Jonathan Raiffe, 30, fondly remembers lighting menorah candles and participating in Hanukkah sing-along’s with friends. In college, however, “I pretty much went my own way.”
Dean Neiger, 29, grew up in Belgium where anti-Semitism was prevalent and his family was not very religious. His attendance at synagogue and other Jewish institutions was sporadic, at best.
And Brenda Bracha Vargas, 29, raised in a Christian household, explored Judaism as a teen, after attending a friend’s bar mitzvah. At 26, she began a rigorous Orthodox conversion that she says has given her life new meaning.
On Thursday the three will come together on the sixth night of Hanukkah for latkes, vodka and candles. Vodka Latke is expected to attract about 500 20- and 30-something Jews for a modern-day celebration of the Festival of Lights, held on the terrace of the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach.
The event is hosted by The Tribe, a local organization nationally recognized as one of the 50 most innovative Jewish groups in the country, the only one in Florida so honored. The Tribe, founded in 2004 under another name by two young women looking to revive the fellowship and community they had known growing up, is one of several groups around the country seeking to redefine what it means to be young and Jewish in the 21st Century, where technology rules and traditional religious institutions no longer hold the influence they once did.
“At the heart of Judaism is community and it’s an essential component of Jewish life,” says Rebecca Denar, The Tribe’s director. “Now we’re able to have multiple ways of expressing Judaism and multiple ways of providing community.”
Searching for ways to bring young people back into the fold is nothing new for traditional denominations. Typically, young adults drift away from the religion of their youth during high school, college and the years that follow. Eventually marriage and children may bring them back, but as young people postpone those life-cycle events, the span of years in which most have no affiliation with a religious institution is growing.
“When kids get done with college and until they have children themselves and are maybe ready to join a synagogue, there’s really not much out there for them,” says Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies.. “Not that they don’t feel Jewish. But when they go into a synagogue, what they see is older people and families, not others like them.”
What’s more, Jewish Millennial — born in the 1980s and early ’90s — are markedly different from their parents at that age, Sheskin adds. They tend to be better educated, but fewer are married and more are likely to be children of intermarriage. Figures collected by Sheskin show that this generation’s participation in Jewish institutions, including membership in synagogues and community centers, is low.
National studies and local data collected by The Tribe confirm this portrait of disconnection. More than 75 percent of those who have participated in The Tribe’s activities are not members of any synagogue.
It’s not just young Jews who fall away from traditional ties to faith. A report released in October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life underscored that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is accelerating, from 15 percent just five years ago to about 20 percent today. This is particularly true for younger Americans. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with just one in 10 for the 65 and older set. However, the survey also found that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults consider themselves spiritual in some way — that is, they believe in God or pray every day.