Congregation Shaarey Zedek
Congregation Shaarey Zedek

“Around the High Holidays, we see a ton of young folks,” Dahlen says. “But I think we see them because they’re going with their parents or grandparents, and they’ve been asked to do so. It’s meaningful to them, but I think they’re having different experiences than their parents or grandparents are having.”

Engaging young adults in synagogue participation requires a specific approach, especially around the High Holidays.

“We have to make it accessible,” says Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen. “And that’s really hard.”

The key, he explains, is blending accessibility with authenticity. For the young adult population, it can be difficult to not only encourage synagogue membership, but to also provide young adults with meaningful opportunities to become contributing members.

Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen
Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen

At Shaarey Zedek, roughly 200 family units fall into the young adult demographic — or the equivalent of 20% of the synagogue’s overall membership. Still, as older demographics slowly age out, keeping young members engaged and active within organizations is essential to the future of synagogues throughout Metro Detroit.

“Around the High Holidays, we see a ton of young folks,” Dahlen says. “But I think we see them because they’re going with their parents or grandparents, and they’ve been asked to do so. It’s meaningful to them, but I think they’re having different experiences than their parents or grandparents are having.”

The problem, Dahlen says, is that interests are often different for younger members. Priorities are also an obstacle, especially for young adults who can’t attend services. In some cases, rather than prioritizing tradition or attending services on High Holidays, work often comes first — a reflection of today’s changing work culture, he continues.

In other cases, raising a young family makes it difficult to allow time for services, and it’s often not possible for newer parents to attend synagogue on High Holidays. Other young adults simply don’t want to attend services because they’re too structured and formal, an experience that younger populations can struggle to relate to.

All in all, these issues contribute to ongoing reductions in synagogue membership nationwide — and keeping younger members engaged is essential to long-term longevity.
“Pew Research Center studies tell us that synagogue membership is dwindling,” Dahlen says. A 2021 Pew report, for example, examined why. The top reason, it found, was that most people simply “weren’t religious.” Other explanations included a “lack of interest” and “not knowing enough to participate.”

Synagogue fees were also a concern noted amongst Jewish leadership, although many young study participants under 30 were less likely to report financial barriers than older participants. So, pricing isn’t a major issue for young Jewish adults although it may seem like a logical barrier that keeps people from enrolling in synagogue membership.
Therefore, how do synagogues work around these other, deeper concerns?

Finding Meaning

The first step, Dahlen explains, is tackling the unique needs of younger members.
“There is a big chunk of people, especially young adults, who do consider themselves spiritual,” he says. “For millennials, we are by nature distrusting of institutions and organizations. But we’re still looking for something that will give us meaning in our lives.”

To navigate this, Dahen says synagogues must meet young members at their own levels.
“The bar is really high as far as entry into synagogue life,” he explains. “We’ve put a lot of stock into prayer, which makes sense because first and foremost, a synagogue is a place to pray.”

Yet prayer in Judaism, especially around the High Holidays, isn’t always easy, Dahlen continues. “It’s a different language,” he says. “It’s not something that most young people feel competent or comfortable or even proficient in.”

Adding in the element of High Holiday liturgy, he adds, makes prayer even less accessible for young adults.

“We have to try and meet young people wherever they are,” he says. “Synagogue life is more than just your prayer experience. It’s first and foremost about community and family.”

Getting Creative

To build that sense of community for young adults, Shaarey Zedek thinks outside of the box. “There are different avenues to get close to God,” Dahlen says, “and we [synagogues] need to figure out which ones work best for you.”

One route to take is to simply add a little creativity to High Holiday services.

“The prayer experience is filled with a lot of complexity,” he says. “Everything is in Hebrew. There are things in Aramaic. It’s even harder to understand; it’s three or four hours long.”
This can cause some people, especially young adults, “to open up the prayer book, throw their hands up and say, ‘Well, this is way too much,’” Dahlen describes.

To improve accessibility during the High Holiday experience, Shaarey Zedek weaves in participatory music that takes people outside of the prayer book and directly into the community experience — which Dahlen says is successful for engaging young adults.

“People can easily sing along,” he says. “There are different avenues that are just as valid as prayer.”

Shaarey Zedek also prioritizes programming geared for young adults, such as Shabbat professional networking dinners, to help younger members build a sense of community and find meaning in their engagement with the synagogue. This, in turn, boosts yearlong participation during important Jewish events such as the High Holidays.

“There’s no expectation of praying beforehand,” Dahlen says. “It’s really simple, but at the same time, one of the best things we can do for our Jewish journeys.”

Alternative services are another solution to boost young adult engagement. Once a month, Shaarey Zedek holds education-based services to discuss different ethical issues that pertain to Jewish life. “This seems to be a better access point,” Dahlen says.

Overall, Dahlen says young adults are more prone to participate in synagogue matters, especially around the High Holidays, when they find true meaning in synagogue life.

“For millennials, I think we’re kind of a cynical generation,” Dahlen says. “What we care about more than anything is authenticity.”

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