A Shul of One: Defining Orthodox Millennials

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I recently sat in my shul office with a young person who commented about how displeased he was with some aspect of our shul. After presenting his case he proclaimed, without much forethought, “Maybe I should just start my own shul.” When I asked him about this odd comment, he described how he previously worked for a high-tech company and was unhappy with the way the company was being run. So he decided to open his own startup company and found much success in this new endeavor. He figured that if it worked for him in his professional life maybe he should do the same with regard to his spiritual life.

This is just one example of the many interactions I have had with millennials through my synagogue work, which has given me insight into this fascinating cohort.

In addition to providing an exciting, vibrant and energetic atmosphere, my shul is also known for being home to a sizable number of millennials. Beyond my experiences in shul, I teach millennials in my university work, have conducted research on the social and emotional dynamics of this cohort, and work clinically with adolescents and young adults. Hence, in this essay, I draw upon my rabbinical and psychological experiences in addition to the growing body of research on this extraordinary cohort. Beyond offering a more detailed description of the characteristics of millennials, I will also offer some insight about how these characteristics may have developed and will end with how our current knowledge about millennials can inform synagogue practice.

One caveat: it is important to note that the description and analysis of the millennial generation is based on an established research and statistical norm. As with any demographic description, many exceptions should be anticipated and each young adult ought to be approached as an individual with an unrepeatable uniqueness.

Who are Millennials?
Millennials are defined as the cohort of individuals born between 1982 and 2002. With an estimated ninety million members, the millennial generation is the largest cohort in American society. Considering their numbers and unique characteristics, they have been the focus of significant sociological and psychological research over the past several years.

The aggregate research on this cohort highlights several interesting traits that millennials possess including being sheltered, needy, over-confident, pressured, busy, narcissistic, disloyal, casual and materialistic. They also have limited coping skills, a sense of entitlement, an excessive attachment to parents and a heightened focus on interpersonal relationships. In large-scale surveys comparing individuals from different cohorts, millennials have been found to score higher on a desire for materialism, money and fame and lower on measures of empathy in comparison to those from other cohorts. On the other hand, millennials have also been shown to be idealistic and politically and civically minded and to possess a unique sense of volunteerism. Some studies also suggest that millennials may have elevated levels of mental health issues including depression, anxiety and eating and sleep disorders.

milevsky2What Contributed to the Millennial Characteristics?
The millennial characteristics are a function of interconnecting societal, familial and developmental variables. Many millennials were in elementary and high school when society began placing greater emphasis on academic outcomes. This caused many millennials to focus exclusively on grades and evaluation. The fixation on achievement and outcomes may also create a combination of overwhelming ambition with diminished possibilities for success and a disconnect between expectations and reality. All of this may contribute to elevated mental health problems, a lack of coping skills and diminished life skills.

This is also the generation that grew up with a heightened focus on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the overemphasis, particularly in the US, on medicinal interventions. The US consumes more Ritalin than the rest of the world combined. This could possibly be responsible for the millennial propensity toward quick fixes.

Millennials are also products of the self-esteem generation. Their parents’ hyper-focus on self-esteem building included practices such as giving their children undeserved accolades and awarding all players on a little league team with participation trophies irrespective of actual achievement. Beyond the inflated sense of self that the self-esteem movement may have created, it likely impacted attitudes toward hard work and entitlement.

Another societal variable that may have impacted millennials’ attitudes and behavior involves economics. When entering the workforce, many millennials faced serious economic difficulties. In fact, among this cohort, labor force participation and home ownership are the lowest in recent history. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many millennials move back into their parents’ homes in what has become known as the boomerang generation. In some cases the lack of job opportunities may be based on preference. Millennials value flexibility, autonomy and control in their day-to-day lives, and hence are less likely to be loyal to a place of work and are more likely to start their own businesses if they don’t like their workplace. A third of all entrepreneurs are millennials and more than a quarter of millennials have started their own business. This lack of workplace loyalty many also translate into being disengaged from traditional institutions such as marriage, religion and establishment politics.

The technological revolution has also had a powerful effect on this generation. For example, heavy usage of social media has been linked with online bullying, making unrealistic comparisons to others and diminished face-to-face interactions. These factors may put millennials at a particular risk for self-image issues and mental health disturbances.

“Helicopter parenting” has also had an influence. (The term refers to parents who consistently hover over their children and are ready at a moment’s notice to swoop in and tend to the difficulties of their children.) This is evident in the way parents engage the academic and social lives of their college-age students, and even beyond that, when parents intervene on their children’s behalf at workplaces by reaching out to co-workers or even bosses on behalf of their children. I recently heard of a case of a millennial couple in their thirties who were in the process of purchasing their first home. The parents on both sides were intimately involved with every aspect of the transaction, creating chaos and hurt feelings, which ultimately resulted in the deal falling through.

milevsky3Similarly, I recently had to give a failing grade to one of my university students. Shortly after, I received a phone call from the student’s father demanding to know why his daughter received such a low grade. I thankfully was able to respond that I would be delighted to speak with him but federal law prohibits me from discussing his child’s academic achievements with him. Ten minutes later he called again. This time he had his daughter conferenced on the call. The father began, “Sweetie, please tell the professor that you allow me to talk to him about your grade,” to which the daughter sheepishly replied, “Yes, I let you talk to my Daddy. . .”

