Studying community: Young adults find ways to engage with Judaism
Beyond the numbersReaching Diverse Millennials

Studying community: Young adults find ways to engage with Judaism

Millennial engagement is different than that of previous generations

Moishe House is a network of some 58 houses scattered throughout the United States offering programs geared to Jewish millennials. Pictured, Pittsburgh residents Becca Michelson, Rose Eilenberg, Jessica Savitz, Carly Chernomorets and Dafna Bliss are all smiles as they pose for a photo. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Moishe House is a network of some 58 houses scattered throughout the United States offering programs geared to Jewish millennials. Pictured, Pittsburgh residents Becca Michelson, Rose Eilenberg, Jessica Savitz, Carly Chernomorets and Dafna Bliss are all smiles as they pose for a photo. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Robin Engel is a 29-year-old architect living in the South Hills with her husband, John. The newlyweds have been married for a little over two months. He owns a comic bookstore in State College and travels back and forth between Central and Western Pennsylvania. As a result, the two don’t regularly attend Shabbat Services at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, the Reform synagogue where they are members.

The pair’s work schedule isn’t the only non-traditional thing about the couple. In fact, both Robin’s parents and grandparents would likely view many aspects of her and her generation’s relationship to Judaism as both nontraditional and different from their experience.

John converted to Judaism through an online conversion process that required weekly virtual meetings with a rabbi the couple found while planning their wedding.

“My grandparents and great-grandparents helped build a temple in Cleveland,” Robin said, noting that her first thought was to have the wedding in her hometown, but the temple was in the middle of a rabbinic transition.

“This is kind of unconventional,” she said, “but we decided to find the rabbi first. We were like, ‘Do you do weddings in Connecticut?’ He said yes and we were like, ‘How about conversion?’ He said yes. So we were able to find a great rabbi.”

Robin said she feels engaged with Judaism, primarily through tradition and family, and often travels back to Cleveland for holidays. That doesn’t mean she isn’t connected to her Pittsburgh community. “I feel like we’re connected, no matter how infrequently we end up at temple. We’ll probably be attending more now that we’re not planning a wedding.”

The couple considers themselves liberal in most aspects of observance, including kashrut. They don’t keep kosher “in a strict sense. We don’t have two sets of dishes, but we don’t eat pork or shellfish. I’m pretty selective. Our home is mostly vegetarian.” Then she added, smiling, “I mean, we will cook a brisket. Our vegetarianism isn’t because of our Judaism.”

“Our Judaism overlaps with our beliefs,” John said.

Those beliefs mean that sometimes they donate to Jewish causes and other times it’s to non-Jewish nonprofits whose mission speaks to them. Those organizations change annually but often include animal shelters. “You can’t donate to everything. You make a choice. That’s why we change where we give every year.”

Despite not attending a synagogue every week, Robin said the couple still feels connected to Jewish life and ritual. They have a Hebrew calendar hanging in their kitchen. “We use it for planning vacations, everything.”

Like many of her generation, Robin has spent time in Israel. “I went in college for the first time. I volunteered for a few weeks and did some community service. I spent another week with my cousin. It was an amazing experience. I fell in love with Israel. It was just such a spiritual awakening.”

According to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Jewish young adults aged 18-34 identified as being engaged at a higher rate than previous generations.

The study created five different categories of engagement: immersed — meaning respondents were highly engaged in all aspects of Jewish life; connected — in which respondents were highly engaged in most aspects of Jewish life; involved — respondents were highly involved in Jewish organizations; holiday — signifying a high level of observance of Jewish holidays; and minimal — with little or no involvement in Jewish life.

A quarter of young Jewish adults were identified as both immersed and connected in the study. Close to 30% were labeled involved while only about a fifth were put into the holiday and minimal categories. By contrast, only 15% of Generation X’ers and 16% of baby boomers were identified as immersed.

These statistics seem to belie recent studies by both the Pew Research Center and Gallup. In a recent Gallup poll, only 52% of millennials have stated they participate in organized religion. That finding is similar to Pew’s research, which found that four in 10 young adults self-identify as religiously unaffiliated or “nones.” This group is less engaged in religion than previous generations and far less likely to belong to a traditional synagogue or church.

And yet Pittsburgh Jewish young adults seem to be bucking national trends.

Rebecca Purcell’s Facebook cover photo shows her standing in a flowing dress and shawl on a porch with Israel as her backdrop. The pictures are from a Birthright trip she took in June. She attends Shabbat services at Temple Sinai with her two children and has found community and support at the synagogue. The single mother said that she feels “as engaged as I can be right now but not as engaged as I’d like to be.”

Because her time is often filled with caring for her children, she doesn’t attend many young adult events sponsored by groups like Shalom Pittsburgh or Moishe House. “I know they’re out there, but they don’t always fall on days that are available for me.” Instead, the 28-year-old said she finds engagement with her friends, “I have a lot of Jewish friends.”

Raised in a non-observant home, Purcell is working to increase her participation. “For me, having a Jewish identity can be complicated because it cuts across ethnicity and religion, community and culture. I wasn’t raised religious and never felt connected to that, but I’ve decided to become more religious.”

While her observance is still growing, she feels the most important thing to her is Jewish community. “When you’re Jewish, you connect with other Jewish people, you can’t be Jewish alone. It’s really about community and in community you have culture. An important part of that culture for me is going to Shabbat services at temple every Friday. These people are my community. They recognize our faces and know if we aren’t there.”

