to address the specific needs of the millennials in their cities. What if there were a national fund that Movement-affiliated congregations could access to offset the initial startup costs? What if there were training initiatives for clergy who are passionate about next-gen work and publications for congregations and their rabbis to collaborate on together? What if we made it a little easier for congregations to do the groundbreaking work our 1.3 million millennials need them to do? What if the Reform Movement turned outreach and engagement of recent Jewish college graduates and young professionals into its own kind of movement?

Imagine if our leading Jewish philanthropists came together – as they have for our Movement’s camps, Hillel, or Birthright Israel, to invest in congregational infrastructure. Imagine if even a fraction of our Movement’s hundreds of congregations now had the financial capacity to launch millennial Shabbat experiences, Torah study groups, or tikkun olam initiatives. These transformative Jewish experiences often require clergy; what if this funding reimbursed the congregation for part of its clergy’s efforts in order to defray the costs of their time? In funding preexisting congregations, these precious philanthropic dollars wouldn’t need to go towards copy machines or insurance premiums – the congregation is already paying for those. They would go directly toward the highest quality programming a congregation can provide for a generation that needs it most.

While it might not be flashy, philanthropic support of our Movement’s congregations is efficient and sustainable, leveraging existing resources to transform millennial engagement one city at a time. I am proud of the work Washington Hebrew has done in our city, but when it comes down numbers, does it matter if our monthly Metro Minyan attendance is 200 or 400? When it comes to the 1.3 million Jewish millennials across the country, the success of our one initiative ultimately changes very little. The right funding model, however, can transform our nation’s congregations into the driving force behind next-generation engagement on a scale that can change the tide. When we invest in our Jewish infrastructure, the other seemingly intractable problems facing 21st century Jewry will start to fall in to place.

Talk to any temple president or membership director, and congregations are desperate for millennials. You need not be a demographer to know that the day will soon come when most new members of our congregations will be millennials. If we want them, we need to get ready for them now.

Millennials need congregations as much as congregations need millennials. Millennials are searching for connection, spirituality, and meaning. They crave learning, passion, and to join a community of people devoted to improving our world. At its best, this is what congregational life can be. Millennials do not need another dating service, and rabbis cannot make people fall in love. But congregations are where our people forever connect to the sacred in our world and the sacred in one another.

We are the infrastructure of the Jewish people.

[1] Bereshit Rabba 68

[2] Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, conducted Feb. 20-June 13, 2013

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CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly seeks to explore ideas and issues of Judaism and Jewish life, primarily – but not exclusively – from a Reform Jewish perspective, in both prose and poetry.

CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2017, ©Winter 2017 by Central Conference of American Rabbis. Used by permission of Central Conference of American Rabbis. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, distributed, or be transmitted without the express permission from the Central Conference of American Rabbis.