What’s next for the Jewish NextGen?

Eli Temkin at the Next Dor house. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rachel Tabak, 28, grew up at Congregation B’nai Amoona, which she still attends with family for the High Holidays. But she said she isn’t a member of the congregation on her own.

“I think that really kicks in when you have kids,” said Tabak. “In between being a kid and having kids I don’t know that you need the same kinds of things.”

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Is there a way the Creve Coeur resident and others her age might feel like becoming more involved?

“I don’t want to say ‘no’ because it’s probably not ‘no’ but I’m not creative enough to figure out what that would be,” she said.

Synagogues increasingly hope someone is that creative as they search for ways to lure heavily-wired, highly-mobile 20-somethings into the more traditional, often slower pace of institutional Jewish life.

A lot of them are like Tabak -it’s not that they don’t want to be a part of Judaism. For many, Jewish identity is important, even central to their view of life and themselves. But many are reluctant to join institutions that seem to give little practical benefit to them at this stage of their lives.

“I’m just not at the point in my life where the services that a congregation can provide in terms of religious lifecycle events are what I need,” said Rachel Lippmann, 28. “Right now, it’s just getting involved with friends in the community and getting involved with Jewish cultural and religious experiences that you can get outside of joining a congregation.”

One of these experiences is a discussion group at the Next Dor house, which Lippmann and Tabak are attending. Owned by Central Reform Congregation, the house is an independent initiative designed to encourage younger Jews to interact with one another in events ranging from beer tastings to Shabbat dinners to laser tag outings.

Eli Temkin, head of Next Dor, feels the Jewish community should meet young Jews with an authentic, open faith they can engage in on their own terms.

“The community should recognize that Judaism is often an important piece of our individual identities,” he said, “but it is not necessarily the single defining piece; Judaism is woven into our unique identities.”

He thinks young Jews seek relevant ways to be a part of the whole.

“We want to feel that our contribution is valued, even if we are not able to provide significant financial support,” he said. “The community should teach us a joyous, welcoming and diverse Judaism, which we are excited to engage, not out of guilt or responsibility, but out of sincere desire.”

Asked what aspects of the organized Jewish community, students complain about, Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus at Washington University said the answer is simple.

They don’t.

“Many of the institutions of our community are not optimized towards young people,” he said. “They don’t even complain because they don’t have any involvement.”

He said the key to tapping into the next generation is to not present involvement as an all-or-nothing proposition.

“Look at the way we do Shabbat,” he said of Chabad. “We offer a low-barrier service and we have for many years without a charge. It’s also not just your institutional hour-long, buffet-style dinner. There is explanation. There is intellectual stimulation. I feel that we are balancing the ideals of accessibility and high-quality substance very well.”

How to attract Jews into community life before college can be an important question as well. Fifteen-year-old Sydney Holt said that United Synagogue Youth has played a big role for her.

“A lot of the kids that I’ve met there have really enjoyed it so I feel like that has impacted how many people come to be more involved in the Jewish community,” said the Ladue Horton Watkins High School sophomore. “I know when I was little I never thought I would be interested in it but then I got bat mitzvahed and I feel like that changed my perspective on some things.”

Sydney, a native St. Louisan who became a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel, now attends services at B’nai Amoona. She said she plans to stay active in Judaic life as she gets older and has a particular interest in becoming a staffer at the Jewish camp she attended.

Sydney thinks the community is doing a good job in connecting with individuals her age and said she gets plenty of invitations to Jewish youth groups and events.

“I feel like the Internet would help considering teens are on it basically every day,” she said. “Maybe there should be special programs with teens at temples, services that would interest teens more.”

At Next Dor, the answers are murky but heartfelt. Jessica Baverman, 25, said she’s tried services at a couple of synagogues since moving here from her native Atlanta but found it hard to identify with congregations with a median age far above her own.

“We’re all on different paths and we all experience religion differently,” she said. “Where I am now might be different than somebody else but I also don’t know if I see exactly what I’m looking for in a religious community. I may be looking for more of a social community where I can grow to what the next point in my life is.”

Jacob Valentine, 28, of University City, has found his congregational home. The Louisiana native now attends a local Orthodox congregation.

“That’s one of the reasons I like Bais Abraham because there’s more young Jews going to the synagogue,” he said.

But Valentine does say he’d like to see more cooperation among congregations and more programming and events, particularly those geared toward helping young Jews meet one another.

Abigail Green of Town and Country is a native St. Louisan who returned here after several years on the East Coast. The 24-year-old said that while more programming, perhaps an alternative service for young adults, may be helpful, there is also a practical limit when institutions are already stretched thin financially.

Green attends B’nai Amoona with her family but she’s been too preoccupied to be deeply involved in Jewish life. She doesn’t feel she’s yet found her spiritual home.

“I’m OK with that right now,” she said. “At this point in my life I don’t feel the need to be going to services and synagogue events to be connected Jewishly.”

A graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School, Green was involved with Jewish events in her youth including Talmudic study programs and the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Student-to-Student initiative. She said Judaism is vital to her identity. She doesn’t feel synagogues are doing anything wrong and thinks that she will eventually be a part of a Jewish house of worship.

Just not yet.

“Synagogue populations are very family-oriented,” she said. “I’m not at a point in my life where I’m thinking about family other than my parents.”

Yet the search for an answer continues. Tabak knows that synagogues are still trying.

“I think now people wait longer to take that step in life and I don’t know that the system has evolved to accommodate that,” she said. “(Synagogues) are missing a chunk of people who would do things and pay for things. We’re just not there.”

Coming next week

• With many congregants coming only for High Holidays services or simchas, synagogues face challenges in building vibrant Jewish life.

• A teen perspective on the Jewish community’s future

About Can We Talk?

Can We Talk? is a quarterly series from the Jewish Light, JCC and JCRC, with support from B’nai B’rith, pairing stories, op-eds and editorials with a community discussion event. This series focuses on ‘The Changing St. Louis Jewish Community: What does it mean to be Jewish today,’ and features a free community discussion event Dec. 12 (details at right).

Community discussion event

Join the Jewish Light for a free panel discussion on ‘Can We Talk?: The changing St. Louis Jewish community’ at 7 p.m. Monday,

Dec. 12 at the JCC’s Carl & Helene Mirowitz Performing Arts and Banquet Center at the Staenberg Family Complex. Our panel will feature (pictured clockwise from top left) Philip Deitch, Andria Simckes, Ariel Lyons-Warren and Rafi Nemes. RSVPs requested by Dec. 9 to [email protected], 314-442-3190 or register online through www.stljewishlight.com/canwetalk