Des Moines, Iowa Before she visited Drake University, Lilianna Bernstein never had set foot in Des Moines, let alone imagined that she would one day settle down in the city.
But a job offer in 2006 to be a Drake admissions counselor led the Chicago-area native to put down roots in Iowa’s capital. And one of those roots was joining a synagogue.
“Once I decided to stay in Des Moines, it was a no-brainer that of course I was going to stay involved in the Jewish community,” Bernstein said.
Now, Des Moines’ Jewish community is hoping more Drake students will do the same.
The area’s Jewish federation recently bought and renovated a 1910 Craftsman-style house near Drake to become a gathering space for Hillel, the Jewish student organization found on campuses around the world. Bernstein is Drake’s Hillel adviser.
The goal is to make Drake so attractive to incoming Jewish students that they’ll stay in Des Moines after graduation and help fill in a widening age gap among participants in Jewish life in the city, community leaders say.
“If our kids want to run away and not be in Iowa, then let’s get someone else’s kids to live in Des Moines,” said Stuart Oxer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines.
Faced with an aging population and lack of engagement among young people, Jewish communities across the nation are ramping up efforts to recruit Jewish millennials.
A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that while more than nine in 10 American Jews ages 18 to 29 say they are proud to be Jewish, a third don’t identify with the religion. That set off alarms in Jewish institutions such as synagogues.
In small- and medium-size cities that may not have the Jewish infrastructure or the social and cultural draw of major metro areas, worry about the future is even greater.
“It’s a very real fear. And the smaller the community, the more significant it is,” said Matthew Boxer, a researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “It’s really difficult for them to do anything that’s going to attract young Jews.”
Nearly 80 percent of Jews live in the 20 largest metro areas, compared with 38 percent of Americans on the whole, said Ira Sheskin, a geographer at the University of Miami in Florida.
And while Des Moines has a lot going for it — this year Forbes magazine ranked it America’s best city for young professionals — many of the students attracted by a state-of-the-art Hillel house “aren’t going to find in Des Moines what they could find in a New York or a Chicago,” Sheskin said.
Still, investing in attracting college students with a house stocked with games, television, free laundry and food in addition to Jewish-themed activities could pay off in the long term, said Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the Washington-based American Jewish Committee.
“Who is likely to come to a university taking into account the quality of Hillel? Those attracted to more Jewish life,” he said. “Down the road, these are the people who are going to be involved.”
Rabbis in Memphis were also thinking about the future when they approached a group of young professionals three years ago about finding a way to draw more of their peers to the city.
“The rabbis told us, ‘If your age group doesn’t move back and we don’t fill those people from elsewhere, the Memphis Jewish community a generation from now is going to be kind of a shell of its former self,’ ” said Jeff Dreifus, 26.
“We literally had to create something that meets our demographic where they are,” said Dreifus, who grew up in the Memphis suburbs and now lives downtown. “We have to provide them exactly what they are looking for. The fact that it’s Jewish isn’t enough.”
And what millennials are looking for is jobs, they found.
Together, they established the TI Fellowship, affiliated with Memphis’s Reform synagogue, Temple Israel. The program sets up college-age Jews and recent graduates with internships and housing in Memphis’ hippest neighborhoods, with Friday night Shabbat dinners thrown in.
After two summers of the program, a handful of participants already have relocated to the city, including Sarah Fenderson, a 24-year-old Nashville native who got a job in communications only a few months after her fellowship.
“I was like, I think I want to stick around a little more and experience Memphis at this time and age,” she said. “I had nothing to lose, and it offered me an opportunity, so I decided to stay.”
Affordable housing is another way to reach that age group.
A program called Moishe House sets up communal living spaces in cities around the world. And on the condition that the residents host Jewish-themed programs, the organization provides up to 75 percent subsidy toward rent.
Since its founding in 2006, it has expanded to more than 70 houses in 17 countries.
The idea was born when David Cygielman, Moishe House’s executive director, realized soon after college that few Jewish programs were targeted to him and his friends.
“We were involved in Jewish life in high school and college,” he said. “But now that we were graduated, we were too old for anything on campus, and we were too young for anything for young families.”
However prized millennials are to the continuation of Judaism, the lack of attention to the post-Hebrew school, post-college crowd is still a hurdle for communities.
Soon after joining a Des Moines synagogue, Bernstein felt the age gap, especially when she became one of the synagogue’s youngest-ever board members at 28.
“It would have been so awesome to have been synagogue shopping and actually seen a ton of young people at synagogue. That would have played in my decision a lot,” she said.