There are estimated over 80 million Americans who fall in the demographic category of "millennials," which roughly translates to someone born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Indeed, millennials are poised to become the largest demographic of Americans taking over the mantle from the baby boomer population in the not so distant future. Who are the millennials?
Millennials are highly independent, technological natives who mostly express liberal political views. They score the highest in the category of "no religion" in most major surveys of the U.S. population. The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s make little sense to them. Many millennials grew up with a tremendous amount of demands placed on their childhood schedules with "free time" being organized and programmed by their parents.
The differences between millennials and older generations is also prevalent in the work place. Whereas baby boomers and older Gen X'ers view work as primarily a location (where you are situated), millennials primarily view work as an activity (what you are doing not where you are). Tensions can arise between baby boomer management and supervisors and millennial employees when the former thinks the latter is not working and the latter does not understand why their boss doesn't understand that they are working.
How does this all translate into the forging of Jewish community? Through my work both on the college campus and in synagogues I have detected two approaches to involving millennials in Jewish community:
The first and most common approach is framed around the question of, "What can we do to make our programming/community/environment appealing to young adults?" This question is a tactical question. In other words, it seeks to modify the presentation of the community in ways that make it desirable for young adults without fundamentally impacting the community. It's like looking at the blueprint of a house and instead of redesigning the floor plan one just changes the wallpaper.
The second and less common approach but ultimately the more successful one is framed by the question of, "how do I enter into dialogue with the millennial generation to reshape our community collaboratively?" When one enters into a dialogue it presupposes two partners in the conversation who will both shape the outcome. This path is by far the more strategic one and will yield the greater result of engagement because it is essentially about empowering all people in the conversation.
What would a synagogue look like that actively sought ways to increase the voice of millennials in the boardroom and on various committees? What would a JCC look like? A local Jewish Community Relations Council or a community Israeli Independence Day celebration? How would the allocations of donor resources from a local Federation be different if it included the values, voices and perspectives of young adults?
The second approach is not simply about rebranding or "changing the wallpaper," it is a paradigmatic shift in leadership and power sharing. It is about the shaping of intentional community with all parties, especially including the young adults. The number one priority of just about every Jewish organization is to involve more younger members. In order to accomplish that one must be willing to genuinely engage the millennial generation and collaboratively shape the Jewish future together.