Millennial Study Looks Up, Prompts Hands-On Grants
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Millennial Study Looks Up, Prompts Hands-On Grants

Jewish identity gets a boost in survey; being the underdog is ‘in.’

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

A shabbat meal hosted by OneTable, a non-profit that sets up Shabbat meals. Courtesy of One Table
A shabbat meal hosted by OneTable, a non-profit that sets up Shabbat meals. Courtesy of One Table

As Jewish organizations plan for a fast-changing communal landscape, many are trying to figure out ways to engage the most coveted demographic cohort: the millennial generation. Studies have shown that 20- and 30-something Jews are pulling away from communal institutions in a big way.

But now comes a report, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York and released last week, which provides a glimmer of hope about New York-area millennials’ attitudes toward Jewish identity.

The study, “Insights and Strategies for Engaging Jewish Millennials,” found that 80 percent of the young Jews interviewed believe that being Jewish is an important part of their identity, and 82 percent plan to raise their children Jewish. The survey polled 218 respondents between the ages of 22 and 36, and young adults who were already “highly engaged,” defined as attending synagogue once a week or more, were excluded from the study.

The study’s new numbers provide a more optimistic outlook than the March 2014 Pew study on millennials, which found that young adults are disengaging from institutions en masse; nearly a third affiliating with no political party or religion. The new results also contrast with the 2013 Pew Center’s “Portrait of American Jewry,” which found a 71 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and a 58 percent rate overall.

“On an identity level, Judaism remains a major part of how unaffiliated Jewish millennials see and define themselves,” said Boaz Mourad, lead researcher on the study. Strong family values, a good sense of humor (described in the study as “witty sensibilities”) and a drive to find meaning all play a part in “Jewish identity.”

Still, in terms of religious activities and behaviors, such as attending synagogue or participating in holiday rituals, millennials lag far behind previous generations, he said. “Jewish professionals need to meet millennials where they’re at. If we provide them with experiences they seek and value, they’ll re-engage.”

UJA-Federation is already applying the data. The study’s results are immediately being translated into allocation decisions, said Andrea Fleishaker, a planning executive spearheading the initiative.

Three new grants have been awarded based on the data: One Table, a nonprofit that helps 20- and 30-somethings host and find Shabbat meals, received a $85,000 grant; Reboot, a nonprofit that generates creative programming to affirm Jewish identity, received a $50,000 grant; and 70 Faces Media, a Jewish media company, received nearly $30,000 of seed funding to launch an online magazine for women in their 20s and 30s.

“Once the research came out, the implications for practice were immediate,” said Fleishaker, who said the study is a first for UJA-Federation in terms of targeting this specific population. “We wanted to make sure our grants matched up with the themes that rose up.”

Several themes stood out, including the centrality of millennials’ “search for meaning.” Ninety-eight percent of those surveyed said helping others was of prime importance, and 85 percent associated doing good deeds with Jewish culture. Mindfulness, self-awareness, and a mission to repair the world all characterized their search.

“I found the results very encouraging,” said Arin Tuerk, one of the study’s researchers and a Jewish millennial herself. “It’s good to know that Jewishness continues to play such a central role in young peoples’ identity.” She added that the Jewish struggle for existence through much of history is something millennials find very appealing — “associating with the underdog is in,” she said. “It’s something young people appreciate.”

The study, which includes a prescriptive section for those looking to apply its results, encourages organizations to “step into the space where millennials are pursuing their life goals.” The study cites the instant success of JSwipe, a dating app that allows Jewish singles to survey other singles in their general location, which successfully blends strong functionality—providing an efficient way to find relationships — with humor, progressiveness and community. Fifty-five percent of single participants in the study said that finding the right romantic partner is a major focus in their lives right now.

“We need to meet millennials where they are at by matching their functional needs,” said Mourad, explaining that Judaism needs to make a case for how it fits into the millennial value system. “‘Jewishness’ can take a back seat; the context and connections provide enough.”

Stressing the focus on millennial engagement, the Union for Reform Judaism announced this week the launch of a new yearlong outreach fellowship. The first fellow, Evan Traylor, 21, of Edmond, Okla., will work alongside Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and other leaders of the Reform movement to develop a toolkit for engaging millennials. The focus on this age cohort is clearly becoming a trend, said a URJ representative.

“Millennials are seeking welcoming, relevant, and socially conscious engagement,” said Rabbi Jacobs in a statement. “Evan, in this new role, is uniquely positioned to help us think and act strategically in this area in order to bring young adults closer to the core of Jewish life. Engaging millennials is as challenging as it is imperative.”

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