The Millennials Will Keep The Fire Lit

This sermon was originally delivered on Friday, March 23, 2018 at Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy, NY as part of the Founders Day Celebration for Reform congregations in the Capital District.

Last month, I nervously made my way to The Liberty, a bar in downtown Manhattan. This wasn’t your typical happy hour or Saturday night fun with friends – I was going to The Liberty for Friday night Shabbat services. I was nervous because I didn’t know anyone else going and didn’t know what to expect; I had met the young clergy who ran this special, once a month Shabbat experience, but still didn’t know what it would look and feel like. As I walked inside and down the stairs, my face immediately lit up as I saw nearly a hundred Jewish young adults schmoozing with one another, bringing so much life and energy into the space. Surprisingly, I found several other people I had known from NFTY and camp growing up. My shoulders relaxed, I grabbed a drink, and settled into what would be an intimate and inspiring Kabbalat Shabbat service. Although millennial engagement is a huge part of my work at the URJ, and this was a clear example of that happening, this experience was more than just work. I personally felt fulfilled, uplifted, and inspired. There is a perpetual fire burning inside of millennials to explore Judaism and change the world, and I simply can not rest until my friends, my coworkers, and Jewish young adults everywhere feel that connection too – the same connection I felt celebrating Shabbat, in a bar, in downtown Manhattan.

In our Torah portion this week, we explore all kinds of sacrifices that must be made, and for one of them we are commanded: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out”. Now, our ways of practicing Judaism have changed so many times over the years, but the essence of the fire, of the passion of Judaism, has not changed. While our altar has turned to prayers in a temple, and the makeup of our community looks drastically different from thousands of years ago, the question remains: how do we keep the fire of Judaism alive? And my answer: I believe the millennials will keep it lit.

My friends and I are passionate people – passionate about succeeding in school and work, about making a difference, about changing the world. But to truly understand Jewish millennials, we have to begin with a broad look at the millennial generation.

If you were to only try and understand millennials from what’s been written about us online and in newspapers, you may not believe these facts – and they’re straight from the Pew Research Center:

  • Millennials are the largest generation in United States history (yes, even bigger than the Baby Boomers)
  • We are the most educated generation as determined by college degrees
  • We volunteer at higher rates than other generations
  • And we also the most racially diverse generation

But let me paint the full picture for you:

  • We have the most college degrees, yet the most student debt
  • We are politically progressive and hold the highest number of potential voters, yet we are the least likely to vote
  • And we’re creating a culture of constant connectivity, yet we’re so isolated and lonely.

And in terms of religion, you could say that millennials are…. complicated. The overwhelming majority of us believe in God or some kind of spiritual being. But 1 in 3 of us don’t identify with a particular religion. And while the percentage of Jewish millennials who are proud to be Jewish is 95% – that’s right, 95% – a third of us don’t identify with Judaism as a religion; and many of us remain skeptical of and detached from religious institutions that surround us as we move from city to city. Whether it was boring Sunday school classes growing up, not being able to afford dues, or inaccessible and unwelcoming experiences with houses of worship, millions of millennials are running far away from organized religion.

Even with these trends, I believe that millennials will keep that perpetual fire lit. But for that to happen, our Jewish community needs to understand how Jewish millennials think about connection and community.

Last year, I led a Birthright Israel trip, a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults. Throughout our experience, we explore Israel top to bottom, connecting with the land, the people, and the culture. Out of my 40 participants, many of them were not connected Jewishly before – several did not have a bar or bat mitzvah, and some didn’t know anything about Shabbat. But none of that mattered when we made our way through the windy, stone roads of the Old City to the Western Wall. One participant spent 15 minutes carefully crafting their note to put into the Wall; another broke into tears seconds after touching the Wall; and all of them, after it was time to leave that holy ground, felt an immense closeness to Judaism.

Engaging Jewish millennials is not just about connecting them with the history and land of the Jewish people; it is also about fighting for a better future for all the people of the world. Many of us feel spiritually connected not by praying for a better world, but by taking action to make it happen. I felt so incredibly close to Judaism when I marched, chanted, and sang across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of people during the March For Racial Justice. Any time I learn about a social justice issue, step into the voter’s box, or call my representatives in Congress, I see Judaism come alive. And I’m not alone in these feelings either. Millennials know that Judaism is a religion that commands us to not stand idly by and to welcome the stranger. We know that even though we may not get to finish the work of building a world of justice and compassion, that we are still obligated to do what we can to make the world a better place.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in awe of the strength and courage of the survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. And I’ve been honored to work with a group of passionate Jewish teens, people even younger than millennials, as they mobilize the entire Reform Movement to take action and create a safer country for everyone. I know that leaders here are mobilizing the Jewish community to be at the March For Our Lives tomorrow in both DC and Albany and I hope that all of you are able to be there and march with our children and teens.

