09 October 2013

The Lack of Interest of Young Adults and Synagogues: A Two-Way Street? - A Local Example

There is an article in one of the local Jewish magazines this month, there is an article in which executive directors of one Conservative synagogue and four Reform synagogues in Orange County are asked four questions ("Q & A", Orange County Jewish Life (October 2013), 48-50 (available online here)).  The first three are questions that would one expect to be asked: "What do you think is the key reason why people join a congregation?", "What do you think is the key reason people join your congregation?", and "How has your congregation changed its marketing efforts in the face of changing demographics?".  

However, I was surprised and elated that the following question was posed to them: "Do you have special programs for younger people (21-39)?"  Not only because I know a lot of Jews in that demographic, because I work a lot with that demographic, or even because I am right in the midst of that age range, but also because that is the age range that affiliates the least with synagogues across the country and could use some outreach.  Granted, Jews in this range are rather loathe to join anything, let alone synagogues (furthermore, the pay-to-pray model does not seem to me to be good for this age demographic).  However, I did like the question that did not ask about dues or membership, but about programming (perhaps even outreach to this age demographic), since this age is an opportune moment in young Jews' lives to engage them.
While the first respondent did say something about a special membership category, which sounds great, since this age group doesn't feel particularly compelled to join in the first place.  They also say that they "have several young staff members that bring an exciting vibe to our programming", which sounds great.  The second respondent then discusses programming for parents with kids, but then says outright that they have "no specific programs for 21-39-year-olds" and then they go on to say how they have a variety of programming, except they mention that they have programs such as Mah Jongg and "adult education and book clubs", because those totally draw 20s-30s (not).
It goes downhill from there: the third respondent says "we have special programs for younger people", but instead of specifying any programming, they continue on to say that they "challenge the easy categorization via age", which clearly indicates two things: 1) that they have no idea of the different needs/interests of that age group and 2) that they are BS'ing about having special programs for 20s-30s (especially when they conclude that "we feel that we are uniquely positioned to work with "younger people" of all ages to determine what they feel they would like us to provide to their personal and family lives, and then create the programs and activities that meet those needs.").
The fourth respondent says "our programs are integrated; however, we have revised the point of entry, i.e., dues, for young families."  In other words, "No, we do not have programming for 20s-30s."  Ditto for the fifth and final respondent: "we offer a diverse menu of programs for all of the varied demographic groups within our community."  Which really just means, "We don't cater to the 20s-30s crowd."  
I wonder if these executive directors didn't understand the opportunity that was placed before them: they had a perfect place for a free sales pitch on what made their synagogue attractive and interesting for Jews in their 20s-30s, perhaps attracting interest from other age groups, as well.  Instead, they decided to largely squander this opportunity in not talking about their programming for this age group.  Yes, I understand that this age group is the main child-bearing age demographic and that is why some of the respondents discussed programming for children and parents, but many Jews in their 20s and 30s in Orange County do not [yet] have kids (or even married)....   I want to give these executive directors the benefit of the doubt and hope that they just didn't understand the question and thus, lose out on this great opportunity.  The alternative, of course, is that they did understand, but they don't offer programming for this age demographic (hopefully, because they don't have the critical mass for such programming and not because they simply don't care to program for 20s-30s).
Before I read this article, I thought simply that young adults don't join synagogues because they often wait until they're married and/or have kids, because they don't think that they're relevant to their lives (but once they have kids, perhaps they would join).  However, I now realize that many synagogues (or executive directors) may not have the interest in doing outreach programs for young adults; perhaps, it's a two-way street.

No comments: