Image: screenshot TCJewfolk.com
By Avram Mandell
Not long ago, over coffee, I asked a first-year college student I know about a social-media trend I’d recently heard about.
“Do you know what a ‘Finstagram’ account is?” I asked.
“Of course!” he said, incredulous.
“People really have two Instagram accounts?” I asked. “One for their friends, and one for the public?”
He rolled his eyes as if I had asked if he’d ever heard of an iPod.
As the director of gap-year program aimed at young Jewish adults, I’ve spent a great deal of effort working to understand Millennials. In contrast to the popular image that these young people are self-centered and apathetic, I’ve discovered them to be thoughtful, engaged, and full of potential.
The Jewish community has much to gain from this diverse and energetic generation, but only if we do the work to understand what motivates and moves them.
That starts with recognizing how history has shaped this generation. Consider some of the milestones of their youth, events such as The September 11th attacks, the Columbine massacre, and the Iraq War.
Having grown up during a war their country entered under false pretenses, it’s no wonder most millennials distrust authority, including governments and large corporations. And with their keen awareness of terrorism and gun violence, it’s not surprising that a recent study revealed that 33 percent of Millennials plan an escape route when in public spaces.
They’ve also grown up at a time of heightened awareness of environmental threats, brought to light most prominently by Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
They witnessed Massachusetts become the first state to sanction same-sex marriage in 2004. And now, according to Pew Research, a solid majority (68 percent) of Millennials support marriage equality compared to only a slim majority of Baby Boomers.
But what most sets Millennials apart is the way they communicate. As the Finstagram phenomenon demonstrates, their preference is to curate their own lives, packaging their experience and presenting different versions of themselves to different constituencies.
As a product of the 1970s, I might utilize the same devices and apps as Millennials, but not in the same way they use them. Employing Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp and other technologies, Millennials stay in constant touch—with their parents, their friends and their public.
And contrary to popular belief, Facebook is not passé for Millennials. Two years ago, a popular teenage 15-year-old blogger publicly scoffed at Facebook as not for her generation. Two years later, she retracted, saying, “Whoops, I’m on Facebook.” Facebook is the tool Millennials need to conquer geographic boundaries and unlimited free time.
One other noteworthy characteristic: Millenials are gamers. By age 21, the average young person will have spent some 10,000 hours playing online games. So they are fluent in the language of games, game theory, rules and visual stimulation.
How can the Jewish community its institutions use these insights to connect with Millenials and the next generation, Generation Z?
Think à la carte. Just as Millennials want to curate their online lives, they want to curate their Jewish lives. Washington’s Sixth & I congregation has recognized this, offering programs à la carte. Instead of paying annual dues, participants pay by the program, whether for High Holy Day services or lectures on being single.
As the synagogue’s website states, “At Sixth & I, what it means to be Jewish is up to you. With a multi-denominational and non-membership approach, identity and community intersect on your terms.”
Offer Options. In Los Angeles, the Jewish Federation incentivized organizations to attract Millennials and young families by giving a stipend for them to put on various events. The program, entitled Infinite Light, inspired more than 40 Los Angeles organizations to offer a range of options for Millennials to curate their own Hanukkah experience, from “Light’em Up, Cigars, Spirits, Incense, and Oil” to “A Vodka Latke Shabbat.”
Play the game. Moishe House, which sponsors small, local hubs for young Jewish adults, understands the gaming approach. Moishe House International provides a subsidy and a program budget to individual houses in exchange for the house hosting a set number of programs each month. To receive the full stipend, the house must meet its quota of programs to receive their full stipend; that’s the game.
As these successful efforts demonstrate, Millennials have much to offer the Jewish community—if only we make the effort to understand and engage them.
They want to learn and participate, but on their terms. Bringing them into the fold may mean putting up with some good-natured eye-rolling, but as Steven Covey says, it’s best to seek to understand before trying to be understood.
Avram Mandell has a B.S. in Marketing from Miami University, Oxford, OH and Masters in Jewish Education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is the founding director of Tzedek America, a Jewish social justice and travel gap year program based in Los Angeles.