Jews for Jesus Takeaways: a Companion to Barna’s Jewish Millennials —The Beliefs & Behaviors Shaping Young Jews in America
This bonus chapter to Jewish Millennials: The Beliefs and Behaviors Shaping Young Jews in America is written for practitioners in the field of Jewish evangelism. Statistics and charts and analyses by demographers and academicians can only tell so much. This chapter brings the complementary perspective of first-hand observations and reflections from four Jewish Millennials who are also Jewish believers in Jesus and engaged directly in doing the work of Jewish evangelism. Arielle Randle, Sam Rood, Iris Adler, and Eryn Black all share in common that they are second-generation Jewish believers (both parents were followers of Jesus) and most come from a family with one Jewish parent (replicating a very common situation for American Millennial Jews); Iris Adler being the exception with two Jewish parents. All four are on the Jews for Jesus staff.
In addition, we hear from doctoral student Stan Meyer (a GenXer) and Dr. Tuvya Zaretsky (a Boomer), who offer perspectives stemming from their own work among and study of Millennials. Stan is a second-generation Jewish believer with two Jewish parents, one of whom was a believer in Jesus; Tuvya is first-generation with two Jewish parents, neither of whom claimed faith in Jesus. Stan Meyer delves into Millennials’ views on Israel vis-à-vis current movements on college campuses, thus adding depth and background to the picture the Barna Group provides. Tuvya Zaretsky draws from personal case studies of Jewish Gentile couples that amplifies the Barna data.
And finally, each contributor offers practical insights, based on their own experience, into how to engage Jewish Millennials with the gospel.
The format consists of two types of material:
- The contributors’ own words which are in indented paragraphs and additional editorial comments that are integrated with their contributions.
- Each contributor’s section ends with “Practical Takeaways,” that may include examples of specific ministry opportunities, accounts of interactions with various individuals, or practical principles that should be brought to bear on ministering to American Millennial Jews.
Barna’s survey frequently highlights differences across four different generations: Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers, and Elders. However, there is also another side to the picture. Arielle Randle shows us that in some important ways, there are some striking similarities, particularly between the Millennial and Boomer Generations. Arielle writes:
Numbering almost 80 million people, the Millennial generation is the largest and most diverse in United States history. And while there certainly are many things which make this demographic distinct, history, like every story, unfolds in patterns. I believe that my Millennial generation has several key things in common with our parent’s generation, the Baby Boomers, and that Jewish Millennials are just as open to the message of the gospel as their parents were as young adults. Through culturally relevant methods, the gospel was brought to the hippies. Now, we must bring it to the hipsters.
The first commonality that American Millennials share with the baby boomers is that both generations experienced a profound disillusionment with authority. From 2010 through 2017, youth movements reacted to economic disparity in our society, police brutality, and the 2016 election, all of which contributed to 41 separate incidences of civil uprisings in the United States to date. If current trends continue, this decade is right on track to rival the chaos of the 1960s and 1970s. Millennials no longer believe in the American dream, or the institutions that are trying to sell it.
The second thing Millennials have in common with their parents’ generation is that both experienced a dramatic shrinking of the world during their formative years. The Baby Boomers came of age at a time when air travel had just become affordable for the middle class, making their world a smaller and more accessible place than it had been for any generation before them. Millennials may have flown on airplanes all their lives, but the invention of the Internet has made information from all corners of the globe accessible for the very first time and the creation of social networks has opened the door for friendships between people who have never visited each other’s countries of residence.
A third commonality, closely related to the shrinking of the world, is the expansion of choices: like the Baby Boomers, who thanks to widely available birth control, were able to choose new types of families and relationships, Millennials have seemingly endless choices for what adulthood can look like.
Despite commonalities, of course, there are unique differences. Arielle unpacks each of these. Her observations correlate with the Barna results, and it will be helpful to supplement the statistical analysis from the standpoint of the “observee” rather than the “observer.” First, regarding disillusionment with authority:
It’s no secret that the Millennial disillusionment with American institutions has spread to organized religion, and the Jewish world has been no exception. Synagogue affiliation and membership is floundering. The 2013 Pew Research Center study on American Jews (which used a different definition of “Jew” from Barna- see page 9 in Barna study) found that 32% of Jewish 18-29 year olds identify as “Jews of no religion.” But even of the 68% who claimed to be “religiously Jewish,” only 29 percent attend religious services at least once a month. When the numbers are crunched, they reveal that for every 10 Jewish Millennials, only 1-2 are part of a faith community.
