The Jewish Millennial Projectby Natalie Jacobs and Brie Stimson June 29, 2017
There is plenty of conversation around the term “Jewish millennials” and what they want out of their jobs, their lifestyles, their philanthropy, their spirituality. A big focus of “the establishment” (older generations that hold positions of power in Jewish organizations) is how will this next generation of Jewish people embrace and engage with their Judaism, and where will that leave the establishment once millennials arrive at the head of the table. There’s concern because surveys keep coming out showing that this cohort is more disengaged than ever, that synagogue membership is in free-fall, that this could be the end of the road if something radical isn’t done soon. If you follow the Pew Research Center and their study of U.S. Jews then you’re aware of all the alarm bells. You’re also aware that Orthodoxy is on the rise in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time, even though the trends toward atheism and agnosticism continue to show strong upward mobility too.
What interested us here at the San Diego Jewish Journal was not what the numbers say but what the Jewish millennials say about the fundamental questions at the heart of the matter – What is religion? What is Judaism? How does it impact your life? Where does it belong in your future? And how does Israel and its politics effect connections to that Judaism? You won’t find survey results or trend data on the following pages. Instead, you’ll find earnest reflections on very personal questions, offered openly and honestly straight from the mouths of Jewish millennials, that is, San Diegans aged 24 to 34. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of the conversation.
Dor Ashur, 32 | Born in Haifa, Israel. Grew up in Los Angeles. | Raised going to Chabad synagogue “semi-regularly,” currently unaffiliated but participating in community events and organizations. | Mechanical engineer working as a patent agent, studying to become an attorney
“I feel like I’m much more culturally Jewish than religiously Jewish. I’m not the kind of person who blindly believes in things. I think that the culture of Judaism has its purposes. I feel like there are many aspects of Judaism and any other religion that make life more worthwhile – having recurring traditions just kind of stops the regular drudge of life. … With that being said, I don’t believe there’s a G-d. I totally understand that other people have that belief, but it isn’t for me. It’s not something that I hide. I’m not a closet atheist. I think humans manufacture explanations for a lot of things.
I think that religion is also a form of pre-government law. When you have a tribe, when you don’t have a government, you want to have the rule of law over each other … I feel like that’s kind of how it evolved. There are a lot of morals that can be learned through studying Judaism and different religions but the Torah is not necessarily what makes sense now.
I still enjoy going to services, saying prayers. Not because I believe it, but because I enjoy that tradition.”
Andrew Breskin, 34 | San Diego | Raised Conservative, currently Orthodox | Owner of a kosher wine distribution business and adjunct business law professor
“I think today, religion, most people don’t really know what religion is. Most people haven’t studied the big questions of their religion or someone else’s religion. What does it mean to practice? What do we actually believe and what do we specifically not believe? I think a lot of people have felt Jewish, maybe today people feel less Jewish, but in terms of religion and practice and observance, I think most people just have never taken the time to explore that. I’m still not sure how to communicate exactly what I feel about [religion]. I think it’s a life choice. It’s conscious choices to incorporate what Judaism is into your daily life and how you view things, how you make choices …
I think today culturally Jewish is like tikkun olam where you feel like you just have to volunteer or do something good for someone else, but I think millennials like me think the tikkun olam thing is going to run its course. There has to be more to Judaism than being the world’s oldest rotary association or Kiwanis club. There has to be meaning behind it. And I think eventually, people are looking for authenticity and self awareness that ultimately I think will retrace back to people figuring out where did this all come from?”
Noah Silow-Carroll, 26 | Born in Washington, D.C. Grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey | Raised Conservative, currently “in San Diego, not very active Jewish community-wise.” | Systems engineer
“I guess I should head this off by saying I don’t really believe in G-d. For me, [Judaism] is really about the traditions, the community, the lessons that you learn from it. An example of that is, my family would always do Friday night dinner growing up. We’d observe the Sabbath and created a closer family tie. Going to synagogue with my dad and seeing other friends from school or other Jewish things that I did. I would not go to pray to G-d but to be part of the community. …
If you take the Bible as something trying to teach us lessons, not something that actually happened or something that was given to us by G-d, [like] don’t be jealous of your neighbor, treat other people how you want to be treated, that kind of thing. It’s a set of traditions and customs that are enjoyable and teach some nice lessons.
Often when it comes to politics and Judaism it’s a question of do you vote solely based on the politics in relation to Israel or do you vote based on everything else? I have my opinions and they tend to line up with liberals on the Democratic side … I don’t put that specific focus on the Israel policy. … I feel like there’s often the idea that if you say anything bad about Israel it means you’re anti-Israel whereas I believe I can be pro-Israel while still believing that settlements are bad and that Israel should be doing a lot more to try and reach a peace deal or a two-state solution. …
I think with [my] generation that didn’t experience quite as much anti-Semitism there’s less of a need for us to not say anything critical of Israel. I would consider myself pro-Israel but I think it’s dumb to just blindly say Israel is completely right and anything bad you say about Israel is bad.”
