Opinion | Why Millennials Are Opting Out of Synagogue

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a synagogue roof with a gold star on david on top
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By Max Weisman

There are some aspects of Judaism that will remain constant: the B’nai Mitzvah Torah chanting will always coincide with the most awkward time of puberty, our holiday observances will bring the Jewish community together while simultaneously opening the door to a plethora of questions from our non-Jewish coworkers, and my mother’s matzah ball soup will always be better than yours.

Judaism is a religion that thrives on the constant of ritual and tradition while seeking to reinvent itself for the times. This constant evolution gave us understood changes such as the birth of Reform Judaism while providing more complicated changes such as the move away from brick-and-mortar synagogues.

I consider myself an affiliated and proud Jew: I was Bar Mitzvah-ed, I went to Jewish sleep-away camp at Camp Galil, I lived in Israel for a gap year, I was on the Hillel board at Temple University and even married a nice, Jewish woman. As a child, I attended synagogue with my family and, when in formal institutions as a young person, was happily active in Jewish youth programming.

As an adult, my affiliation is steadfast for me, but may seem complicated from the outside. I married a Jewish woman in a fairly traditionally Jewish ceremony, the majority of my close friends are Jewish and I even make a point of going home for the occasional Shabbat dinner with my parents and in-laws.

But I don’t go to synagogue.

This isn’t because of a millennial rejection of my “parent’s Judaism” but my generation’s longing to create and customize. We see the popularity of a startup economy and subscription box businesses just as we see the decline of big-box stores and department-style outlets. While older generations feel comfortable in the wheelhouse of tradition, my generation wants to reinvent it.

My parents and their synagogue friends love that their synagogue has its unique tunes and its tailored outlook on Jewish values. They also like that if they venture to another synagogue, be it in Brooklyn or Bangladesh, the tunes may be different but there is a commonality and familiarity with the prayers and the values.

For me, this commonality feels confining. I grew up learning the words and prayers of the Torah, understanding why our ancestors read them and their significant place in Jewish history. These feel like important words but not my words. I had been taught from a young age to be proud of my Jewish heritage and to do so I need to feel ownership over this heritage.

I do this by living an inherently Jewish life — one without prayer or synagogue — but with values and customs. Synagogue always taught me to treat others with respect, to help those less fortunate and be openly proud to be a Jew. The prayers, which I learned and know but do not connect with, taught me to believe in a higher power, to honor those who came before me and to recognize the contributions of the communities that made every aspect of my life possible.

I will admit that attending synagogue regularly makes it easier to remember and live out these values — but that’s not to say I cannot do this in my non-synagogue life.

I help those with less privilege than myself, I donate to causes that align with my Jewish values (not exclusive Jewish causes), I remain knowledgeable about Judaism so I can answer questions about our community and I openly and proudly celebrate my heritage.

Although a nontraditional Jew, I feel wholly and unapologetically Jewish.

Max Weisman is a senior associate at Ceisler Media and lives in Philadelphia.

1 COMMENT

  1. I wear two kippot in this conversation. I am the proud mother of this wonderful, thoughtful, proudly Jewish, eloquent millennial, Max Weisman. I am also a Jewish educator and the very proud Education Director of the SMILE school of Or Hadash in Ft. Washington.

    In both roles, I have enthusiastically and lovingly accepted the task to mold and shape young people into proud Jews. Jews who will wrestle with our heritage and traditions their entire lives in order to take their place as a link in the Jewish chain. I work to teach them to think, feel, know and ask questions. I don’t ask them to copy me or our elders. Just take a look and think hard and deep about it. Just as Max is doing at this point in his life. Yashir koach Max.

    So, where does that happen today? For Max it happened in Jewish Day School, Camp Galil, numerous shuls across the Greater Jewish Community – ie, where his mother happened to be working – and of course, in the home in which he was brought up. A lot of it happened there. Building our family sukkah, reading Jewish books, listening to Jewish music, lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles, engaging family seders, enthusiastic holiday observance, keeping kosher in our home and yes, eating my homemade matzah ball soup. Thanks for the appreciative shout out Max.

    As a Jewish educator, I ponder the future path of our people with my colleagues. We lament dwindling attendance, we rejoice when our numbers are up. We ponder the most engaging ways to reach our students and their families. We wonder what Judaism and specifically, Jewish education, will look like in the future. We repeatedly ask- what do our families and students want in pursuing their Jewish selves? We love feedback so we don’t have to guess. We look to people like Max to provide such feedback.

    Jewish life doesn’t just happen in the brick and mortar synagogues across the world. It happens in our homes. It happens in community. It happens because we feel if in our hearts. It happens because we instill a deep, passionate love of all things Jewish in our children and grandchildren. It happens because we listen to what they say.

    Judaism is a communal religion that emphasizes how to participate as a member of a community. We need 10 people to form a minyan. The idea is to be with other Jews to share important milestones collectively. If not for some sort of organized body, such as a movement, shul or chavurah, how do we find our minyan/community? I’m not saying that it has to be exactly our current model, but something with which people can connect in a meaningful way. Synagogues look different today than 50 years ago. They will surely look different 50 years from now. Some sort of vehicle to transmit cultural memory will be in order.

    As a people, we ponder the stories of our stiff necked ancestors wandering in the desert thousands of years ago. We’ve come a long way. But where are we going? Who is coming with us? It’s up to all of us to chart that path together. All of us. Our respected senior citizens, Baby boomers, Millenials, Gen Xers, Gen Z and the alphabet soup of generations yet to be named.

    I believe in the power of community. I believe that there is power in numbers, especially in the turbulent, scary world in which we live today. I believe that as Jews we are part of a greater whole. We are better together.

    I believe that we need Max and our other millennials. I believe that we need to listen to them. They will be an important part of where we go next and who comes with us. In what the next village looks like. They will navigate the modern desert and we will follow. We must get there together.

    Todah rabah to Max for having the courage to speak out and open up an important conversation.

    Hazak, hazak, v’nithazake. May we go from strength to strength together.

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