However, it’s a mistake to think that these Millennials are giving up on Judaism. Barna cites that over 87 percent say their Jewish identity is important to them, an incredible statistic when we consider Barna found that 58% of this demographic was raised in intermarried families. It’s not being Jewish that Millennials are rejecting; it’s the current institutions and denominations that are being abandoned. The key is for us to rediscover and redefine their motivators. The things that kept Jews together in the past such as anti-Semitism, remembering the Holocaust, and support for Israel are no longer a given, as the Barna data demonstrates, but motivations for connecting with other Jews such as the comfort of community and the power of family are of the highest value in our increasingly less personal world.
Young people today are starving for an alternative to institutionalized religion. No wonder they look to something that produces tangible results. They see social justice, as the new currency. Those of us who hope to reach this demographic with the gospel must be willing to consider the way we have institutionalized our own methodology. If Western Millennial seekers are not connecting to services rooted in the traditions of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, they are not going to connect any better to Messianic services or outreaches modeled after the polity of these traditions. The question is: are we willing to explore in community what it means to express our Jewish faith in Jesus in tangible ways in a new era? Or are we so rooted in the ways that our predecessors saw Jewish life, that we will become just another brand of organized religion for disillusioned young people to reject?
This is an important observation. From the vantage point of the Millennials, Jewish identity remains strong, but stands apart from the institutional affiliations that characterized earlier generations. From the vantage point of those reaching Millennials with the gospel, there is a need to be adaptive—and, adds Arielle, this includes how current Messianic Jewish services are structured on traditional lines. This is not a disparagement of the Messianic Jewish congregational movement, but a call to remain adaptive and to “rediscover and redefine the motivators” of American Millennial Jews.
As to the shrinking of the world, Arielle analyzes that in the context of the availability of spiritual choices:
Having a global perspective doesn’t just mean more information, it means more options. Highly influenced by the consumer capitalist culture of the Internet, the Millennial approach to spirituality is about choosing and consuming different “religious products” such as meditation, prayer, yoga, and personal philosophies, rather than adhering to a set of doctrines codified by a particular body. So it’s not a surprise Barna found a spike among Millennial Jews when it comes to prayer and meditation—more than one-third of Jewish Millennials (34%) say they engage in those activities at least once a day. Like their approach to so many areas of life, Millennials don’t want to label their beliefs. They want to create a faith that is unique to them — a self-styled spirituality — even if that involves borrowing from seemingly non-Jewish sources.
Millennials aren’t just exploring other religions, they are also intrigued by Orthodox Judaism. If that sounds contradictory, that’s because it is — Millennials demonstrate the power of extremes, with a polarizing of the “nones” and the “believers.”
This phenomenon of many young people becoming more observant is not unique to Judaism. Lee Nelson, Co-Chair of the Catechesis Taskforce of the Anglican Church of North America, believes a sacramental hunger lies at the heart of what many American Millennials feel: “In the midst of our consumer culture, young people ache for sacramentality.” Consider the vintage style of the proverbial hipster, which is characterized by an embrace of nostalgia. Millennials have a deep-seated desire to return to a seemingly simpler and more authentic time, which manifests in a genuine interest in ancient spiritual practice and observance.
Or perhaps also to a seemingly safer time? The longing can be for simplicity and also for a world perceived as less threatening. There may be a correlation here with the Millennial interest in social justice and tikkun olam, and the restoration of the world—or at least one’s neighborhood—to a condition better than one of being adversely affected by global warming, nuclear threat, and genocide. Could the dual but related ideas of longing for a simpler world and working for social justice lead to talking about the world as it should be (Eden), the world as it is (affected by sin), and the world as God wants to remake it (the story of redemption)? Then again, perhaps there is a correlation between generations here. For example, in the 1970s Boomers watched the TV show Happy Days, embracing the seemingly safer time of the 1950s.
Here are the surprising truths about Jewish Millennials. According to a survey of U.S. Jewish undergraduate and graduate students conducted by Penn Schoen & Berland, nearly half of all Jewish college students today participate in Hillel events — a 36% increase from the last time PSB did this poll in 2005.
This is very interesting, since Hillel is an institution. It appears to show that while institutional affiliation may be on the wane—how many of these students actually joined Hillel—it is a different kind of disaffiliation than in past generations. It is not that a Jewish Millennial will “never darken the doors” of an institution, but it may be that they will pick and choose when and where to be involved.
