There is a very crisp interview with Prof. Sarna in the current issue of Reform Judaism Magazine. He was asked about the change in the younger generation, to which he answered media, sustainability, and think with a start-up mentality. Don’t think central planning agency, rather seed lots of start-up projects. Sarna uses a great phrase “religious recession” for our current era of turning away from religion. The term is generally applied to the turn from religion that occurred in the great depression of the 1930’s, but during the last 2 months has been applied by many media sources to our current era. Sarna observes that the indie minyanim seek to recreate the Israel experience. This would explain some of the phenomena in the pop-culture synagogue programming. As a historian, he concludes with “embrace change.”
There is a generational disconnect between elders who grew up before the Internet age and young people who grew up in a post-Internet age. They are in constant “virtual” touch with one another; they read on screen instead of in books; and they can meet their friends on Facebook, so they have no need to meet them at the synagogue or the JCC.
Our children, by contrast, watched that prosperity evaporate. Their question is not “What’s the next big thing?” but “What can we reasonably and responsibly sustain?”
Finally, the new generation approaches problem-solving differently. Since the Progressive era early in the 20th century, the American Jewish community has believed in central planning. We create a multi-year plan to actualize a vision and then follow a predetermined, step-by-step process to get there. Change in this model comes slowly and deliberately. By contrast, today’s young people look at who is at the forefront of change and see nimble start-ups and disruptive technologies. If you have an idea, they believe, you should carry it out—right now. They are not afraid of failure. They understand that in a start-up culture, 90% fail and 10% succeed. What they are not interested in is “continuity.” The people they respect are agents of change, people like Steve Jobs who are not afraid to break things.
I’d say that across the spectrum of North American faiths, we are currently experiencing what may someday become known as the Great Religious Recession. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, mega-churches and tiny temples are all witnessing membership declines as young people shift away from religious institutions.
In contrast, in the 1970s, America’s religions, Judaism included, experienced an “awakening”—an unanticipated religious revival. Everybody at that time knew young people who had become much more religiously committed than their parents… Well, religion is a bit like gravity: what goes up must come down. Every revival is followed by a period of backsliding, and this one is no exception.
When else did we witness backsliding in religiosity in America? The late 1920s and early 1930s could also be considered a period of “Religious Depression.” Looking back, though, the religious recession of the 1920s and ’30s was also driven in part by automotive technology—having a car offered Americans many competing secular things to do on the weekends. My guess is that today, Internet/social media technology is partly driving the current religious recession. Nowadays nobody needs to go to temple to catch up with friends or learn about Judaism.
This generation of native-born American and Canadian Jews is better educated Jewishly than any of its predecessors as a result of day schools, camps, university-based Jewish Studies, and Israel programs. For example, the independent minyan movement has been heavily influenced by Jews who seek a Shabbat worship experience like the ones they enjoyed in Israel, and its standards of learning are higher than those of the 1970s chavurah movement because its leaders are much more Jewishly knowledgeable.
Ultimately, the key for success is to embrace change. The Reform Movement’s continued success is a testament to its ability to change, as seen in its evolving views on bar mitzvah, Israel, ritual, and much more. Now there are new things to be changed in the face of a young generation that challenges the assumptions and norms of its elders. Change will keep us going—if we do it right.