Reaching the iPhone Generation

What happens when a generation of Jews remains disinterested in synagogue life? Is there a way to attract adults without families to a traditional service? How can synagogues adapt and begin to better accommodate the needs of Americans who are increasingly choosing to live life “going solo”? Considering the recent trends in marriage rates and child-rearing (e.g. marriage being delayed in life, a rise in cohabitation rather than marriage, and the raising of fewer children), synagogues, which in many ways are so bound to the religious school model, need to reevaluate how they interact, appeal, and reach adults of the Millennial generation. While they have done well integrating families with young children (e.g. Tot Shabbat services, kids leading Adon Olam, parenting programs, etc.), synagogues are much less likely to appeal to younger adults who are still navigating their career paths, love lives, new cities, and the economic realties of our depressed economy.

So, what can synagogues do to reach the adults who are living alone, and who are interacting through social networks – virtual and not? When a generation is taking longer to buy homes and buy cars (or not doing so at all!) and is instead attaching status to phones, is there something a synagogue can do to harness such a cultural shift? When being connected does not rely upon getting into your car to go meet people in order to feel a part of the community, what should a synagogue be doing? Should synagogues be streaming their services, as has become increasingly possible? Should synagogues be tweeting one-liners from sermons? Will shaking up the traditional service with technology be the answer?

If synagogues take the client-centered approach, they should really be hiring digital strategists/consultants – not just to improve their websites and communication with the community, but also to incorporate technology and social media into curriculum, social programming, and potentially even the holy grail: services. One synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Florida, recently experimented with these theories with the help of The Tribe, an organization catering to engaging those in their 20s and 30s. As The New York Times reported, Temple Beth Sholom hosted a Rosh Hashanah “experience” specifically catered to the needs of this demographic by actually encouraging participants to use their cell phones during the service – to text in fact, so that their messages could pop up on a screen for all to see. Even if the anonymous messages included private hopes and goals for the coming year, for a generation primed to “share,” the exercise may have proved to be a no-brainer. As Rabbi Morrison of Temple Beth Shalom explained to the service-goers, the “texting will give you a voice in the service,” and while this may not be halachically kosher, the interaction and involvement by these Millenials is no laughing matter.

Of course, there is no easy answer to the future of the Millenials’ engagement in synagogue life. However, synagogues need to be thinking about their life choices and how their lifestyles differ from those of their Boomer parents. For a generation that is averse to making big purchases on homes and cars (and is saddled by student loans and middling wages), there has to be a big reason to invest (literally) in synagogue life. At the very least, harnessing the a to attachment networks and their phones may be a start.

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