A parable: For years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying to revamp the Oscars to attract increasingly uninterested younger viewers. Assuming Gen Xers and Millennials have shorter attention spans than their parents and primarily tune in to see their favorite celebrities, producers decided to minimize screen time for technical categories like Best Visual Effects, despite the fact that the Oscars is supposed to be their night, too.
This year, when honorees in the technical categories spoke too long, the producers had the orchestra strike up the theme to Jaws and drown them out. Before they realized what was happening, those honorees were escorted off stage, sometimes mid-sentence.
Oscar producers bet that Gen Xers and Millennials care more about style than substance, flash than authenticity, and immediate gratification than human dignity. But to their dismay, it was a bad gamble: the younger generations again skipped this year’s Oscars.
What the show’s producers failed to understand is that my generation is not ditching the Oscars because the show is too slow, or because there aren’t enough movie stars per minute, or because there are too many technical categories. Rather, we aren’t watching the Oscars because they generally aren’t true to their mission of honoring excellence in filmmaking; because they show that the movie industry and other big institutions care more about money than people; and because we feel we have more valuable things to do with our time. Ironically, the attempts to attract younger viewers do the very things that reinforce our reasons for not watching in the first place.
Much has been written lately about how synagogues might attract today’s emerging adults. To my mind, I fear that synagogues sometimes make the same mistake as the Oscars producers, believing that, because we grew up with iPods and the Internet, we are vapid solipsists merely interested in transitory pleasure, attracted primarily to slick production and clever marketing. But they could not be more wrong.
Rather, we are drawn to congregations that remain true to their missions and values while reaching out to us, congregations that show they care more about people than money or institutional self-preservation, congregations that offer something valuable that we cannot find elsewhere.
We can see through, for example, the traditional congregation that panders by anglicizing its usually all-Hebrew service and introducing a rock band in order to lure us into the building. We have a sixth sense for those congregations that seem extremely interested in our membership dues, but could not care less about getting to know us as people and hearing about our needs. And we avoid those congregations whose approach to Jewish life offers nothing of value that we cannot find elsewhere: a sense of deeper meaning in life, inspiration to greater purpose or obligation, a significant connection with real and supportive community, opportunities for serious self-transformation. Chabad, for example, is a magnet for today’s emergent adults because they do these things really well. I am biased, but I also think we do a good job at my congregation, Har Zion.
Reaching today’s emerging adults means respecting us as genuine spiritual seekers looking for authenticity, inspiration, relevance, meaning and connection. Synagogues can do this by identifying their missions – their purpose and guiding communal values – and staying faithful to them. They should show they care about us, and others, more than money. They should strive to offer us that which we cannot find elsewhere, and yet cannot live without.
Synagogues may not win an Oscar for the effort, but at least they won’t hear the Jaws theme playing them off stage.
This post originally appeared on the Jewish Exponent’s “Rabbis Uncensored” blog, at http://www.jewishexponent.com/blog/how-not-to-woo-millenials