Message is clear: Meet the millennials where they are

Message is clear: Meet the millennials where they are

Rabbi Irwin Kula
Photo by Toby Tabatchnick
Rabbi Irwin Kula Photo by Toby Tabatchnick

When addressing groups of millennial “nones” — those who do not identify as being affiliated with any particular religious group — Rabbi Irwin Kula stands before a large blackboard and records a list of all the circumstances in which members of his audience recall saying “Oh, my God” or otherwise referencing God in exclamation.

The list can include witnessing a car accident or following a sneeze or making love or looking in the face of one’s grandchild.

After reflecting on the list, which might include 50 different circumstances, invariably someone notices that the list includes “everything.”

“It’s a very unnerving experience,” Kula told the 150 interfaith clergy members gathered together at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Feb. 25 for the congregation’s annual Milton E. Harris Interfaith Lecture and breakfast. Co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, the lecture, “Engaging the NONES,” seemed to resonate with the crowd of diverse spiritual leaders all wrestling with the issue of diminishing flocks.

Kula, an eighth-generation rabbi ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America, currently serves as the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. In 2008, he was ranked 7th in Newsweek’s “50 most influential rabbis” list. He is the author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” and has appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Frontline.”

Citing the 2013 Pew study, Kula explained that the “nones” are the fasting growing “religious identity.”

But while 62 percent say they seldom or never pray, Kula noted, that just means they are not praying in “some sort of formal institutional sense.” It does not mean that they are not spiritual.

The vast majority of the “nones” — 61 percent — say they believe in God or a universal spirit, Kula said.

To engage the “nones,” he said, traditional religious institutions will have to evolve and innovate or risk losing them to other types of institutions that can satisfy their needs for connection and spirituality in other ways.

“All the religions are in distress,” he said. “All the religions are in the same boat now. One in every 10 Americans is a lapsed Catholic. Ninety-four percent of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish, but 23 percent are not affiliated.”

The changes that are imperative if religious institutions are to engage the millennials, he said, are similar to those that have been made, or will need to be made, in most other “industries disrupted by innovation.”

“In every single domain, we are watching the authority structures undergo tremendous transformation,” he said, noting changes in the music industry, print media, television, education and vacation lodging.

“Now it’s happening to religion,” he said. “I know, we don’t want it to happen to religion. I get it.”

Thanks to the Internet, and the “unbundling” of services, Kula said, individuals have greater and greater power over fulfilling their specific needs, such as creating their own personal radio stations via Spotify rather than being at the whim of a radio DJ, or specific AM or FM channels.

The “nones,” he said, “are mixing, blending, bending and switching. They are creating Webs of relationships instead of community.”

Changes and innovations do not come easily, Kula acknowledged.

“It’s complicated to let go of the sacred,” he said, but religious leaders need to remember that what are now traditions also began as innovations.

“The early seders looked very weak compared to the sacrifices in the Temple,” he said.

“I know there will be loss,” Kula continued. “But religious people have to understand, we are finite … we are not invulnerable.”

Religious leaders need to consider “what are the jobs that religions get done,” he said. “You better think about what jobs you’re good at.

“Everybody’s feeling the loss,” Kula added. “You better get in the game.”

Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, found Kula’s lecture “provocative, in all the right ways.”

Barlow said she too has been thinking a lot about the future of religious institutions, particularly regional ecumenical institutions such as Christian Associates, an umbrella group representing 2,000 various Christian congregations in 10 counties.

“At times, I feel like I am riding a dinosaur,” she said, adding that Christian Associates was established for “a different time.”

“But the mission remains vitally important,” Barlow continued. “Maybe even more important. The goal is the same, but the way the Church expresses itself is very different. Christian Associates was established at a time when the Christian churches were a dominant force in society. But it’s different today. The importance of the Church in the wider society is just not the same.”

Although the role of the Church is in decline in America, she said, it is increasing in developing parts of the world, such as South America and Africa.

“This is not a death knell for Christianity globally,” she said. “But things are changing.”

Seth Adelson, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, said that those issues raised by Kula are ones with which he grapples continuously.

“We have to be constantly reconsidering our model,” Adelson said. “We are like Barnes and Noble in an Amazon world. We have to find ways to reach people who are nontraditional. The challenge in our institutions is that some people are strongly committed to the way things have been traditionally done. The challenge is not to find ways to replace our traditions, but to find ways to transmit our tradition for the future to the subsequent generations.

“The challenge is innovation in the context of tradition,” Adelson explained. “But this has always been the challenge Conservative Judaism has faced — balancing the line of innovation and tradition. In the mid-20th century, the slogan [for the Conservative movement] was ‘tradition and change,’ with an emphasis on tradition. But we live in a time of great change, and we have to respond to that.”

Kula validated the sense of transition occurring throughout the community, said Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom.

“As we embark on a strategic planning process, Rabbi Kula’s challenge to place us in a larger context is both comforting and challenging, and we are ready to step up and embrace that challenge,” he said.

Bisno found the lecture comforting in that it was clear that the challenges are not unique to Rodef Shalom, or even Judaism, “but the entire domain of institutions is feeling this seismic shift.”

“It’s very powerful when you realize there’s a name for what you’re experiencing,” Bisno continued. “If you can name it, and place it in a larger cultural context, you realize it’s not your fault.”

An immediate response to the challenge should be collaboration, suggested Bisno.

“We can accomplish more together than alone,” he said. “We are no longer able to solve these challenges on our own. We must be willing to look honestly at what the challenges are. We are not really competing with each other, but competing with modern society. We have to meet [the millennials] where they are, or someone else will.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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