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Get Them While They’re Young

Get Them While They’re Young

Faced with an aging population, low birth rate, economic recession and increasing jitters about Israel’s standing in the international community, American Jewish organizations are seeking new ways to reach and engage young Jews — and ensure their own future.

The latest national effort by the Jewish Federations of North America is TribeFest, a three-day gathering in Las Vegas this week that brought 1,200 Jews in the 20s through 40s age range to meet, socialize, be entertained and discuss issues of meaning to them, primarily in the areas of arts, culture, Israel or spirituality.

Assistant Managing Editor Adam Dickter notes in his front-page report that organizers are hoping to create “a new connotation for the term federation, which millennials and Generation Y members likely associate with baby boomers and stuffy programs taking place in boardrooms.”

The program was heavy on keeping things light, and capitalizing on the Las Vegas setting. It will be interesting to see how the experiment plays out.

Closer to home, UJA-Federation of New York has awarded six “ignition grants” through its Beginning Jewish Families Task force, seeking to reach and engage new parents. As Associate Editor Julie Wiener reports, the programs receiving support range from providing space for Jewish babies, toddlers and their mostly unaffiliated parents to hang out on Sunday mornings at a Jewish school’s gym, to a Conservative congregation’s outreach to gay and lesbian families and a Park Slope class for second-generation Russian families, many of which are interfaith.

The idea is to reach young people early and keep them as their families grow.

In a sense, the approach today is the opposite of how Jewish organizations worked a century ago. At that time Jews had specific needs — protection against anti-Semitism, discrimination in the labor market, etc. — and groups were founded to meet those needs.

Today many of those same institutions remain, but the original needs have changed, or been resolved. So too often now we find communal leaders trying to convince young people that they need to belong to an organization they may not even be aware of, much less feel connected to.

Fortunately, as always, Jews today are seeking meaning and community — a reason to feel pride in their religion, heritage and each other. Some will be reached through low-key, highly secular approaches; others will be attracted to educational and/or religious content, and still others to do good works in improving the world.

Not every project will bear fruit, but experimentation and creative thinking are required if we are to improve the chances for Jewish continuity and growth.

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