Thursday, August 8, 2019

Hello? Is it me you’ Looking for?

Hello? Is it me you're looking for?
'Cause I wonder where you are
And I wonder what you do
Are you somewhere feeling lonely,

or is someone loving you?
Tell me how to win your heart
For I haven't got a clue

But let me start by saying
I love you
By Lionel Richie and Eddy Marnay
© Warner Chappell Music, Inc

I am not a huge Lionel Richie fan. Don’t dislike him, but I would need need to Shazam the lyrics if I wanted to sing along. Spending as much time and energy thinking about and working to change our religious school, I find myself thinking about this song a lot.

In our synagogue context “you” are the folks that are in the demographic of Jews who in the past have joined synagogues and enrolled their children in Jewish learning programs. “I” am the synagogue, school, educators and clergy as we face the needs of this newest generation.

The research tells us that Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Generation Z (born 1997-present) are indeed spiritual seekers. It also tells us that many of them - maybe even most of them - are pretty sure they won’t find that spirituality they are looking for in legacy institutions like synagogues or churches.

You can Google and find stories from 20 and 40 and I would bet 60 years ago where leaders of those same legacy institutions bemoan the likelihood that the “new” generation is going to turn its back on faith and tradition. They insist that we need to make everything anew to meet their needs. And you can find articles from those same times that say “Just wait. They will have children and will want those children to go to religious school and become B’nai Mitzvah. And that is what happened more often than not.

So perhaps we should just wait out the current existential crisis. I don’t think that is a good idea. You see, my great grandfather Abraham Seidenfeld came to the US from Łódź, Poland in 1913. My son Ethan is a Millennial and Harper is Generation Z.  They are FIFTH generation Americans. I imagine your children are also 5th or even 6th generation Americans. (Perhaps not, especially if you or your parents came from the former Soviet Union, but that is not a huge percentage of American Jews.)

There is a fair amount of research that documents how with each additional generation following immigration, commitment to certain ethnic or religious traditions wanes more and more. We may keep a sense of identification, but we often lose the habits that go with it. This applies to every immigrant group, not just Ashkenazi Jews. There are studies that focus on Japanese, Italian and even Irish immigrants, to name a few.

So while my parents were pretty sure about me and my fellow baby boomers,I am not sure about our kids. When I was young I knew and loved my immigrant ancestors. I made pilgrimage to Łódź last summer and had coffee on a balcony that was in the location where my Grandma Honey lived before coming here as a little girl. She died two years before I became a father.

We cannot rely on the same expectations we once did. Millennial parents often don’t feel the same pull of tradition as Baby Boomers or even Generation Xers. We are still trying to figure out what “you” are looking for. We are not relying on hope and prayers to sustain our synagogues or larger Jewish communities. We are trying to enter into a conversation.

And we start by saying “I love you.”

And we continue by listening. More next week.

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