Research done by Reboot, a Jewish group examining generational issues, discovered that 42% of Jewish college students talk with their friends about religion at least once a week, which is a higher percent than it is for mainline Protestants or Catholics.
There is no doubt that secularism is on the rise. But this is often wrongly interpreted to mean that young adults are not interested in spiritual things. Consider the worldview of the Jewish Millennial, in which spirituality is not compartmentalized to a religious affiliation. A college student or a young professional today may view themselves as secular, meaning they have made no formal commitment to a faith, but see no contradiction in still searching for meaning in religious expression, embracing prayer or dabbling in sacrament and ritual.
This also is important. When religion is not compartmentalized as Arielle describes, it may be easier for this generation to grasp a central concept within the gospel: “It’s not religion; it’s a relationship.”
What does the reality of a shrinking world mean for Jewish evangelism? It means young people today are not turned off by a blending of Jewish and Christian elements to create a vibrant and fresh faith expression. They are already used to cherry picking from different faiths to form something unique of their own.
The growing interest among Millennials in religious observance and liturgical styles of worship also has an implication for outreach to Jewish young people who are craving meaning and connection. For young people hungry for the beauty contained in traditions practiced for hundreds of generations, observance and liturgy can powerfully demonstrate that our faith in Messiah is ancient, authentic and timeless.
“Ancient and authentic”—we are again back to the theme of longing, yearning, and relationship. Arielle picks up the idea of choices, already related to the area of spirituality but here expressed in terms of identity. To emphasize the third point above:
We do have expanded choices. Today, just ordering a drink at Starbucks is enough to demonstrate that we are living in an era when the options to customize one’s experience are endless. Young people today may be exposed to an overwhelming array of personal and professional choices in the information age.
If individuals are customizing things that used to be nonnegotiable, like their gender, it is natural that they would assume the right to customize their cultural and religious identities as well.
In 2015, Brandeis University conducted an extensive study on the Jewish children of intermarriage and found that, “For American Jews in Generation Y, being Jewish is not their sole identity … Being Jewish is part of a larger identity mosaic for today’s Jew.” In a nutshell, Jewish identity is complex.
The interfaith and interracial marriage boom of the 1980s and 1990s is no doubt a significant contributor to this view of identity as something fluid and evolving instead of fixed and innate. When Brandeis asked Jewish children of intermarriage what their parents told them about their religious identity when they were growing up, 17% were told that they were both Jewish and another religion, 18% were told that their religious identity was their choice to make, and 18% were raised with no religion whatsoever. Also, 86% celebrated Christmas growing up and roughly half report that they attended Christian religious services at least a few times a year. Think about that. That means one quarter of Jewish young adults in the U.S. grew up attending church a few times a year—just as often as many American Christians! Brandeis said of their research subjects, “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage… Children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish reject the idea that their Jewish identity is diluted or inferior and view their multicultural background as enriching, enabling an appreciation of diverse cultures and practices.”
Millennials instead see identity as a mosaic, something to be carefully curated. And if being Jewish is just one tile of the mosaic, there is no contradiction if Jesus is another. The old hang-up that a person cannot be Jewish and believe in Jesus no longer applies if being Jewish is a matter of self-definition in the first place.
As Arielle summarizes:
Young Jewish people today have largely positive associations with the person of Jesus, and if we can free him from stereotypes, we have a tremendous opportunity to provoke conversation. Millennials want to know more about Jesus because like their parents once were, they are disillusioned with the American establishments and institutions, especially those within Judaism. They want to know because the world has shrunk and the places where different faiths intersect and where ancient practice applies to modern life is interesting and cool. And Millennials want to know about Jewish people believing in Jesus because an identity made up of diverse cultures and practices seems normal to them.
The wise King Solomon said, “Generations come and generations go… What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. Across all generations, God is always at work to invoke a hunger and longing for himself. It’s our job to be students of where he has worked in the past, how history is repeating itself, and how to find relevant paradigms for connecting people to the One who can fill that void. May we see his kingdom established in our lifetime, and in our days, and in the lifetime of these generations of the household of Israel.