Purcell credits Pittsburgh with helping to cement her Jewish identity. “Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, my bubbe was like, ‘You’re Jewish’ and that was it. Until I came to Pittsburgh, I felt as Jewish as I did German, Russian, French or English. Coming to Pittsburgh and having a lot of friends who were Jewish, I was a little jealous and felt like I didn’t have what they had.” A chance encounter with someone at the laundromat, who recommended she give temple a try, changed that.

“For me, as a single mom, life sometimes feels like it’s out of order. Going to temple has given us foundation and order to our lives. I want that for my daughters. I want them to know they can go to any city and find a temple and find their center again.”

Young Jewish adults in Pittsburgh aren’t simply self-identified as engaged. The statistics bear out their involvement with and connection to the community. Thirty-five percent of millennials attend a synagogue, the same as previous generations. Sixty-two percent attend High Holiday services and over 65% donate to a Jewish cause.

Despite the consistent level of synagogue membership among young adults, most millennials are exploring alternative ways to meet whatever their spiritual needs may be. In fact, of the four young adults profiled for this article, one is a member of a synagogue, one is exploring membership, one is seeking alternatives to traditional membership and one is considering ways to take spirituality from the synagogue and add it to her home traditions.

Rose Eilenberg is a graduate student. The 28-year-old said that her Jewish identity is “in my essence. It’s a big part of my identity”

Eilenberg recently finished a tenure living at Moishe House and is still friends with the residents but admits that she’s looking forward to having a little more free time. “We hosted seven events every month. I’m going to take a little break and not go to seven events a month right now.”

The graduate student grew up in Brooklyn and had a typical Conservative upbringing, including Jewish day school, summer camp and trips to Israel, but she doesn’t belong to a synagogue. Because of her time with Moishe House and the friends she has made, Eilenberg feels connected to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

Eilenberg considers herself an atheist but “finds a lot of meaning in the rituals” connected to Judaism. One of those that she’s integrated into her daily life is keeping kashrut. “I keep kosher. I’m a vegetarian so it’s not quite as hard. I’m not the strictest. I’ll eat at a non-kosher restaurant but won’t eat meat. The handful of times each year I do eat meat, I only eat kosher meat.”

“Now that I’m out of Moishe House, I’m excited about starting a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat. The vision is that we would send out a link to a song a week ahead of time and people could learn it and sing a new song each time we meet. I like the idea of singing and chanting together. Maybe we could do it at people’s homes. I’d like to find some people excited about the prayer part of the ritual. I’m religious but not spiritual.”

All four of the young adults interviewed for this article shared one thing in common: a complicated relationship with Israel politically. When asked about the state’s current positions, each paused, considering their words carefully. Their thoughts, while not identical, were best reflected by Sidney Kushner.

“I can see in my grandparents’ eyes how important Israel was when it was first founded and what it meant for them, and those in their generation, to have a safe space, at time when it didn’t feel like there was a safe space anywhere. However, I don’t feel that Israel reflects me as a Jewish person anymore … It’s hard for me because I know that whatever Israel does, it’s a reflection on me as a Jewish person. On the one hand, I feel an obligation to acknowledge how important it is to my parent’s generation. But on the other hand, I don’t want it to reflect me; I don’t believe they are a reflection of me.”

Despite these conflicted feelings, 40% of young adults feel very attached to Israel. The same percentage reads an Israeli newsweekly. And while 44% of Pittsburgh Jews have been to Israel once, and a quarter of those in the Pittsburgh Jewish community have been to Israel more than once, even here millennials have an edge. Seventy-six percent of young adults interviewed for the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study have traveled to Israel and more than 40% have been to the country multiple times, the highest level of any age group.

Kushner is the executive director of the not-for-profit Connecting Champions, connecting kids with cancer to mentors. He was raised Conservative, attended Chabad, went to Hebrew school and keeps kosher as a 28-year-old bachelor at his home in Friendship.

He identifies as engaged with the Jewish community but notes that now that he lives by himself in a different Pittsburgh neighborhood than his family, it’s “in different ways than it used to be.”
“I haven’t gone to synagogue in a long time,” he said. “Mostly because, for me, synagogue was always about family. I almost never went to synagogue without at least my mother. Even though synagogues are welcoming places, it’s different as a single person. For years, I had a synagogue buddy, one of my friends, and we would go each week, but she moved. So now, going to synagogue as a 20-something alone, who is not married, is not the norm.”

Kushner feels that his nonprofit is a direct extension of his Jewish identity. “It’s not directly working with Jewish people, but it feels very Jewish in what I do and what I’ve created. Each year at our Seder, my grandparents spoke about the civil rights movement and the pride we have as Jews for being some of the first people that stood up next to African Americans. As Jews, we have a responsibility to share the privilege with those who don’t otherwise have it. And in that way, I’ve been offered the privilege of health, education and the family I have. To me, those are shared in the form of Connecting Champions.”

As for the future of Judaism, Kushner said, “when my generation thinks of religious Judaism, it does not mean for us what it did for older generations and the ones that are in charge of the synagogues, how they define it.”

As the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study points out, young adults have found their own ways to remain engaged to Judaism. It may not look like the engagement of previous generations, but it is rooted in the values of the past while keeping an eye firmly on the future. pjc

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@

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