Opinion | Remove Millennial Synagogue Participation Barriers

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a tallit and siddur
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By Rabbi Shai Cherry

In the Aug. 8 issue of the Exponent, op-ed writer Max Weisman wrote a piece called “Why Millennials are Opting Out of Synagogue,” in which he cited his “generation’s longing to create and customize.”

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah, anticipated that same impulse nearly 2,000 years ago. He held that as soon as the Israelites encountered the voice of God at Sinai, each person interpreted the voice according to his or her own idiosyncratic capacity. Two thousand years later, Jews are still yearning to translate their unique perceptions into living programs.

As a newly minted congregational rabbi, I sighed when reading Weisman’s experience that synagogues were not places of creativity that honored congregants’ self-expression. Synagogues around the country have been grappling for many decades with the Scylla and Charybdis of tradition and change.

For those of us beyond the millennials’ age range, society has never moved with such rapidity. For millennials, this is their normal. Jewish leaders have a divine duty to overcome institutional inertia and respond to contemporary challenges wherever possible.

In the spirit of Rabbi HaNasi, Congregation Adath Jeshurun is introducing a new approach to celebrating B’nai Mitzvah. Starting today, our synagogue will offer a customizable alternative to the standard Shabbat morning service. For those who prefer, there will be an option to lead Shabbat afternoon and evening services. In lieu of chanting the Shabbat morning haftarah, the B’nai Mitzvah will offer a teaching session after Havdalah. The session will reflect the young Jew’s individual interpretation of what is most important about Judaism to them at this moment in their lives.

Two-thirds of American Jews, according to a 2013 Pew poll, aren’t so sure about God. For those late tweens who fall into that category, the standard Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony can be a farce. To be sure, those skeptical tweens would also find our new alternative problematic. The difference is that in place of the time spent learning the haftarah, the rabbi will be able to explore with the youth different theologies within Judaism.

The idea of a uniform Judaism is a betrayal of the long tradition of honoring local customs. Before the advent of the printing press, communities prized their own liturgical forms. In the centuries after the invention of movable type, printers included in a single volume many different local customs in order to expand their market and maximize profitability. Eventually, communities began to recite all the prayers since they were in a single book. Liturgical uniformity is an artifact of technology and capitalism.

When God introduced himself to Moses at the burning bush, God did so not as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” but as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). For English teachers, that’s two too many gods. But for the Chasidic tradition, the seeming redundancy is the Torah’s way of revealing that each of us has a unique relationship with God. Why shouldn’t our B’nai Mitzvah have unique ceremonies to inaugurate their relationships with God?

If millennials want to reinvent Judaism, it starts with knowing the tradition and being part of a community of co-inventors. On behalf of Congregation Adath Jeshurun, I invite you to join our community. Starting today, AJ is offering a year of free membership for folks new to our synagogue community.

Here’s a challenge to every synagogue: For a year, eliminate your financial barrier to entry. Remove that stumbling block. Millennials identify as “nontraditional” Jews who long to “create and customize.” Let’s invite each one in to interpret God’s voice according to their own idiosyncratic capacity. Nothing could be more traditional.

Rabbi Shai Cherry is the rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.

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