- Some principles for evangelizing Jewish Millennials. Jewish evangelism has long relied on being provocative as a way to engage with unbelievers. We say who we are and what we believe and wait for a dramatic response, and so when Millennials say “so what?” we write them off as not interested or just indifferent to spiritual things. But Millennials are open to the gospel; they just don’t experience cognitive dissonance when confronted with the idea of Jewish people believing in Jesus. Being Jewish has always been just one piece of their complex identity puzzle. Young adults today are searching for spiritual harmony between the different fragments of who they are. For Millennials, affirmation is greater than belief — even more than looking for something to believe in, they are looking for a place to belong where who they are makes sense.These new identity choices have important implications for how we train people to do Jewish evangelism in 2017. If being Jewish is only a part of a person’s larger identity with endless possible combinations, we have to be more sensitive than ever before as we minister to people. Jews for Jesus and others in Jewish ministry have always recognized subgroups and subcultures within the Jewish community, but today the Jewish identity is more fractured and complex than ever before. One person sees themselves as a Jew by religion, another sees it as heritage, another as descent. There’s no longer a standard understanding for “how Judaism relates to me”. Maybe instead of teaching people “Jewish objections to Jesus,” we should provide training in how to counsel interfaith couples and families. Perhaps in place of imparting coaching on provocative debate techniques, we need to teach young ministers how to listen to people’s unique perspectives, and create environments where Jewish people can interact with what an identity in Jesus could mean for their own lives. Let us thoughtfully and prayerfully consider the tools with which we will equip the workers that the Lord will send into the harvest of the next generation.
- Shabbat. For the past four years, our Chicago branch has held a regular Shabbat dinner for Jewish young adults. We average around 25 people at every dinner, with a mix of believers and unbelievers.There are unbelievers from a variety of backgrounds and connection points, including the whole spectrum from young people rebelling against their Orthodox Jewish upbringing, to gay Reform young professionals. These people are regular attenders, and all of them have told us at some point how significant these dinners are in their lives, and how it’s caused them to think about spiritual things. One of the reasons young people feel so comfortable at these dinners is that we don’t do a traditional style “drash” or sermon. Instead we give people the opportunity to talk about what is going on with them spiritually, and then after everyone has had a chance to share, then we share the gospel. This style of sharing the gospel engages Millennials who are spiritual conversationalists. They don’t want to be preached at, they want to have a discussion.Young people today are also craving meaning and connection. When they come to a Shabbat dinner or any other community-based event, they see first-hand how faith in Messiah brings people together. They feel a power of love and faith as well as people their age who love the Lord and are seeking him, something they often have never seen in the Jewish synagogues and communities they grew up in.
- Community art project. Last fall our Chicago branch did two weeks of concentrated street outreach in a trendy neighborhood of Chicago called Wicker Park. We did a variety of things from handing out postcards, to giving out free chai tea, but by far the most successful was a “community art project” that we created. We did this by bringing out a table and giant foam letters that spelled out “We ? Wicker” and then inviting anyone who walked by to help us collage the letters with cut up magazines. Through this table, we would be able to easily talk with 50 people or more in an hour, since there was always a steady stream of people stopping to help with the art, and we were able to engage everyone at the table with an explanation of who we were and why we were doing art in their neighborhood. Part of the benefit of the project was that people had to really stop and participate, they couldn’t just grab their postcard or their tea and move along. Not only were we able to engage with a very high number of people, almost all whom were Millennials, but we had some pretty shocked reactions as well. One Jewish girl said, “I would NEVER participate with anything from Jews for Jesus, but it’s art so I can’t turn that down.” I think this demonstrates that when it comes to Millennials, we need to redefine their motivators for engaging with us. Millennials are highly responsive to anything that is connected to social justice, art, and improving local communities. It’s important for us to meet Millennials (or anyone we hope to reach with the gospel) where they are, and to connect around topics that are meaningful to them.
- Real life examples. Over the past few years, I have had dozens of Millennials on my caseload (people I am staying in touch with to be a witness and to meet together to discuss Jesus). All I can say about the Millennials I meet with is, Jewish identity is complex. Here are some examples: Abby Levin,* a Jewish girl from the Chicago suburbs. She has a very Jewish name, but she had never been to a Passover seder in her life until she came to one at my house! She was raised with zero religion whatsoever and has zero background knowledge of Judaism or even Jewish culture. So even though she is Jewish, she isn’t going to resonate with services or Bible studies that assume a person has even a minor background knowledge of Jewish things. Jason Harris.* Half black and half Jewish, he was raised in the church in Michigan. Now Jason has moved to Chicago and he’s rejected Christianity and wants to become a “real Jew”. In fact, he’s in the process of formally converting to Reform Judaism. Do you minister to this person as a Christian, as a Jew, or just as a confused young adult? The lines are pretty blurred. Zahava Silverstein.* She was raised in west Rogers Park, Chicago’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, but now wants to get as far away from all of that as she can. She’s into a lot of dark and borderline occult stuff. She doesn’t want to hear anything about Judaism because she views it as oppressive and toxic, but it’s still her only basis for understanding God or faith. Because of the prevalence of secularism and intermarriage for the last several decades, very few Jewish Millennials have the same story. There is a huge range of experience of how a Jewish young person today grew up. This forces us to minister to the actual person sitting in front of us, not to “Jews” as a monolithic group. We have to be intuitive and creative in how we share the gospel with every individual we encounter.