Rachel Eden, 34 | Born in Philadelphia, grew up in San Diego | Raised #it’scomplicated, currently Orthodox | Preschool director
“Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, he’s the founder of shabbat.com amongst other things, he says that Judaism is not a religion, it’s a relationship. I really love that and it really rings true in terms of how I approach my Judaism. … I really wasn’t particularly excited to be religious when I was a teenager. It felt so, like, weighing me down with obligation and not liberating. …
I started exploring more and more, and asking a lot of questions and slowly I was like, wait, there’s more to it than this. Then I started really challenging and arguing and getting to a place that I want to embrace Judaism for everything that it is part of, including connecting with G-d and being spiritual. …
I argued, I drove teachers absolutely crazy. They thought I was going to convert and leave Judaism all together. But I think I had to argue my way into understanding and grasping what Judaism really was for me and what was truth, all those big questions. …
I’m not a black-and-white kind of person. There’s always going to be gray areas for me, but I made a decision at that point in my life, about four years ago I was out in Israel studying on and off. I came to a point where I had enough to say I’m willing to accept this package. …
For me, the question is more are millennials different than the generation before? I think the answer is we have to be, because our environment is different. Our parents grew up in a world where they went to work at 8, 9 o’clock and got home at 5 and they were done for the day. In our generation, we don’t turn off, we’re constantly at work. I hear a lot about how millennials are lazy, but to me they’re working a lot harder than the generation before them.”
Matt Ferry, 33 | Los Angeles | Raised “Reform-ish,” currently Torah Observant “probably Orthodox would be a more standard definition.” | Technology transactions attorney
“The tendency now is to go toward agnosticism or atheism and abandon what things used to be as the old way, as medieval. That’s with good intentions, we don’t want to live in the dark ages. We want there to be equality, we want there to be intellectual freedom. Those are all good things, but I started to think maybe you’re throwing the baby out with bathwater a little bit. This is a way of life and philosophy and theology that is one of the ancient religions of the world – it has been around for more than 3,000 years. Denominations have only existed in the past 300, within Judaism. So your question is how do I define my Judaism? I’d say it’s through connection.
The big questions – is there a G-d? If there is, what does that mean for me? I don’t think it’s easy to say if you have an answer or not. You never act with 100 percent certainty in any decision you make in life. I’d say I have evidence that points in that direction. …
Religion, I think, is a modern term. … I think religion among many of my peers probably does have negative connotations. It’s associated with things in history that become a quest for purity and the quest for purity means everybody who is unpure has to be destroyed. … The quest for purity itself can be dangerous no matter whose hands it’s in, religious or non-religious. …
Millennials aren’t different from any people in any other generation. What’s changed is our world, our economy. Let’s say you used to work for Xerox or Hughes Aircraft, you work there your whole career, you get your pension. Nowadays it’s a start-up, you don’t have security but you have innovation, ideas and your own schedule. That’s what we have in our religious lives as well. The establishment for establishment’s sake is not what we’re willing to accept. If there is something in there, then ok, but if there’s not then why am I going to drive myself crazy with this?”
Marina Yanay-Triner, 29 | Born in Vinta, Ukraine. Grew up between Israel and San Diego | Raised “celebrating the holidays because we lived in Israel, but we weren’t religious about it,” currently celebrating holidays and having family Friday night dinners. | Vegan blogger
“I think [religion] is a way to calm people down, essentially, to make them trust that everything will be ok. And tradition. And some wisdom. I don’t like everything that happens in religion or in Torah, but there are a lot of wise interpretations that I like to listen to. I love tradition and I love reforming tradition – taking the things that I like and leaving out the things that I don’t like. I think there’s a lot of tradition and respecting the history of the people and everything that they went through. For my family, the discrimination that they faced in Ukraine. I grew up with so many stories, so I really want to hold that memory.
Now I feel so blessed that I can just do what I want and practice whatever I want and nobody says anything about it. I’ve never faced discrimination ever and I’ve lived in four countries. …
I feel like when I’m around Palestinians I feel the most Jewish, which is really weird but there is something that we connect with on our values and our religion. I don’t know how to explain it but I feel it for sure. …
When I moved to Israel I was very open to whatever I was going to see there, whoever I was going to meet. I have a lot of family and friends who entirely disagree with me. … I wish that Israel was not a Jewish state. I don’t think it should be because we have Muslims and Christians and Jews and all sorts of other types of people living there. The fact that it’s Jewish is the biggest problem, in my opinion.
