Thoughts on Engaging Millennials in Jewish Life
By Sue Schwartzman, Director of Philanthropic Education
The Philanthropic Service department of the JCF launched a monthly webinar/seminar series last month to inform and educate our 900 donor advised fund holders on cutting edge developments in philanthropy, community funding opportunities, and networking events. The series includes a 12:00 pm webinar followed by a 1:30 pm in-person seminar on the same topic. We all enjoy the connection and energy that comes from being in the same space, but also recognize that it is not always possible for clients to get to our offices in San Francisco, so we are giving our donors options.
The first webinar/seminar held on March 5 focused on engaging millennials (adults who are in their 20’s and 30’s) in Jewish life. The event featured speakers Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon, both from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and founders of Birthright Israel, Slingshot, 21/64, and Grand Street, among other initiatives. They are a dynamic duo and are known as THE innovative philanthropists of the 21st century. Rounding our this impressive panel was Jordan Fruchtman, Chief Program Officer of Moishe House and former Hillel Director. Ben Abram, one of JCF’s young leaders, moderated the panel and kept the group on topic with his line of questions.
Our speakers captivated the room as they described the unique traits of millennials, including how they are tech savvy, networked, multi-taskers who continue to embrace the values of their parents and grandparents as part of what they believe in, yet do not typically connect to traditional Jewish institutions.
Top 5 takeaways from the speakers:
During an extended 11 year period post college, millennials are making major life choices, but there is a gap in Jewish community programming for them during this time.
Moishe House and Birthright have stepped in to help fill this gap. “This time is critical in identity development,” says Fruchtman, “a juncture in their lives when they are making huge long term life decisions about who they marry and where they are going to settle down, buy a house, and raise a family.” Very simply put Moishe House is meant to be a straightforward and organic model that speaks to this generation. It is three to five friends who live together in a house and open their doors doing anywhere from five to ten programs per month. The programs range from Shabbat dinners, Jewish culture and the holiday kinds of programming, to just general social programs, community service, and Jewish learning.
Millennials like to customize; Jewish institutions need to allow for this if they want to remain relevant.
According to Solomon, “Jewish is just one of the many identities these milllennials connect to.” If our institutions are going to attract them, there has to be some allowance for customization for them to put their own unique mark on it. “They don’t like being told what Judaism is or looks like, or how to be Jewish,” he adds; “they want to create that for themselves.”
91% of Birthright attendees remain connected to the Jewish community after their trip.
Bronfman points out that millennials are free to be anything they want, and without meaningful Jewish engagement “a heck of a lot will opt out.” The good news, says Solomon, is that 12,000 Bay Area millennials have gone on Birthright trips. “If they go on Birthright,” says Bronfman, “they are back in – period! We have a 91% success rate; 75% say it changed their lives and was the most important 10 days they ever spent.” And those young people, he adds, have a 50% better chance of marrying Jewish.
Engagement programs for millennials, like Birthright, need to be funded!
In spite of the overwhelming impact of Birthright on young people, 11,500 were put on waiting lists and could not go. “For $3,000 (the trip is free to the young adults, and costs the community about $1500 per participant that is matched by a national funder) you get almost the same impact as a $180K Jewish day school education. To have a waiting list for that $3,000 expenditure, when San Francisco is the most affluent Jewish community in the history of the world, makes no sense.” He admonished, “We are so used to saving Jews from Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union, yet we don’t think about our own backyard.”
Millennials are tech savvy, networked, and use these traits as part of the skills they bring to the table
According to Jordan, millennials are a generation that is more educated and has more resources at their disposal, and they aren’t seeking out the same Institutions as previous generations. Those have barriers. Instead, they look at institutions they can put their own special brand on. This poses a unique opportunity – and challenge – to the Jewish community. Charles Bronfman challenges the Jewish community “to get out of the way and let these folks lead our major institutions.”