* Not their real names.
Jewish Millennials and Social Consciousness
By Eryn Black
Eryn’s essay focuses primarily on the social sphere of Jewish identity. Barna devotes a section of their report to “Volunteering and Activism.” They refer to an interest in Jewish spirituality and tradition as being “implications-based,” meaning that it leads to political or social goals. (We might add as well, that Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewry, from which most American Jews trace their heritage, has a long tradition of secular social activism: Yiddish socialism, the American Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, for example).
Indeed, whether spiritually inclined or not, Barna reports that over half of American Jewish Millennials volunteered time “in the last month.” Giving to a non-profit cause or attending a fundraising event was significantly higher among those Jewish Millennials who were spiritually “interested” than those who stated they were not at all spiritually inclined. Yet “Jewish Millennials are harshest on themselves when it comes to evaluating how their generation is really making a difference” (Barna, p. 81)
To give some perspective on this as a Jewish Millennial, Eryn gives some particulars that help flesh out the general statistics:
American Jewry has a rich and complex tradition of social awareness, connectedness, and progressiveness, a tradition that, more so than certain others, is being upheld by Jewish Millennials. Just as Jewish people fought for women’s suffrage in America and around the world, they were at the forefront of the labor union movement and aligned themselves with Martin Luther King and the battle for African American Civil Rights in the seventies. Jewish Millennials proclaimed “I’m With Her” (i.e., Hillary Clinton; at least, the ones who weren’t too distraught over Bernie Sanders’ campaign failure) and studiously affix “#blacklivesmatter” to their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter dispatches.
As Barna elsewhere suggests, identity for Jewish Millennials emerges along different contours than in earlier generations. The pluralistic matrix not only of society but of their individual lives (product of mixed marriages; desire to choose elements that comprise one’s identity) is seen, for example, in the sphere of gender. Thus we are not speaking only of what is traditionally called social activism but, as the title of Eryn’s contribution alludes, social consciousness.
The embrace of queer culture, sexual fluidity, and the transgender community in such Jewish pop culture offerings as the television series Broad City and Transparent can be traced back at least as far as Jewish LGBT progenitors like Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, Harvey Milk, and Barney Frank. It must be noted that these same progressive cultural values are not uniformly shared by secular and religious communities, though there are growing contingents of gay and transgendered Orthodox Jews.
Jewish Millennials and Israel
As expected, based on Barna’s findings, specifically Jewish social issues also impact the lives of Jewish Millennials. Their relationship to Israel is certainly one such issue. While Stan Meyer has a separate contribution on that topic, Eryn places Israel within the context of social concerns. Here is where Barna highlights the intersection of identity and social issues. Ranking the “most important part of Jewish identity,” Barna finds that low on the list comes “affinity for Israel”—and this is true whether a Jewish Millennial comes from a one or two-parent Jewish family. Furthermore, “Millennials are also the generation least attached to Israel as an identifier” when compared with previous generations. Eryn comments:
Israel, since its mid-20th-century inception, has been important to American Jews. For the first time in centuries, the Jewish people had a homeland, a place with Jewish government, language, borders to defend, and a Jewish fighting force to serve as that defense. It was a country that was certainly a place for the abused and displaced Jews of post-World War II Europe, but was also the realization of an idea, the corporeality of Jewish dreams, words made flesh. Israel was a place on earth around which Jews the world over could rally, a geographical location upon which they could project their hopes for Jewish strength and autonomy. Israel has been in constant conflict with not only her surrounding Arab neighbors, but also with the Palestinians living within the boundaries of this seventy-year old Jewish state.
Because of the conflict with the Palestinians, never resolved—a tide of violence that ebbs and flows and breaks against the shore of shared country and living space—American Jewish Millennials have developed a fraught relationship with Israel. This relationship is certainly informed by America’s currently divided feelings towards Israel (which can simply and reductively be categorized as: the Left vilifies Israel as an oppressive force occupying a land that should be called Palestine and routinely violating the Palestinians’ human rights, while the Right sees Israel as a longtime ally and champion of democracy and stability in a part of the world where such things are scarce). Jewish Millennials increasingly find themselves personally at odds with both Israeli politics and American Zionism.
