When I was a kid, my dad and I would put on our Cleveland Indians gear from head to toe and drive in our blue Toyota corolla to the gravel parking lot beside Cleveland’s Municipal stadium. I still remember when we would walk into the cavern that rarely saw attendance rise above 12,000 people. I knew that the stadium had seats for over 80,000, but even with only a small portion of them filled, it was still awesome to join a community of fans all wearing Indians hats and chanting “Let’s Go Tribe” together. On occasion, however, with so many empty seats, the place felt ominous, like someone was missing. The city, the team, and the fans all wrestled with how to engage the next generation of Indians fans.
We are experiencing the same phenomenon in our Jewish community. Even as we fill our chapel tonight and gather in joyful worship, we estimate that there are roughly 80-100 thousand Jews in Denver Colorado. Yet like the Indians attendance, only about 12,000 people affiliate with institutions. We must wrestle with the tough questions: Where are those other 60,000 people? Why don’t they join a synagogue?
To help us answer these questions we turn to data. The Pew research group recently released a report about the current state of Judaism in America. The report details the lack of religious connection of Jews (22% said that they are cultural but not religious Jews), the growing intermarriage rate (71% of non-orthodox Jews in the past 10 years have married a non-Jewish partner), and the lack of institutional affiliation (only 40% are affiliated with a synagogue).
This report continues for 75 pages and has generated a lot of commentary. Some, mostly written by those in a generation or two above me, were horrified about this report. The New York Times quoted a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who said: “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population.” Rabbi Danny Gordis wrote an article entitled “requiem for a movement” about the impending demise of Conservative Judaism. Others cried out that we must “do something” to lower the intermarriage rate, increase affiliation, and get Jews back in the pews.
As I combed through the data I began to think that I entered the rabbinate at the wrong time. Just as I was about to hang up my yarmulke for good, I stumbled on a number that paints an entirely different picture than these other reports:
94% responded that they are “proud to be Jewish”. 94 percent!
As I continued to read more analyses of the study, I found that the younger the author, the more positive the interpretation. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Singer writes: “Millenials are just as in need of meaning, connection and spirituality as anyone else. And they are more proud to be Jewish than anyone else.”
How can two generations who share the same love of the Jewish people process the same information and arrive at vastly different conclusions? Is Judaism alive and well or should we be sounding the alarms?
The answer to both of these questions lies in our changing society and religious milieu. As walls are torn down between faiths, more and more people cross over into new territory. As conflicts around the world have centered on religion, more people are dismissing religion in their lives. As Israel’s conflict has deepened, more young Jews are growing skeptical of Judaism’s commitment to peace. In short, everything is changing about how younger people experience and therefore express their Jewish identity.
As a younger person, the biblical Jacob typifies the evolution of embracing and understanding religion. Jacob was not a righteous child. He lied, cheated, and stole his blessing and birthright from his brother and father. Growth and change are an essential part of human nature, and when Jacob grows into a young professional he encounters spirituality for the first time. On the eve of meeting his wife he awakens from a dream and declares “God was in this place and I did not know it! (Gen 28:16)”
Armed with this newfound sense of spirituality, Jacob didn’t rush to a synagogue, rather he built an alter where he was. From this we learn that we must bring religion to the people, not wait for them to come to us, both literally and metaphorically.
The concept of young professionals forgoing synagogues is not new. In the sixties, young professionals turned to other religions, especially in the Far East, for their sense of spirituality. Today, sadly, most young professional Jews are turning nowhere – they WANT Judaism to provide a religious foundation. Yet most have not awoken like Jacob to spirituality and a profound sense of religious inspiration. They seek spirituality but when most arrive at the synagogue they find mostly religion – a heaping portion of tradition and rituals that don’t provide enough meaning for them. We could bemoan their lack of attendance here tonight, and declare that Judaism is dying, or we meet them where they are and help them find God in their own way.
This is precisely the reason why the Hineni Project, our young professional group, engages in activities both in and out of the synagogue – young professionals find God in many places, not only in our beautiful chapel. On Tuesday we will meet at Wynkoop Brewery downtown where last month over 45 people attended and engaged in Torah study. During sukkot 75 people came to drink Sake and eat sushi in our Sukkah, here at Temple. In January Temple Emanuel is sponsoring a “Warehouse Shabbat” for young professionals at the Mercury Café where Josh Nelson will lead 200 young professionals in a rocking Shabbat service. This generation, my generation loves Judaism when we see innovation and inspiration.
We also want to be taken seriously. We have important jobs, have studied at serious universities, and Judaism must reflect our success. We want to engage in rigorous intellectual study, rather than the pediatric Judaism of our youth. In the spring we are going to offer an iEngage Israel class specifically for our generation in order to have a serious and open discussion about Israel. Innovation and inspiration don’t always require alcohol.
We want to wrestle with the tough intersection of Judaism and modern topics as we frame our own lives in our beloved Jewish identity, just like Jacob wrestled with his faith as he matured.
After fathering 12 children, no longer a young professional, Jacob again has a profound moment of change. He wrestles with God and prevails,but he doesn’t escape unscathed. Jacob suffered from a hip injury, limping away (Gen 32:25). Change is hard, change can be painful, but we must remember that Jacob prevailed in the end.
If we have grown up and lived with certain traditions, assumptions and understandings, change can be excruciatingly difficult. Change is even more challenging when we love our traditions and rituals and cannot understand why the people we love eschew them. Seeing our children make decisions we could never have imagined can be just as painful as Jacob’s dislocated hip.
Society has created a generation, for whom, Rabbi Singer says, “the structures and definitions of community that have worked for decades…no longer seem to make sense.”
I was at an interfaith social justice meeting this week when a pastor asked me if I feel pressure to make change in the Jewish community. I responded that I believe that the Jewish community is in the midst of a profound change, and that we can either participate in this change and help awaken an entire generation, or we can stay the course at the risk of irrelevance.
If 94% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish, we must find ways to embrace each and every one and help them as they struggle to find religious meaning. After fifty years of poor attendance; in the early 1990’s, Cleveland decided to embrace change. They tore down the old stadium and built a new, modern one, that holds 40,000 people. My brothers, my dad and I went to the last three games at Cleveland Municipal Stadium along with a sold out crowd of 80,000 other devoted Indians fans. Even as we chanted “let’s go tribe” in unison, everyone mostly came for the nostalgia of a place that no longer provided for their needs.
My generation isn’t going to come to synagogue out of the nostalgia of their youth. After the Indians erected a shiny new ballpark they also adopted a new philosophy which propelled them to the best team in baseball and set the major league record for sold out baseball games. I’m not suggesting that we tear down our synagogue, I love this chapel, this synagogue is home to myself and so many people. Yet we must accept the fact, that as the old barriers of faith have come down, we must innovate in order to inspire people wherever they may be.
Jacob prevailed when he wrestled with God, and we too will prevail, as we continue to foster a strong, caring and committed Jewish community for generations to come.