In a recent podcast edition of the Jewish Sacred Aging Podcast, Rabbi Address chatted with Rabbi Sam Joseph, my former teacher, and the Eleanor Sinsheimer Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Education and Leadership Development at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. The podcast was recorded in Cherry Hill, NJ.
I was listening to Sam speak about aging congregations, the changing needs within education, and many other aspects in the modern day synagogue. I was aware of this concern, as most rabbis are. But, then Sam said something that caught my attention. He as speaking about the difference between walking into a Mega-Church and walking into a Synagogue, and the difference in 20s/30s engagement. What he said caught my attention because I’m not certain I ever heard anyone, let alone a rabbi, his age admit something like this. He said the following:
“If you come to a synagogue, let’s talk you’re 20s/30s, once you come in, let’s say you can make it through the bricks & mortar. You’re not dressed like a lot of the people, because the older people are far more dressed up. You wear slacks or jeans. The music is in a minor key. I mean, unless you were born in a different country, you’re not listening to minor key music. The equipment is like something was returned to Radio Shack that you bought on sale. The lighting is like if you have an eye problem….we’re still, you know, in 1950.”
This was in direct contrast to Mega-Churches that have bright lights, casual dress, current music, and state of the art technology. He stated later, “and people wonder why we can’t engage 20s & 30s!”
This was rather comforting to hear. Sam Joseph is an incredible teacher, extremely well educated and experienced, and he was confirming my suspicions. I had always felt that some of the challenges of engaging 20s/30s was “cosmetic” in regards to the look and feel of the synagogue. However, I had also heard, in response to that, that no matter what we dress the synagogue to look like, 20s/30s still won’t be engaged because that’s just the way the world is heading, with less and less religious engagement due to changing views of generations.
So this leaves me with some questions. First of all, is it both? Is it that the majority of 20s/30s don’t have the time or interest to join a synagogue, OR is it that we have done a poor job marketing to them, and presenting them with an atmosphere that is suitable for their needs? Is it “and” or is it “or”? Finally, if we shape our synagogue to be directed towards 20s/30s, what do we do with the older generations, the 50s, 60s, 70s+ who would find a lot of things jarring, such as new music, not dressing in suits and ties, and the like?
I want to get to work and make good choices to engage the younger generations while still not isolating the older ones, but I’m just not sure of the balance necessary.
Interested to hear your thoughts.