Thus, according to Eryn, it is not simply that an affinity for Israel has been displaced by other concerns, but that they are “at odds” with Zionism’s status quo. Nor is this simply due to the Middle East situation. Eryn continues:
This ideological distance also has to do with Jewish Millennials feeling distanced from the Holocaust (and therefore the world giving the surviving Jewish people the consolation prize of a land surrounded by enemies), in ways previous generations of American Jews never felt, or at least never admitted.
While “hardly forgotten” (Barna, p. 51), the Holocaust is no longer a “potent identifier” for Jewish Millennials as it was for previous generations. This in turn affects the way they relate to Zionism and to Israel. Curiously, the Barna results differ significantly here from those in the 2013 Pew Study where the Holocaust was an identifier equally among all Jewish generations. However, it could have to do with the fact that the question posed by Pew appears to list the Holocaust first among many identifiers.
Jewish Millennials and Anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism, too, is an ongoing concern for Jewish Millennials, though perhaps for other reasons than it was for previous generations:
While Israel and Zionism are polarizing issues for Jewish Millennials, anti-Semitism is still seen as a real and sobering problem. This is partly due to anti-Semitism being seen as a universally Jewish concern, something that can exist apart from any anti-Israel sentiments, but also because Jewish Millennials, like their Gentile counterparts, are acutely aware of racism, bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. Whether it’s synagogues being firebombed, women being “slut-shamed” on the internet, African Americans being shot by the police, or a Christian-owned company turning away business from homosexuals, Jewish Millennials are invested in the plight of the oppressed (an identification with the underdog, which ironically puts them at odds with both the state of Israel and people who promote anti-Semitism).
Another factor could well be the increased terrorism that has a decidedly anti-Jewish face. Whether it’s bombing a kosher supermarket in Paris or spouting Jew hate from the lips of white supremacists in Charlottesville, anti-Semitism is on the increase.
Millennials routinely align themselves with individuals or groups they perceive as being victimized, and staunchly position themselves in between victims and their abusers. Even if much of their defending is theoretical or relegated to social media, Millennials see themselves as having both the awareness and the influence to put an end to injustice, wherever it might rear its ugly head.
Jewish Millennials and Jesus
Jewish Millennials’ views of Christians (and Jesus) are quite distinct from those of previous generations:
Jewish Millennials do not necessarily view Christians (or Messianic Jews) as the same threat to Jewish survival and identity as earlier generations of American Jews did. In a pluralistic society that has pushed past what some view as outmoded concepts about absolute truth, Jewish Millennials do not immediately balk at the idea of other Jews believing in Jesus and maintaining a link to their heritage and identity. For Jewish Millennials, identity is what you make of it; nonconformity to societal norms is seen as a high form of enlightenment, so seemingly disparate elements of identity can be combined at odd and contradictory junctures within an individual. One can be a Jew who believes in Jesus, a transgender Hasid, or a gay atheist who still regularly attends temple.
While the Barna results showed that many Jewish Millennials are quite comfortable in adding Christianity into their identity mix, it is important to note that a segment of that demographic can feel differently when perceived social attitudes of Christians are taken into account:
While being Jewish and believing in Jesus are not antithetical concepts for Jewish Millennials, Christianity is still sometimes a very unattractive option because of the political and cultural baggage evangelicalism carries for many. Many label Christians as Republicans (the highest percentage of Jewish Millennials in the Barna survey identified themselves as political liberals). They also categorize Christians as those who are uncomfortable around immigrants, want the poor deprived of affordable healthcare, oppose gay rights, and turn a blind eye to the plight of minorities. To American Jewish Millennials, traditional Christians represent intolerance and close-mindedness. While all of these things may be less true than many Jewish Millennials think (and more true than many evangelicals might like to admit), there is an ideological stigma surrounding Christianity that makes it comparably as problematic for Jewish Millennials as it was for their parents and grandparents, albeit for different reasons.
It’s not that being Jewish isn’t central to the identities of Jewish Millennials, but rather that Millennials have generally molded various components of worldview, values, and self in such a way as to make everything central: ethnicity and heritage are inextricable from values, gender, sexuality, and any other ingredient in their identity bouillabaisse. To add Christianity, or their concept of Christianity, to their permissive and inclusive identities would be adding an incompatible element, a worldview with rules and absolutes, something to rub off the more subjective elements of self they’ve compiled.
