11 Ways to Reach the Unengaged

All of us in Jewish life are wondering how to reach the unengaged–and particularly young adults. At NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, we work with both mainstream and grassroots organizations, including many synagogues, to help them find new ways to connect with Birthright Israel alumni and their friends. While I do this work professionally, I’m also part of the demographic we’re trying to reach. Here, I’m offering eleven ways that synagogues can connect to the unengaged:

  1. Lead with your “Why?” Most of us market what we do– the products or services we offer–  instead of why we do it– the worldview, or passion driving us.  It’s not enough to say what you offer, you must lead with your mission in all things. How does Judaism and Jewish community provide value for young adults, or for that matter, for the world?  How does your spiritual community offer access to these ideas and a platform for building these relationships?
  2. Relationships > Membership. Young adults get our positive social reinforcement through relationships, not through our membership.  Think about how people come to be in relationship to your congregants, staff, and content.  Where do those relationships form? Who is responsible for them? And how are you following up with people? A rabbi who takes meetings in a coffee shop will seem a lot more approachable than one stuck in her/his office. Do you have a welcoming team who can commit to setting up one coffee date a week with someone new to the community and do follow-up? 
  3. Content matters. You aren’t competing with other synagogues, you are competing against bars, restaurants, concerts, movies, and television. Your value-add is depth and meaning, so don’t shy away from it, don’t water it down, and don’t infantilize.
  4. Take your show on the road. Young adults are far more likely to be living in the dense urban core of your city. If your building isn’t where the young people live, bring your services (metaphorically and literally) to them.  Many emerging spiritual communities take advantage of galleries, living rooms, coffee shops, and other unconventional and yet, accessible venues. What they lack in grandeur or pomp, they more than make up for in warmth and intimacy. 
  5. You have two ears and one mouth. Listen more than you talk. Are there young adults who are children of congregants, who might be willing to come in for an evening? Hold a focus group and buy them dinner, or take someone who just moved to town out for coffee. Understand what needs they have that a synagogue/spiritual community might be able to deliver.  Then, help them create it. 
  6. Put your money where your mouth is. As in much of the Jewish nonprofit sector, synagogues talk about young adult engagement, but find it more challenging to actually invest in it. Designate a point person who has the bandwidth, resources, authority, and autonomy to actually engage. If you don’t invest in young adults, and give them real opportunities to learn, lead, and live Jewishly, they will find other things to do with their time.  Give young adults a chance to speak from the bima, to participate in discussion, and to organize events, but don’t force them onto a board or a committee.
  7. Be open, welcoming, inclusive, and genuine. We Jewish young adults are from more diverse backgrounds than ever. We are LGBTQ, we are from families with two, or one, or no Jewish parents, we don’t understand movements or denominations in the same way our parents did, and we might not know any Hebrew or melodies.
  8. Understand who is it you want to connect to. Do you really want to connect to young adults who are probably not making a lot of money? Or are you really looking for young families? Be honest about who you want to reach and why.  Young adult programming shouldn’t be targeting young families; the two are at different life stages and won’t relate as well to each other.  Have you thought about empty nesters, who used to be members but don’t come anymore now that their children are out of the house? Maybe you should reach out to them–they are a lot less fickle than young adults!
  9. Recognize your assets. Are you hiring a lot of part-time Sunday school, Hebrew school, or b’nei mitzvah teachers? Look to hire from the local student or young adult pool.  You probably pay more an hour than most of us are used to, we are more accessible role models for your students, and you can organize educational and social events for this cohort of young adults you’ve just recruited to come to your space.
  10. A rising tide floats all ships. Recognizing that you're not alone in your challenges is important, but more important is adopting a collaborative mindset. How are you working with the other organizations who also want to invest in young adults? Can you pool resources to multiply impact? Work with your local Moishe House, federation Young Leadership Division, or whoever is available to provide your rabbinic expertise towards their programmatic goals.
  11. Social media is a multiplier, not a savior. Social media can amplify the great things that you are already doing, but it only works if the people that believe you are doing great things share those things. 

Yoni Sarason is the Midwest Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. For ideas about how to implement some of these ideas in your community, you can reach Yoni at [email protected].


This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work.

No More Scissors and Paste: Bringing the Shabbat Service Online

By Matthew Grossman, BBYOs Executive Director

Last week BBYO announced the launch of what I believe is an exciting, inventive tool available to engage teens in a meaningful Shabbat experience: Build a Prayer. As a free, online tool the site is designed to connect youth with prayer and Shabbat like never before by allowing them to build and customize their own service.

At BBYO, I constantly see teens, advisors and staff members using unique spaces and creativity to offer relevant, powerful Shabbat services, a unique challenge since most teens have only experience services within their synagogue. This challenge is only made more difficult by the fact that most teens arent comfortable in a traditional siddur they dont know where services start and end, what to include, or what is safe to leave out.

To meet that need (and often times to save money), these worship services are typically guided by a teen-designed collection of songs, poetry and prayers that is compiled through an effort of photocopying, cutting and pasting together old song sheets and prayer book passages. As an organization, we saw the need to provide Jewish teens with an accessible place to explore prayer and its meanings doing it online also happens to save some glue.

What makes this site so exciting is that it brings thousands-of-years-old prayers into a modern day realm that teens relate to. It is streamlined and easy to use. In a few clicks of a button, teens have a complete service in front of them in which they feel some much needed connections. While not every teen feels comfortable finding their way in a traditional siddur, Build a Prayer allows teens to put together a basic Shabbat service in a space they can easily navigate.

The site is designed for teens, educators, camp counselors, youth group advisors, JCC professionals, chavurah leaders basically, anyone who is interested in putting together a Shabbat service in a formal or informal setting. The site allows Hebrew, English and/or transliterated text to be compiled with ones own pictures, prayers or poetry toward the creation of a custom Prayer Service which can be printed and used anywhere.

With help from www.myjewishlearning.org and a series of videos, users can learn more about the traditions and tunes behind specific prayers. Additionally, a content library holds creative elements from individual prayer services as they are created. Because this is an online resource, people can collaborate on the development of each service and comment on them once they are placed in the Build a Prayer library.

While recent studies show that participation in traditional religious experiences decline during the teen years, the desire to connect spiritually on ones own terms remains strong. Build a Prayer is another resource we are offering the Jewish community as a way to better connect with Jewish teens. Organizations looking to reach the teen audience should look at this as a tool to literally bring prayer to life.

Matt Grossman is the Executive Director of BBYO. He began his career at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Matt is also a member of the Darim Online board of directors. Matt currently lives in Washington, DC where he works at BBYO’s international headquarters.