‘Hurry up!” The text message from my friend materialized on my phone. “Seats are going fast, and I just tripped over two walkers, a cane, and an old lady in a wheelchair.” I was en route to the Harrisburg JCC, where a showing of Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya’s 2013 film, “Where Comedy Went to School,” about Catskills comics, was about to begin. Perhaps not surprisingly, the audience members were almost entirely geriatric; they especially appreciated the live comedy act that followed the film, in which an aging female comic from New York cracked jokes about incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and difficulties in mastering new technology.
The aging of both (non-charedi) synagogue members and arts patrons jeopardizes the long-term survival of religious and cultural organizations. Millennials and Gen-Xers are conspicuously missing from the membership or subscription rolls of both public spirituality and public art. Can anything be done to bring back the younger generation?
The graying of both synagogue members and arts audiences is a relatively new phenomenon. The post-WWII move to the suburbs was driven in large part by the baby boom; tens of millions of dollars were spent in building new synagogues with huge Hebrew schools. (Now, by contrast, some synagogues have no Hebrew school-aged children at all.)
And as recently as the 1930s, when both my parents were born, studies showed that the median age of classical music concertgoers in Grand Rapids, Mich., was 27; in Los Angeles, it was 33. Two decades later, in 1955, a survey of attendees at an orchestra concert in Minneapolis found that more than half the audience was under the age of 35. Even in the 1960s, a study of Broadway theater audiences found that while few under the age of 20 were in the seats, there were also few over the age of 60.
Ari Roth is the former artistic director of Theater J at the JCC in Washington, D.C. He now runs a new theater company, Mosaic, located on H Street in what used to be a Jewish neighborhood that went through a decline, and is now rapidly gentrifying. “Young people don’t want to be around folks with bald spots,” he said. In a bid to attract young Jewish and non-Jewish audience members, his upcoming season features young playwrights of different races grappling with issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the experience of African-Americans.
Roth grew up going to Jewish day schools and summer camps, where he learned the value of being an “amateur practitioner” first before becoming a “professional” shul-goer or audience member. The more that both organized religion and the arts engage young people, he suggested, the more that they will appear in the pews or the seats. As he put it, “Today’s economy rewards disruptive technology and innovation, as well as interactivity — the ability to participate rather than just to consume.” He pointed to the example of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in his own city, which eliminated synagogue dues and sponsored rock concerts and canoe/kayak outings.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the spiritual leader of Adath Israel, a Conservative congregation in suburban Philadelphia. He has a background in theater, and has been known to do magic tricks during his High Holy Day sermons. He sees millennials finding community on-line, through social media, in ways that are no longer based on “long-standing, intergenerational, geographical proximity.”
Nevertheless, he detects a “fidgety, unsettled sense of underlying doubt in the sustainability of these connections,” which gives both synagogues and arts organizations, he theorized, a pair of strategic opportunities to respond to the new reality — “either as an old school, counter-cultural escape from a world defined by the superficiality of newly defined definitions of interpersonal connection, or as agents of fundamental change in how our institutions deliver their sense of community.”
The double meaning of this last phrase wasn’t lost on me. When will younger people turn up at—or “come around” to—our synagogues and concert halls? As we put it in a very different context, in our prayers for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, may it happen “speedily, in our days.” The vitality of our Jewish community, and our cultural life, depends quite literally upon it.
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.). He writes about theater for the paper.