Understanding what Jewish Millennials care about, and why, is essential to reaching them with the gospel. That does not mean a believer’s values need to change to suit the cultural climate, or the gospel needs amending in some way, but simply that believers who wish to effectively share the message of Jesus with Jewish Millennials need to be versed in the language of the times. For instance, if Jewish Millennials are invested in the Black Lives Matter movement, it would behoove believers to become familiar with that movement, and in a genuine way; if believers do not seek to understand an issue or cause from the standpoint or perspective of Jewish Millennials, they will not be able to effectively understand the root of why that issue is so important to their audience, nor will they be able to identify how the gospel can be ministered to that root cause. To learn about a different point of view simply to gain ammunition to win arguments against that view’s adherents is to do a real disservice to the people who care deeply about the issue.
If believers are willing to stretch themselves and move outside the bounds of what might be most comfortable, real inroads might be made for the gospel among Jewish Millennials. The gospel does not need to conform to the whims of culture, but believers must conform to the likeness of Jesus. Jewish Millennials expect a Jesus who hates gay people, villainizes ethnic minorities, lacks compassion for those who have been victimized, and refuses to listen to people whose opinions differ from his own. If believers can show Jewish Millennials the Jesus who preached freedom to captives, healing to the sick, sight to the blind, and compassion for the victimized and downtrodden, Jewish Millennials might truly find their ideas and prejudices challenged by the God who longs for their salvation.
- Speaking with someone who is gay: a real life example. As someone who has lived and worked in New York City for the past five years, I’ve been afforded many opportunities to talk with Jewish Millennials of various political and religious affiliations and sexual orientations. I meet regularly with a straight, conservative, Orthodox young man, who is a staunch Zionist and frequently expresses concern over America’s changing morals, increasing occurrences of anti-Semitism, and a movement away from what he sees as traditional family values. But I’ve also had long conversations with Messianic Jews who go to all the New York City Gay Pride Parades and who could not be persuaded to vote Republican, no matter the incentive. I’ve had the distinct privilege of talking with several gay Orthodox Jews who expressed both their sincere devotion to Judaism, as well as their acute pain over being ostracized from their community due to their decision to come out to their families and friends. One young man in his early twenties told me his desire was to attend an Orthodox shul, but he had to settle for what he saw as a less fulfilling communal religious experience at a Reform temple since he came out in college; he didn’t want to completely eschew tradition and community, but it was made explicit that he was no longer welcomed in the congregation at which his family had maintained membership since before he was born. His sexuality precluded him from practicing the Judaism in which he had been raised and which most stirred his soul—at least among the ranks of like-minded Orthodox Jews, which are overwhelmingly heterosexual (as well as people who are closeted, for fear of the same sort of banishment). In an interesting turn of events, our conversation quickly involved me explaining my own religious beliefs, beliefs which put me on the outside of many Jewish communities. He told me that his initial reaction to my belief in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah was one of disgust and offense, but he then added he had no right to hold my personal convictions against me, since he also found himself on the receiving end of Orthodoxy’s scorn and effective exile. Our conversation took a decidedly fascinating and thoughtful turn, and we spent the better part of an hour talking about how my Jewish identity could be reconciled with my faith in Jesus. He left the conversation still skeptical of Jesus, but pleasantly surprised that we could have such a frank discussion.
- The practical principle of genuine listening. In other similar conversations, my own willingness to listen to others, express sympathy and compassion for them, and share pertinent information from my life and testimony have ended up being terrific resources. And the key has been listening to other Jewish people with sincere interest, and sharing my own story with humility and vulnerability. If my goal is only to give them reasons to believe, then I’m simply humoring them, waiting for my chance to interject a possibly unrelated Scripture verse. Or if I’m listening simply to wait for an opportunity to chastise them for their sinful ways (or even just criticize ideas that differ from mine), our conversation will go nowhere. I’ve seen it happen before, to myself and others. Over the past several years, I’ve tried very hard to show people the love of Jesus in the form of truly listening to and seeing other people, giving them the kind of attention that our Savior would give them if he was the one standing there. Keeping those things in mind has created ample space in my ministry for God to touch people and shift their perception of who I am as a missionary with Jews for Jesus, and more importantly to show them something new about Jesus himself, the Savior who loves them.
