US Jews ponder how to engage young people in community life

By Hillel Kuttler, November 16, 2012

Rabbi Rick Jacobs faced some of the 3,000 people attending America’s annual conference of Jewish philanthropic organisations and presented a key challenge now confronting north American Jewry: how to engage young people in Judaism and in organised communal life.

“We know that those in the next generation are not jumping on the Jewish bandwagon,” said Rabbi Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. But hope remains, because far from disengaging, young Jews are expressing what Judaism means to them, albeit in a different form, he said.

“Jews in their 20s and 30s are hungry. They’re hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives. Young Jews want to connect in a way that is beyond themselves,” Rabbi Jacobs told delegates in a packed Baltimore ballroom.

Rabbi Jacobs was the first of a series of speakers to raise the issue during the three-day gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents the 155 local federations that raise funds for Jewish needs.

Sessions dealt with ways that social media can be exploited — and already are — to reach young Jews who might be unaffiliated to traditional organisations. Unstated was the long-range necessity of bringing them into the fold: someone will have to shoulder the responsibility for funding and sustaining the myriad charitable organisations that Jewish federations endow. They include synagogues, schools, hospitals, sports and recreation centres and senior citizen residences; and services, such as vocational training, counselling, food banks and Jewish programming on campuses.

The amount at stake is significant, with the federations raising and disbursing $1 billion annually. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told the federations’ presidents that outreach to young Jews was “one of the seminal challenges of contemporary Jewry. The question is how to reconnect them and re-engage with them in their communities” .

Last updated: 4:11pm, November 19 2012