Engaging young adults during odyssey years

By Rabbi Jonah Zinn

Today’s college graduates are moving back home after graduation in far greater numbers than even a decade ago. This trend, scholars suggest, is a sign of a new life phase known as odyssey. 

Over the past generation, the typical stages of life have gone from four — childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age — to at least six, with the addition of odyssey and active retirement. New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the least understood of these phases is odyssey, a decade of wandering between adolescence and adulthood. 

During this period, young people often alternate between living at home and living independently. They may shift between school and work, explore different career paths, hold multiple jobs, live in different places and change their friend groups. Brooks writes that this new stage of life is not about slacking off; rather, young people are adapting to a changing reality and seeking to create opportunities that address a new, more fluid world.

Parashat Bo opens by introducing one way to think about these odyssey years. The parashah begins with God’s command to Moses to bo to Pharaoh. While this phrase can be translated as “go” to Pharaoh, bo more commonly means “come.” 

The Kotzker Rebbe believes this perplexing language is intentional. He points out that the text does not say lech (go) to Pharaoh, but bo — come. 

“The reason for this usage,” the Kotzker Rebbe explains, “is that one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God because God is everywhere. Therefore God told Moses, ‘come,’ or, in other words, ‘Come with me, for I will be with you wherever you are.’ ”

Our parashah frames an opportunity in which we have to embrace others and the divine. As someone who has worked closely for more than a decade with many people during their odyssey years, I also believe this parashah provides a strategy that can help the Jewish community better engage its young adults. 

As a Jewish community, our role is not to tell young people where to go but, rather, like the Kotzker Rebbe helps us understand, to journey together with them. This begins with honest dialogue about their passions, hopes and dreams. It requires that we devote time to sitting down and getting to know each other face-to-face. We cannot assume the patterns that worked for previous generations will hold sway in this new reality.

Armed with a sense of shared purpose, inviting young adults to “come with me” can be a powerful message. We must be clear that we do not expect them to mirror the path of their parents or grandparents. Rather, we must assert that we join with them in working to shape the course for our community and affirm our intention to help them navigate this new dynamic. In this sense, bo is not as much a command but a commitment, a commitment to partner with these wanderers in shared vision of a Jewish community that strives to embrace the needs of all.