New approaches for getting younger generations to engage in communal Jewish life were put forward by Rabbi Mike Uram, the first-ever chief Jewish learning officer for Jewish Federations of North America, in a Zoom talk organized by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria on Feb. 4.
Uram admitted he does not have a magic answer to the problem that has been confounding leaders of Jewish institutions for several years. Instead, he regards himself as a “provocateur” who stimulates novel thinking and a sense of possibility.
He started by addressing Jewish communities and Jewish institutions, saying they no longer exist as they have in the past. He suggested that there is no longer the same power of gatekeeping and that the concept of who is a Jew has become more fluid. What may be seen as a community – through a synagogue, federation, university campus or geographic area – is, according to Uram, more accurately described as a network.
“There’s something imprecise about the language, and that imprecision leads to imprecise strategies,” he said, adding that this view is more aligned with an operating system that was in place several decades ago. “And the operating system, which was perfectly aligned with the North American Jewish population in the 1950s and 1960s, is now almost perpendicular with the ways that North American people and Jews access almost everything else in their lives.”
Using television viewing patterns as an example, Uram demonstrated a shift from “macro-communities to micro-communities.” That is, in the 1950s, close to three-quarters of the American public watched an episode of the hit show I Love Lucy at the same time. Today, a successful show might obtain a viewership in single-digit percentages.
A similar pattern can be identified in Jewish circles, if one were to observe the steep decline in the numbers of Jews affiliated with a synagogue today as opposed to the 1960s, he said. The drop is not singular to Jewish groups; a corresponding fall in institutional engagement has occurred across a range of civic and political organizations.
More broadly, people are spending less time out of the house and have fewer friends than in previous generations. As well, with social media and streaming services’ algorithms, people are now living more in “customized little bubbles.” To solve this dilemma, Uram proposed a change in the language and thinking used by institutions to bring the unaffiliated into their realm.
“When we say us and them, we’re thinking we’re the core, they’re the periphery. We’re involved, they’re uninvolved. We’re affiliated, they’re unaffiliated. The problem with that thinking is [that] it is measuring Jewish identity on a very linear and highly judgmental spectrum,” Uram said.
The challenge, too, with this institutional mindset, he argued, is that people do not wake up each day thinking they are an uninvolved or unaffiliated Jew and wondering how they can become more involved or affiliated. In fact, he said, many have a negative stereotype of organizational Judaism, as a place they feel judged and like an outsider.
Nonetheless, Jews not participating in institutional Jewish life are no less proud of being Jewish.
“They don’t feel broken,” Uram said. “They don’t feel like they need a synagogue or a federation to fix them. What has changed in American life is that, as affiliation rates have gone down, positive Jewish feelings have actually gone up.” Many Jews are interested in Judaism but not affiliation, he said. Hence, rather than focusing on programming and marketing, institutions should concentrate on building relationships, he said.
While emphasizing that he is not disparaging affiliation, Uram urges organizations to create new entry points and ways for Jews to connect with Jewish life.
“It’s a one-on-one conversation, and it’s more like community organizing than it is like traditional programming,” he said, noting that the organized Jewish community can often function like a taxicab in the age of ride-hailing companies or network television when there are streaming services.
“We’re not in the business of preserving network television,” he said. “We’re in the business of changing people’s lives with amazing shows. So, we should be doing anything we can do to get people to interact with the magic and the power and the wisdom of Jewish values.”
Another issue within a community is infrastructure, such as buildings, staff and program calendars, said Uram. Here, he advocates a change in philosophical approach, focusing on impact over affiliation.
“Spending a little bit more time talking about how we’re going to make a difference in people’s lives, rather than how they can help us keep the organization strong, will trickle down and change the way emails are written, the way the website looks, the way people are greeted,” he said.
Towards the end of his talk, Uram threw some questions out to institutions, asking if they were in the synagogue preservation business, the program planning business, the membership business or the transforming people’s lives business.
“My guess is they do not say that our mission is to make sure that the next generation of Jews joins. It probably says that they’re going to engage in Judaism in a way that transforms them and the world, that makes them feel closer to community and that helps them live more enriched lives, and all those things,” Uram said.
If organizations are to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities offered in the future, they must understand the perspectives of the next generation, he said. Millennials, he added, bring with them their own insights and values that can “guide the future of Judaism in exciting ways.”
Uram is a former executive director of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the 2016 book Next Generation Judaism: How College Students and Hillel Can Help Reinvent Jewish Organizations, which received a National Jewish Book Award. He was speaking as part of Kolot Mayim’s 2023/24 Building Bridges Speaker Series. On March 3, Rabbi Dr. Nachshon Siritsky, spiritual leader of the Reform Jewish Community of Atlantic Canada, will talk on the topic Our Evolving Jewish Understanding of G!d and Gender. To register, visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.