After living here [in San Diego] and going back and forth I just realized that it’s not working and a lot of people are getting harmed by it. And no, it’s not going to influence my Judaism. I think the opposite, because I think that the Palestinian culture, and the Christian [culture], all of us in that area can beautifully live together and make each other flourish. But the hatred that exists is because, in my view, because it’s a Jewish state and it’s like ‘These are the rules and you are second class because you’re not Jewish.’ It’s not something that is going to change. We can’t tell them, ‘Well, you know, here’s a way for you to be first class like everybody else.’ That creates a lot of hatred towards Jews. I think it can be separate very easily.”
Zach Warburg, 28 | San Diego | Raised Conservative, currently “an agnostic Jew; It’s more the community for me.” | Research biologist at a biotech firm
“I‘m not religious, but I do consider myself really Jewish. Not just culturally, I feel connected to the state of Israel. I also feel connected to traditions of Judaism which I think transcends culture a little bit, and I also feel ethnically associated with Judaism as well. Religion to me means having faith, giving yourself into the belief in G-d, that the Torah was passed down (which I believe is possible). I’m agnostic, not fully non-religious. I’m seeking something, I just haven’t found it yet. I think some [atheists] feel they know [religions] are false. I don’t make that assumption.
I think religion gave birth to lots of traditions and cultures, but it’s become much deeper. It’s just part of our soul and the soul of our values. So I think values is a huge part of what makes us Jewish. …
To me personally, to not eat pork and not eat shellfish, that connects me with my identity. It’s also important to me to have a Seder because that’s a time to reconnect with community as well as Judaism and I think the High Holidays are a very important time. I think a lot of aspects of the Torah and the Talmud are also applicable whether or not you come from a religious standpoint. … I think some people draw a deeper meaning from Judaism that may not be religious but might not [just] be cultural [either].”
Adina Wollner, 26 | San Diego | Raised and currently still practicing Conservative Judaism. | Software engineer
“I guess on the day-to-day, [religion] is the customs that I follow because my family and my community and my history have followed these rules and halichot [teachings] in this certain way. I think that religion is a guide to the values of life that one should live by. I think, to me, when it comes to Jewish religion, the community really has a major impact on that – I don’t know too much about many other religions but I really think there is something special about the Jewish religion in building community. …
The trips that I went on [after being a Lone Soldier in the IDF for two years] back to Israel with the purpose of learning more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really allowed me to have a much more nuanced view, and much more educated view of what was going on, versus mostly seeing Jews living in Israel. … I think there’s a dream of Israel – the Herzilian dream of a utopian Israel that has all these different groups living peaceably together in this incredible country. I think that is still a valid dream, but then you also have to look at the reality of Israel as a state amongst all other nations with very real issues of demographics, race, not the friendliest neighbors, and a very difficult history. … But I do think I hold Israel almost to a double standard – I do hold it higher, and I do hold it accountable to what I think that a Jewish state should uphold. I don’t mean religiously [but on a moral level]. …
I didn’t grow up in a time when there was any existential threat to Israel. My parents definitely did – in ’67 and ’73. My grandparents know ’48 and prior when there was no Israel. … I think it’s hard to say now that Israel has been around for 69 years as an established, strong state – not to say that she doesn’t have some problems – but I don’t have any reason to believe that she won’t be here tomorrow, or in 10 years for my children. I think maybe that’s a little bit of what’s changed for my generation, that we take for granted that Israel exists. …
I definitely plan on keeping Judaism as part of my life. One of the things I’m looking for when I go up to San Francisco [to start a career with Apple] is what synagogues do I want to be involved with, what young Jewish communities are up there. But the one thing that has been on my mind looking into real adulthood is, I’ve been used to the fact that when it’s a High Holiday I can just take off. But when you’re in the real working world you only have a certain number of vacation days. I’m curious how do people balance that? Do they have any sort of vacation or is everything given to [Jewish holidays]? I think that is somewhere I’m going to struggle with finding a balance.”
Sarah Edelstein, 24 | San Diego | Raised Reform, currently identifying with Progressive Judaism/Post-Denominational | Illustrator and designer
“[Judaism] is probably one of the most constant things about myself. … I think it means a few different things. I graduated with a BA in Jewish studies so to me it’s always going to mean something that is academic and professional. … there is a nerdiness to it, loving Jewish knowledge, loving Jewish learning, working in and with Jewish communities. And then there’s the personal as well, that manual for living your best life and looking to your tradition for guidance for how to carry yourself in the world and that link to one’s past. … I’ll use the example of the last job I had, I was working in the medical cannabis industry. At first, what I was doing felt very Jewish in terms of helping people, empathy, care and compassion for the sick. The moment that it started to feel like it wasn’t, I left. That’s not to say that Judaism is the only thing in my moral compass, but it’s so intimate to who I am and how I make decisions that when something has stopped feeling like the Jewish thing to do, I stop doing it.”
*Do you know a Jewish millennial who we should talk to for this project? Contact our editor: editor [at] sdjewishjournal dot com.