All across the United States, Jewish organizations are seeing a trend among young adults that’s been long in the making. According to the latest Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum, nearly one-third of Jewish young adults (ages 18-29) don’t identify as religious, with only 15% of all Jewish adults saying that Judaism is based mainly on religion.
In the eyes of Andy Gitelson, executive director at Oregon Hillel in Eugene, the numbers reported in the Pew study don’t represent an aberration, but rather a confirmation of what he’s seen in his life’s work.
“I think if you were shocked by what you read in the Pew study, you’ve had your eyes closed the last few years,” Gitelson says. “I’m not nearly as focused on observant Judaism as my parents were, and my parents weren’t as observant as their parents were.”
Active in Jewish communities in Indiana and Maryland before coming to Eugene, Gitelson feels that the basic model of introducing and educating young Jews hasn’t evolved to meet the demands of the Millennial generation. Gitelson cited a Miami synagogue that integrates texting and social media into its weekly services as an example of the innovation needed in Jewish communities.
“We need to be creative without trading in our values,” he says. “In what ways can we utilize multi- and social media as a way to reach out to a population? The younger generation has totally different communication skills than previous ones.”
Gitelson and those working directly with college populations aren’t the only ones concerned with the dulling of Jewish identity. Rabbi Boris Dolin attended the University of Oregon and returned to Eugene as a rabbi at Temple Beth Israel. Dolin, who worked at TBI while in college, says that nowadays the only young adults he sees regularly are those who work in the Talmud Torah program. Dolin admits that even he wasn’t active in Jewish life away from campus, a trend he continues to see today.
“In some ways, Hillel is a bubble on campus, and it’s an incredible bubble to be in,” Dolin says. “Jewish life is so diverse that getting students to see some of that while they’re still in college is very important, not only for religious identity but for career building and networking.”
Dolin and Gitelson have talked previously about creating partnerships between the Hillel on campus and the nearby synagogue, focusing mainly on outreach to graduate students who may not be comfortable in the undergraduate atmosphere of Hillel. Both are committed to adapting to the current representation of Jewish life while keeping true to its religious roots.
“I think if we stay more traditional in our current format and structure of Judaism, we can still stay more connected to current and future generations,” Gitelson says.
Will Rubin is a junior at the University of Oregon majoring in journalism. A lifelong resident of Eugene, Will has covered the Oregon Ducks for the Oregon Daily Emerald and AddictedToQuack.com; he currently writes for DuckTerritory.com.