I tell you about these experiences because they show what millennials are looking for: “something more”. At least that’s what Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, researchers at Harvard Divinity School, identified in their two groundbreaking reports, How We Gather and Something More. Thurston and ter Kuile examined secular organizations that have taken the place of churches, synagogues, and mosques in the 21st century. These organizations, including CrossFit and SoulCycle, are giving millennials a spiritual experience that is rooted in six key areas: community, purpose finding, creativity, personal transformation, accountability, and social transformation. But, they also found, that religious communities have something to offer that the secular organizations may never find: something more. Something more is this idea of reaching for what matters the most in our lives. And, as all of us can attest to, discovering what matters most to us is one of the most perplexing journeys that life has to offer.

So how do we do this? How can we create Jewish communities where this quest for “something more” drives transformative and empowering experiences for Jewish millennials? I’m here to tell you that it’s not easy by any means….but it is much easier than it appears.

First, we must not be afraid to think big about expanding our community. I’ve talked with too many congregations who give up because their strategy became too big or too expensive. As we build the Jewish community as it should be, we have to think structurally and be willing to make tough decisions – in terms of finances, resources, and support – to create the community we need. Over the last year, I’ve been working with a congregation in Boise, Idaho who wanted to start a young adult community. And while they started thinking big and bold about their strategy, they’re also realistic about their goals – they know that engaging 500 Jewish millennials is impossible for their community; but that’s not keeping them from laying the groundwork and growing their community one person at a time.

Second, we have to meet the millennials where they’re at – physically, mentally, and spiritually. For some millennials, their yoga studio or a friend’s apartment is a more spiritually connected space for them than a synagogue building. What would it look like for us to bring Judaism to the homes of Jewish millennials and build authentic experiences throughout the Capital District? Or gathering at the best bar or restaurant in town for socially conscious, relatable Torah study? For one of our congregations in Washington D.C., they know that their building isn’t located where Jewish millennials are living. So, they don’t hold their events at the synagogue – they hold them in churches, bars, wherever is going to be accessible and open to Jewish millennials.

And finally, we have to let Jewish millennials lead – in the boardroom, on committees, in a young adult community. An important phrase in the disability rights activist community is, “Nothing about us without us”. It’s this idea that the people who are going to be directly impacted by conversations or decisions should be at the table to help create them. When I traveled to meet with one our congregations in Dallas that’s building their young adult community, the young and energetic rabbi and staff person at the temple, themselves millennials, ensured that they had some of their millennial community lay leaders present for all of our meetings. And I’ve talked with several congregations that are ensuring that millennials get on their temple board – not in 5 or 10 years down the line, but right now. Nothing about us without us.

What’s incredible about this moment we’re in right now is that there are dozens and dozens of Reform congregations grappling with this important, holy work. I’ve mentioned a few, but everywhere from New York City to Los Angeles, Minneapolis to Charlotte, Memphis to Albany; there are dedicated clergy, lay leaders, and yes millennials, creating a true network of millennial communities to learn and grow from one another. And the URJ is committed to growing these communities because, as we read from our Torah this week: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out”. And I believe, and the URJ believes, that the millennials will keep the fire lit.

This past Yom Kippur, a couple of friends decided to host a break fast in one our apartments. We started reaching out to everyone we knew – friends from camp or NFTY, coworkers, friends of friends – anyone we thought would want a place to close their Yom Kippur observance. After a long and reflective day, people made their way one by one into my friends’ Upper East Side apartment filled with delicious food. As the night goes on, one of the guests, who was a former NFTY leader in high school, leans over to me and says, “Thank you. I was so involved in high school and kind of in college, but I’ve been in New York City for three years now and this is the most Jewish thing I’ve done. And I really missed it.”

Friends, I have no doubt that our community can and will continue to grow and expand in extraordinary ways in the coming years. And let us be the ones to make it so. On this Shabbat, may we draw close to one another; for the strength to think big and broad about our communities, the courage to connect with those currently outside of our walls and searching for the door in, and the deep love and care to create the opportunities for Jewish millennials to lead our community into the future. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. Let’s keep the fire lit.

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