In fact, in response to the helicopter parenting phenomenon, the large majority of US colleges and universities have a “parent coordinator” on staff. What are some of the unfortunate consequences of this over-parenting? Difficulties in problem solving, dependency issues, low self-efficacy and limited coping skills.

Finally, the intersection of these numerous societal and familial variables has produced a fascinating developmental element to the millennial generation: the entry into adulthood has become a longer and slower transformation than in the past. Termed by the great developmental psychologist Dr. Jeffery Arnett as “emerging adulthood,” millennials have been shown to be ambivalent about their adult status and many of them report feeling like both an adolescent and an adult at the same time. This uncertainty has created an identity crisis of some sort for this generation.

milevsky4Millennials and Religious Life
The common characteristics of millennials offer both opportunities and challenges for religious life in general, and for congregational and communal life in particular. Jewish leadership often notes how difficult it is to attract millennials to participate in brick-and-mortar causes. As a function of the features highlighted above, millennial involvement in traditional programing is weak.

However, the difficulties in attracting millennials to traditional religious causes and practices, noted by both the literature and practitioners, by no means indicates that they are uninterested in God or spirituality. A growing body of research in the scientific study of religion has consistently found that one’s perception of God often correlates with the way one viewed and currently views one’s relationship with one’s parents. Hence, the image millennials have of their protective parents often translates into perceiving God as being overprotective, a kind of “helicopter God.” This model of God may fit into more of a spirituality-based practice rather than a religiosity-based practice. Millennials may be attracted to the more spiritual elements of Judaism that highlight God’s protective role and the intimate relationship that we have with Him rather than the more legalistic elements of Judaism. The significant success of college campus programs that infuse a Chassidic flavor into their events attests to this.

The magnified self-importance common among millennials can also be productively channeled. Although the propensity for self-aggrandizement may lead millennials to question authority and religious doctrines, it could also lead to opportunities for religious growth. For example, instead of making a congregant feel badly when he or she engages in improper behavior, a rabbi should draw upon the young person’s positive self-image to promote true Torah growth; he should focus on how exceptional he or she is and how unbecoming such behavior is for a person on his level. Millennials may be particularly receptive to this approach, which has its roots in some of the glorious traditions of Eastern European yeshivot, perhaps less Kelm and more Slabodka.

Furthermore, shul and community leaders should consider the function of their institutions more broadly. Beyond offering a place to pray and learn, shuls should expand their vision in order to attract millennials. What other types of events and services can the shul undertake that may appeal to the uniqueness of millennials? Our shul has a wildly successful “cholent competition” that is exclusively orchestrated and implemented by some exceptional and energetic millennials. Thinking about programing more broadly can also appeal to the political and civic mindedness of this cohort. Creative social programing or networking opportunities can feed the millennial entrepreneurial spirit.

milevsky5Perhaps the traditional opposition to breakaway minyanim or extra-shul programming initiated by younger people needs to be recalibrated. Instead of fighting this trend, perhaps acknowledging the desire for some independence and creativity may allow for the balancing of shul unity together with openness toward millennial-driven imagination. Instead of fighting the young people’s Kiddush Club, maybe the rabbi can join them for a quick L’chaim!

Millennials’ idealistic tendencies and sense of volunteerism can be directed towards communal work. They should be encouraged to seek positions on the shul board or spearhead shul or community projects that would be beneficial for them and the organizations. Those who are tech-savvy should be enlisted to use social media to assist the shul or organization with regard to publicity.

Finally, due to the higher prevalence of mental health issues in this cohort, rabbis should have some level of mental health competencies either via an actual degree in the helping professions or via extensive training. Shuls should consider having referral pathways including establishing crisis services and screening and evaluations when necessary. Rabbis may also want to incorporate mental health based concepts, such as resilience and well-being, in classes and sermons. Although this mental health focus can be beneficial for all congregants, efforts in this arena may be more successful among this cohort considering the diminished stigma and greater openness in talking about these issues found among millennials.

By broadening the focus with some creativity and flexibility and showcasing how a shul can serve religious, spiritual, emotional, psychological and social needs, congregations may be better positioned for attracting the multidimensional millennials.

Rabbi Dr. Avidan Milevsky is interim rabbi of Kesher Israel-the Georgetown Synagogue in Washington, DC. He is also an associate professor of psychology at Ariel University in Israel and a psychotherapist in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Baltimore. His research on families and the intersection of spirituality and well-being has produced over 100 papers, twenty peer-reviewed papers and six books.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Jewish Action.
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