Recently, I spent two days learning with the “Rabbis Without Borders” fellowship. At the conference, we explored the American religious landscape. Unsettling though they may be for some, allow me to share with you some facts we discussed:
Today, one-fourth of Americans under thirty (sometimes called “Millennials”) do not affiliate with any religion. It’s not just that they don’t keep kosher; it’s not even that they don’t belong to a church or a synagogue. Known by some demographers as “Nones,” young people in this twenty-five percent do not consider themselves part of any religious community or tradition.
This is a major shift: In the 1970s and 1980s, only about 12% of people under 30 were “Nones.” Moreover, young disaffiliation far outpaces the rest of the population: Only 16.1% of all Americans are “Nones.”
The point: young people today are substantially less likely than their parents to affiliate with a particular religion, and the next generation, today’s adolescents and teens, will boast even larger rates of being unaffiliated.
There are some silver linings: Two-thirds of “Nones” believe in God. More than half are deeply and spiritually connect with nature. More than a third consider themselves “spiritual” (though they balk at being called “religious”). Twenty percent pray daily. Young Jews today are indeed looking for God, spirituality, wisdom, meaning, and connection.
They just don’t believe they will find those things in synagogue. Most “Nones” and unaffiliated Jews do not believe that traditional religious institutions are places to nourish their mind, heart, or soul. They see them, in the words of a recent Pew study, as being “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules,” and not enough on matters of spiritual significance.
In a way, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1955 diagnosis has proved prophetic, “[B]lame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”
For these reasons, the population of young “Nones” and young Jews who do not affiliate with Jewish institutions continues to grow. There are less young Jews in our institutions. Meanwhile, the affiliated Jewish community is aging. Within major Jewish communal institutions (like synagogues) a substantial majority of members are over 50. As our institutions grey, and young people continue to disaffiliate, it will become increasingly impossible to replace the older population. Our institutions, our synagogues, will die out.
So here is the challenge we face: We in the institutional Jewish world urgently need these young Jews, but they do not believe they need us. This moment calls not only for better marketing; it is not enough to communicate the value of synagogues to these young people.
Rather, we who believe there is power, wisdom, and meaning in the teachings and practices of our tradition, must actually transform the product itself. Reaching these young people calls for a broader, more creative, view of what synagogues are and can do. This will take courage, a sense of mission, and not a little self-sacrifice, since it will involve transforming elements of synagogues that many of us have grown used to and comfortable with. But the possibilities of what we might build are magnificent: synagogues where the value is self-evident; where godliness radiates from every corner, where spirituality reverberates through the halls, where profound and relevant wisdom flows like water, where a transcendent connection to other people and the natural world is constantly palpable. That kind of synagogue, I believe, could make a “None” into a “More, please!”
Shall we build it together?