Here comes a new generation of worshipers. Here comes trouble.
And maybe here comes opportunity.
As if it weren’t apparent to every sentient faith leader, a new report from the Springtide Research Institute lays out the trouble in stark terms. The opportunity is less obvious – but essential for Jewish leaders and their colleagues in other religions to seize.
First, the trouble. It comes in a study with the understated title of Navigating Uncertainty. But there is no uncertainty about the findings. More than half of those between 13 and 25 don’t believe some of the things they hear talked about in religious settings; would rather discover their own answers to questions about faith than to be told what to believe; don’t feel they need a faith community; don’t feel they can be their full selves in a religious organization; and feel that religious organizations are “rigid and restrictive, and that’s not helpful to me.”
And here may be the most challenging finding, for Jewish leaders as for those of other religions – half of these young people agreed with this statement: “Because I have other communities, I don’t need a faith community.”
This, of course, is not the first time that religious leaders have confronted a crisis of faith among young people. Such episodes often come amid periods of uncertainty and despair, though such feelings also can contribute to people seeking – and often finding – solace and succor in faith. While no similar studies are available for earlier periods, it is certain that young people in Europe, especially France, were alienated from faith institutions following the carnage of World War I, and it is well known that many Jews – secular intellectuals and others – doubted the value of religion and even the existence of God following the Holocaust.
“One of the essential teachings of Judaism is the belief that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent,” Jennifer Lassley wrote in the International Social Science Review. “If God were truly omniscient, or ‘all-knowing,’ He surely must have been aware of the imminent death of eleven million human beings, six million of which were his chosen people. If He were really omnipotent, or ‘all-powerful,’ He would have been able to stop the atrocities. And, if God were indeed omnibenevolent, or ‘all-good,’ how could He have simply stood by while these atrocities occurred?”
These questions resonate across the decades, and across the generations, especially among Jews.
This is, to be sure, a different era, with different cultural crosscurrents. The new generational Jew is marked less by the Holocaust than by fresh awareness of human rights and a recent racial reckoning. Indeed, the biggest gaps in beliefs between this group and established religions are over the issues of this era, such as LGBTQ rights, gender equity, and immigration.
The result, according to the survey: “Young people combine the elements of beliefs, practices, identity and community from numerous sources rather than from one, bundled up tradition.”
Only about 2 percent of the respondents to this survey were Jewish, but there can be no doubt that these findings apply to young Jews.
“This is no surprise, and I am not discouraged about it,” said Rabbi Ronald B. B. Symons, founding director of the Jewish Community of Greater Pittsburgh‘s Center for Loving Kindness, which has a special emphasis on appealing to younger Jews. “As we engage in a 21st century experiment about how to build community and connect young people to Jewish life, we have to change the way we deliver very good Jewish material. The challenge is the way the content is both delivered and received, and we must help young people process that material.”
The Springtide survey indicated that more than a quarter of young people never attend services, and half of them attend at most once a year. Its findings identify a two-way disconnect: “Young people report not reaching out to religious leaders in times of uncertainty and not being reached out to.”
Rabbi Symons compares the decline of connection between young Jews and established Jewish institutions to changes in retail shopping. The large mall anchored by big-box stores used to be the cool thing. Now it has been eclipsed by Amazon. So, too, has the menu of traditional Jewish institutions.
But he and other rabbis dealing with the new generation are not in despair.
“There are so many strands of belonging, so many ways to be Jewish,” Rabbi Joshua Stanton of East End Temple in Manhattan and a senior fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told the Springtide researchers. “Why would we confine ourselves to just a couple of notions of it? We share not a faith per se, but a group of people with different strains in common (or not in common). And when you have enough in common, you get to join together in this wonderful heterogenous amalgamation called community.”
It turns out that the word community is not necessarily geographical, and surely is not tied to brick-and-mortar institutions, many of them with huge maintenance burdens and shrinking memberships. Then again, reflecting High Holiday services throughout the COVID pandemic the past two years, that is not news to established Jewish organizations, including synagogues, which operated through Zoom and communicated by social media. The pandemic has been no blessing to anyone, but it has been loaded with lessons. One of them just might be to have shined a light on the path to drawing the new generation into Judaism and Jewish institutions.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.