This past Monday evening, at my invitation, I had the pleasure of meeting with 16 young adult leaders (I was the only one in the room over the age of 40) from across our Jewish community. The group was made up of 13 women and 3 men (once again -- fewer men), each engaged in and leading an “organization or program” for Jewish young adults. My goal in bringing these people together was to learn about their interests, needs, and opportunities to work together.
During the evening, I welcomed everyone, allowed people to do self-introductions (I was surprised that many did not know one another), and then I just sat and listened for the next 85 minutes as they opened a dialogue with one another. I want to share with you key conversation topics from this most enlightening discussion:
1. How do we define: What is a “young adult?" By age (up to age 25, 30, 35, 40, 45)? By life stage (single, dating, married, with or without children)? By one’s own personal definition? How does one transition in the young adult community from group to group, especially when your friends/peers may be in a different life circumstance? If you cannot easily define your audience, then how do you plan for them? This is a challenging question because each person and segment has their own needs.
2. People want multiple choices and options in where they spend their time and efforts. Let us remember that trends show people are marrying later, having (fewer) children later, and are less connected to organizational life. The "one size fits all" mindset of the past no longer attracts young adults who can find a myriad of opportunities in our open society. We need to develop even more "easy-to-find multiple points of entry" to engage young people in Jewish communal life.
3. “Authenticity matters.” People want real connections with real participation.
4. Technology is king. We must find ways to utilize social media to connect to this population. Interestingly, many in the room did not know one another, nor did they know what each other’s organizations were doing. They did discuss the opportunity to create a combined PDX Young Adult website and perhaps even a “PDX YA app.” (Anyone out there want to help? I just read this morning that Hillel International is developing an app for Jewish students on campus).
5. We need more people involved. We need people willing to “step up” and take responsibility for thinking, creating, organizing, recruiting, executing, and following up. These wonderful young people have already said “hineni” (here I am). Yet, for every person in the room that night, there are at least twenty others in Portland who are not connecting to anything in the Jewish community.
6. “Young adults are less interested in the established community and institutions.” This was by far the most fascinating comment of the evening. We hear all the time that the younger generation is not interested in entering older, more established Jewish communal organizations. However, in almost every case, these young people represent groups that are either “housed” within one of our organizations or part of a national established organized network.
To tease this out even more, I did a quick survey of the people in the room. Here is what I learned:
50% originally from Portland....50% not
50% went on Birthright Israel, and 87% have been to Israel
81% participated in Hillel while in college
63% were involved in Jewish youth groups as teenagers
25% attended Jewish day school
75% attended Jewish overnight camp
69% attended Jewish summer day camp
69% belong(ed) to a JCC
75% attended Jewish pre-school
87% belonged to a synagogue growing up…50% currently belong to a synagogue
I will draw two conclusions from this information – 1) Our investment in these types of Jewish programs makes a difference later in life and 2) This is a group of past and current highly affiliated and connected people with Jewish organizations and institutions, despite their intent not to be.
Monday night was an inspiring evening and much different than my “lunch with the eleven men”. In this case, these were people heavily involved in the Jewish community – and I was delighted to hear – seeking to do even more! I am proud of what they plan to accomplish.
So, how do we use their skills and talents to reach far and wide into the Portland Jewish young adult scene? Perhaps it will take better technology, marketing, and communications? A wider variety of programs and experiences? Larger-scale community events and community service projects? More financial resources to make these things happen? Or, maybe we need to stop placing young adults at the “kiddie table” and let them know they are full valued members whose voice and vision are important for all to hear?
With even more people like the ones I met Monday night, our future is certainly bright!