Rabbi works to meet needs, realities of millennial Jews

Rabbi Irwin Kula

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rabbi Irwin Kula, formerly of Congregation B’nai Amoona in Creve Coeur and currently president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), believes that the organized Jewish community must adapt to new realities regarding connections to mainstream synagogues and organizations.

Kula, 57, who served at B’nai Amoona from 1982 to 1987, started his duties in 1988 at CLAL (clal.org), an organization that provides leadership training for lay leaders, rabbis, educators and communal professionals. While in St. Louis to officiate a wedding recently, Kula met with local Jewish leaders to discuss CLAL’s efforts to “help Jews deal with the realities and needs of the post-Holocaust generation.” 

Described in his bio as a “provocative religious leader and a respected spiritual iconoclast,” Kula has worked to inspire Jews nationwide to use Jewish wisdom to influence modern life. He was ranked four years in a row in Newsweek’s “Top 20 Rabbis in America” and  is a frequent commentator about religious issues on TV. 

In an interview with the Jewish Light, Kula cited recent demographic studies of the attitudes toward religion by members of the millennial generation — those born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. 

“On the one hand, the studies found some positive facts about the millennial generation, including that 75 percent of American Jews are proud of being Jewish,” he said. “On the other hand, some 30 percent of millennial Jews said that they professed no religious affiliation.”

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Kula said that among Jews in their 30s, there has been a de-emphasis on institutional affiliations. 

“There has been an unraveling of American Jewish life, and we need new sorts of delivery systems for Jewish products and services,” he said. 

In order to reach the millennial generation, Kula said, “we need to offer new ways of being Jewish. Our Jewish legacy institutions — defense agencies, synagogues and federations — are all under stress, and there is a growing awareness of the need to adapt to this reality.”

He indicated that it is possible for innovations to occur within existing and traditional institutions, citing the activities and programs initiated at B’nai Amoona under Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose and the late Rabbi Bernard Lipnick.

Kula said the mission of New York-based CLAL is to provide “a faculty of rabbis and scholars, representing all the denominations of Judaism, to help make Judaism come alive, applying the wisdom of the Jewish heritage to help shape tomorrow’s Jewish communities.” 

CLAL, which was founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, offers seminars and courses, retreats and  online information. Among the innovative approaches that have been developed by CLAL and its participating rabbis and scholars, according to Kula, are infusing traditional Jewish practices that are often performed without mindfulness or by rote with greater meaning.

“For example, we place mezuzahs on the doorposts of our homes,” he said. “Instead of just fulfilling this mitzvah mechanically, we should consciously ask ourselves, ‘What is the job that is to be done when we affix a mezuzah? How does doing so relate to the development of positive character traits?

“For every mitzvah we fulfill or perform, we need to consciously evaluate how we know if doing so worked for us in a positive way.”

Kula stressed that introducing new practices and innovations into American Jewish life can be complicated but must be continued because legacy institutions alone are limited in the degree to which they can be innovative.

“Legacy institutions continue to serve important roles,” he said, “but are constrained by habit and the needs of their memberships from becoming as innovative as necessary to attract and retain younger Jewish participation.”