As Rabbi Rick Jacobs took the bima in the Temple Emanuel of South Hills chapel last Thursday, Feb. 27, to address Reform rabbis, cantors and lay leaders from across the region, the composition of his audience was indicative of one of the major challenges facing Reform Judaism today: youth engagement.
While a handful of younger people did come to hear the president of the Union for Reform Judaism speak, the crowd was decidedly predominated by those 50 and over.
The Reform movement is at a historical crossroads, according to Jacobs.
“We have to re-envision where we’re going,” he said.
Acknowledging that the movement is “losing ground with our next generation,” Jacobs said that it was essential to “tell the truth about the number of people who are dropping out” after their bar or bat mitzvahs: 80 percent.
Because of the movement’s drastic loss of its youth, it is imperative to find an “audacious way of engaging the next generation,” Jacobs said.
“We need to have more on-ramps,” he said, referring to creating a plethora of different opportunities for young people to become connected to their Judasim.
For example, he said, the URJ is introducing a new summer camp this year — its 14th — that will provide instruction in science and technology to children who may prefer to spend their summers focusing on those areas while also exploring their Judasim.
The movement will also be lowering the age of youth group eligibility, so that children in sixth grade can get a jump on their involvement in NFTY. Moreover, children will no longer be required to be part of a family that is affiliated with a Reform congregation to join NFTY, he said.
“We need to lower those barriers,” he said.
Jacobs also proposed a partial collaboration of NFTY with BBYO, the largest Jewish youth group in North America, lamenting the relative dearth of involvement in either organization.
“Most Jewish teens have nothing to do with BBYO or NFTY,” he said.
So, next year, both youth groups will hold their national conventions simultaneously in the same city — Atlanta — allowing them to hold some joint programming.
Providing more opportunities for teenagers to connect to their Judaism will help satisfy their desire for meaning, according to Jacobs.
“Teens want more than to be successful, but to live lives of meaning and purpose,” he said. “They’re looking for meaning.”
Jacobs also presented strategies for engaging young families with Reform congregations, as affiliation is no longer automatic.
“In the 1950s, people joined synagogues, and it was automatic,” he said. “It’s not automatic today. We have to go out and find them and connect wherever they are. It’s not ever going to be like it was in the ’50s.”
Congregations will have to be willing to adapt to new paradigms, he said.
“We have to catalyze congregational change,” Jacobs said. “There are great congregations in Pittsburgh, but they won’t be great tomorrow if they are not adapting.”
Besides lack of youth engagement, Jacobs acknowledged other challenges to the Reform movement, including the tough economics of running congregations in the face of declining affiliation, and interfaith and gay marriage.
“We’ve got to find a way to be inclusive,” he said, citing the Pew study that showed a dramatic increase in interfaith marriage.
“The demographics are dramatically challenging unless you [embrace] interfaith families,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of creating a sense of connectedness to Israel.
“We have to create a sense of connectedness beyond our walls,” Jacobs said. “We are part of something larger. Israel is a critical part of that.”
To that end, Jacobs recognized the mandate of the movement to lead in the Jewish state on issues such as conversion laws, and the right to egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“What happens in Israel isn’t for us to watch, but is for us to participate in,” he said.
Referring again to the Pew study, Jacobs stressed the imperative for Reform Jews to be willing to adapt to the new Jewish world.
“It doesn’t look pretty,” he said. “We could give up, go to sleep, or get busy reimagining Jewish life.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)