How Can We Engage Young People in Our Synagogues?
In a world filled with iPhones, touch screens and social media, rabbis and lay leaders are faced with the growing challenge of drawing in and engaging with young adults at their synagogue. We spoke with Rabbi Noam Raucher (Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Pasadena, CA), Rabbi David Cantor (Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach, CA), Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei (Congregation Ner Tamid, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA) and Rabbi Bradley Tecktiel (Midbar Kodesh Temple, Henderson, NV) to hear how synagogues can better enhance young professionals’ relationship with the synagogue.
How do you keep young people coming to your synagogue after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah?
Rabbi Raucher: “This is one of the biggest problems right now. It’s important to remind them that the B’nai Mitzvah isn’t the end all, be all for their Jewish education and that it’s really just a formal starting point.”
Rabbi Cantor: “My father is 89 years old and can still tell you the name of his bar mitzvah tutor, but he can’t tell you the name of his rabbi. I think we often squander opportunities to make a connection with the kids.”
Rabbi Schudenfei: “One way is to be counter cultural. Mainstream culture tells us the way we interact with one another is through screens, apps and computers. I think the way we create deep, lasting relationships is through personal touch.”
Rabbi Tecktiel: “Having a millennial on staff who speaks the language of the millennials and knows what attracts millennials can prove to be very beneficial.”
Do you ensure your message is appealing to different generations?
Rabbi Raucher: “I tend to relate what I’m saying to a story because it’s easier for everyone to follow and they can usually identify with one of the characters. I’ve found that looking people in the eye and not always speaking from my notes helps keep the crowd captivated.”
Rabbi Cantor: “It’s very important that the delivery is in a way people can understand. I don’t think that millennials are much different than anyone else, but what is different is they are better able to communicate exactly how they are feeling. When speaking to the younger generation, you don’t have to change your language, you just have to give authenticity and meaning.”
Rabbi Schudenfei: “When I teach, I try and tap into what is going on with the people I’m speaking to—whether it’s preschool, a bar/bat mitzvah class, millennials or retirees. For millennials, many are focused on establishing themselves in a career and finding companionship, so when you speak to that, people naturally start to gravitate.”
Rabbi Tecktiel: “When I’m speaking to the congregation, I’m not necessarily directing my message to millennials or one particular group, but more so making my message applicable to everyone listening.”
Are there any strategies or tips you have for bringing in more young adults to the synagogue?
Rabbi Raucher: “It’s important for synagogues to offer space for millennials to run their programs in parallel or conjunction with the synagogue and have their voices heard. The trick is to symbolically give them the keys to the car in some circumstances, which gives them more responsibility.”
Rabbi Cantor: “Be authentic and try hard to make a personal connection. In order to draw in more millennials, you have to work at connecting with them. Call them up, say ‘hello’ and find out what they’re interested in. Be a presence.”
Rabbi Schudenfei: “Instead of trying to draw in young adults, I think we need to go out to them and engage. I do something called ‘pop-up rabbi’ where I’ll go to a coffeehouse, for example, and talk with everyone who comes up to me about anything. I’ve met and engaged with people who wouldn’t normally come to my office.”
Rabbi Tecktiel: “A key component is utilizing social media to communicate with the younger generation. Our synagogue is on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. So far, it has really helped to catch more eyes.”
What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to getting the younger generations engaged with the synagogue?
Rabbi Raucher: “I think it goes back to the idea of young people getting their voices heard. Synagogues can often appear closed off to those looking in from the outside. The more we can communicate with millennials that the institution is open to them for creation and growth, the more successful we’ll be.”
Rabbi Cantor: “The best way to attract people is to not try to attract them. Once your sole purpose is trying to target a group, it’s over. It’s important to offer things that are of value and interest to young people.”
Rabbi Schudenfei: “People are more engaged when they feel important. To me, it’s about personal touch and making people realize you care about your relationship with them. When you show someone you care, it becomes a different conversation in terms of engagement.”
Rabbi Tecktiel: “A big challenge is getting younger generations to commit to something and stick with it. I find that this generation is doing whatever feels good in the moment, which can be both good and challenging. We strive to find ways to keep young adults engaged, so we often do things that are specifically geared toward that group.”