Jon Leener, an Orthodox rabbinical student, always attended synagogue over the High Holidays, but this year he’ll be hosting services a little closer to home — in his living room.
“It’s definitely going to be an adjustment,” said Leener, 27, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale. “I’ll hope I’ll have a chance to sneak out to shul during breaks.”
Leener is the co-founder of BASE Hillel, a new project aimed at engaging millennials by using the rabbi’s home as the convening point for pluralistic Jewish life. Launched in June, the program, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York and coordinated by Hillel International, is in full swing for the High Holiday season.
And while Leener stressed that the project is not trying to “replicate synagogue” by any means, efforts to create a meaningful High Holiday experience for young Jews requires ingenuity, he said.
“Conventional services can be completely daunting,” said Leener. “Most [millennials] haven’t gone to synagogue the whole year, and now they’re expected to be there hours on end, in an unfamiliar space, reciting prayers in an unfamiliar language. It’s anxiety-producing.”
His sentiment is backed up by data. Recent studies point to an alarming drop in synagogue attendance among young Jews. A March 2014 Pew Research Center study found that millennials are increasingly removed from religious institutions; the results came on the heels of Pew’s “Portrait of American Jews,” which found that nearly a third of young Jews define themselves as having no religion.
Leener and BASE co-founder Avram Mlotek aren’t the only ones easing the tension for millennials this High Holiday season. Whether hosting services on a rooftop, at a bowling alley or in the comfort of their homes, rabbis, rabbis-to-be and community lay leaders are improvising in order to attract young Jews this New Year.
At Lab/Shul, the experimental, artist-driven community in Lower Manhattan that attracts 20- and 30-somethings, services begin with a convincing “pitch” and networking, said Ezra Bookman, program associate. Happy hour at a bar last week served as the first introduction for potential service-goers, he said. The pre-holiday mixer attracted about 35 people.
“It is infinitely more likely they’ll attend services if they have a friend to go with,” said Bookman, 25. “There’s nothing more intimidating than walking into a service and not knowing anyone.”
At the services themselves, which will be held for the first time this year at the New York Academy of Medicine on the Upper East Side, several changes to the liturgy and a focus on embracing those of different faiths keeps millennials coming, said Bookman. All traces of patriarchal, hierarchical and hetero-normative language, including the classing art/thou, He, and even the word God, have been removed.
“Instead of using the baggage-laden G-O-D, we’ve replaced it with terms like ‘source of life,’ and ‘deepest source’,” said Bookman. “We’re hoping more expansive, inclusion imagery will translate to a more welcoming, inclusive service.” At least 800 were expected to attend.
Lab/Shul isn’t the only option for pre-holiday programming. Sutton Place Synagogue, a Conservative congregation on the Upper East Side, hosted a barbeque and karaoke night, singing along to the favorite High Holiday hits.
“It was a fun, low pressure way for Jews to learn the prayers before they were sitting in synagogue,” said Rabbi Rachel Ain, senior rabbi. On the High Holidays themselves, for the second year a special young-professionals service was held on the rooftop of the synagogue. Participants are called up to the Torah in groups, including “everyone who started a new job this year,” and "everyone who wants to commit to better health.” Last Yom Kippur, 200 turned out for the service, she said.
“Having a service specifically for this age group has been wildly successful,” said Rabbi Ain, noting that the service, which has no membership requirements, a low barrier for cost and allows young Jews to “test the waters” of Jewish community before making any commitments.
For Rabbi Judith Hauptman, senior rabbi of Ohel Ayalah, a free, walk-in service for millennials only, the secret to wooing young Jews is simple: no charge.
“These young people are so averse to what they grew up with — they’re not interested in the holiday season being the time to pay up,” she said. Whether it be love of Judaism, desire to reconnect with tradition, or Jewish guilt, this is the one time of year when young people are willing to come to services, she added. “It would be nuts on our part to make them pay.”
Rabbi Hauptman’s success is in the numbers. On Kol Nidre night, Ohel Ayalah’s three services in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens are expected to attract over 1,200 Jewish millennials.
“The Pew numbers may very well be discouraging, but if we keep pace with what young Jews want, there’s hope,” she said.
Unlike Lab/Shul, Rabbi Hauptman is more wedded to the traditional liturgy — her service sings Avinu/Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), the classic prayer, with the traditional words and melody.
“There’s a continuum, but we’re not promising magic tricks to get people to come,” she said, noting that preserving traditional elements of the service is often more appealing to young Jews.
But others are pushing the spiritual envelope, so to speak. Rabbi Dan Ain, founder of Because Jewish, an initiative to engage Jews in creative ways, held Rosh HaShanah services at the Brooklyn Bowl with musical accompaniment by Jeremiah Lockwood, frontman of The Sway Machinery, a band that creates contemporary takes on old Ashkenazi classics. The two will do Kol Nidre at the club Roulette in Brooklyn on Sept. 22. The services follow on the heels of Rabbi Ain’s retro-hip Passover seders last year, the first titled “Manischewitz, Maxwell House and Memories,” and the second convened at The Invisible Dog Center in Brooklyn’s trendy Boerum Hill.
Repair the World, a national Jewish service nonprofit focused on food justice and education, intends to redefine “service” all together. Its newest branch in Crown Heights launched just last week.
“We’re taking service out of the synagogue,” said Cindy Greenberg, Repair the World’s New York City director. “Increasingly, young Jews are asking about their role in the world on a more universal level. We’re giving them a hands-on way to address injustices — it’s a new way to mark the High Holidays.” Over the next few weeks, the organization’s nine fellows placed in Crown Heights will volunteer at a food pantry, composting event and even a bone marrow drive that takes place specifically on Yom Kippur.
“Yom Kippur speaks a lot about who will live and who will die — this is a very literal way to ensure someone else can live another day,” explained Greenberg. The hands-on activity provides appeal and meaning that conventional services simply can’t, she said.
Back at the BASE house downtown, the first floor of a spacious brownstone just blocks from Union Square, Mlotek, who is planning several community service missions and an explanatory shofar blowing in addition to services, said that he sees a cohort of Jewish millennials in a “desperate search” for meaning, but not sure where to turn.
“They’re looking for a space to express their Jewishness, but they want a place that understands what they care about — pluralism, social service, equality. People look at the Pew study numbers and they get discouraged. I see it as a challenge,” he said, pausing as the wind chimes in the backyard blended softly with the conversation. “Give them a space they can love, and they will come.”