- Tell stories from the Scriptures. To a generation where justice and social consciousness are extremely important values, look for opportunities to demonstrate that God is a God of justice. Don’t give a sermon, tell a story; one of how God shows compassion for the slave or for the alien/immigrant. Tell stories about how he cares about people treating other people unjustly. Or stories of how Jesus cared for the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor, the outcast. Such stories can speak volumes to Jewish Millennials. Humility, love and sacrifice are character traits that resonate with Millennials— and who better personifies them than the Jewish Messiah himself.
The Warming and Opening of Millennial Jews to Jesus
by Sam Rood
Sam Rood’s contribution concerns a sea change in the openness of American Jewish Millennials to having conversations about Jesus. They show much more openness than previous generations of American Jews to interacting about spirituality and the gospel.
The Barna Group identified factors that have contributed towards this. They cite a report from a 2005 study by Reboot describing the then coming-of-age Millennial generation: “Young Jews have multiple identities shaped by many factors, including intermarriage in their families, diverse social networks and dynamic boundaries … Being Jewish is part of a larger identity mosaic for today’s Jews.” 
The Response of Previous Generational Cohorts …
Growing up, some of the hardest conversations I remember having were with my Jewish family members who do not know Jesus—specifically, when the topic of our family’s beliefs came up at my grandparents’ home or at a family event. I learned from a young age, through personal experience, that most Jewish people do not enjoy talking about Jesus. I was taught through growing up in the messianic movement to say “Yeshua” instead of “Jesus” and “Messiah” instead of “Christ” because he was such a taboo topic that even the sound of his name caused many Jewish people to respond viscerally in fear or anger.
I also remember hearing stories about parents who had a funeral and mourned for their children who had become believers in Jesus as if they were dead. In many ways the lesson was reinforced: Jewish people do not want to hear about Jesus.
The first time I travelled to Israel by myself at age 19, these lessons manifested themselves in a paralyzing fear. Whenever I found myself talking to an Israeli and there came a point in the conversation that I had an opportunity to talk about my belief in Jesus, I held back. Afterward, I felt guilty, thinking of Jesus’ warning, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). I was convicted of my fear and knew that I was caring more about what people thought then about the one who died for me.
… And the Response of This Generation
This conviction was part of what motivated me to go on a trip to Israel two years later called Massah, a missions and discipleship program for Jewish young adults run by Jews for Jesus. I recall my fears, but also that when I actually followed through and started talking to Jewish people about the gospel I was shocked to discover that they actually seemed to enjoy having the conversation! I thought maybe that it was because I was talking to Israelis—maybe the concept seemed exotic to them, maybe there was something about Israeli culture that was more open.
However, the next year when I came out to New York City to do an internship with Jews for Jesus and started doing regular evangelism at Brooklyn College, I found the same thing: most of the Jewish people I ended up talking to seemed to enjoy the conversation. It’s true that some were offended and upset, and most weren’t ready to start studying the Bible, yet for the most part people seemed open to at least a casual conversation about spirituality and expressed some amount of curiosity about what I believed about Jesus.
I’ve now served as a missionary with Jews for Jesus for several years and have been reflecting on what I’ve experienced. I sense that the hostility I heard so much about and had such great fear of has diminished. When Jews for Jesus first held evangelistic witnessing campaigns on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, they encountered real hostility, even physical violence. Today there are people who will still respond negatively, get upset, or say nasty things. But I’ve never been hit or spit on, which were two not so uncommon things back in the day. The 2013 Pew Study and especially the data collected by Barna seems to bear this out: there is generally a warming and opening of the Jewish community, among Millennials in particular, to interacting with those of other faith traditions, including evangelicals.
Explaining the Change
Sam explains why previous generations of American Jews were much less inclined to be open towards the gospel and why this still remains true to an extent. This background is helpful in understanding the changes represented by the Millennial generation:
The hostility which used to be so much more prevalent (and again, to some extent still exists among the Jewish community in North America) was not without reason. The Jewish experience is one of being a minority “scattered among the nations” (Psalm 44:11). Especially in Europe, from where the majority of American Jews’ ancestors immigrated, the Jewish people experienced persecution, pogroms and ultimately genocide. The fact that Christianity was the dominant religion did not bring respite for the Jewish people. Instead, Christian theology was used as justification for the mistreatment of the Jewish people to such an extent that most Jewish people connect the anti-Semitism of Europe with its Christian identity. Christianity was seen as a hostile religion because so-called Christians acted with hostility toward the Jewish people. Thus, the gospel did not represent “good news” to Jewish people; it represented the odious choice: “convert or suffer.”
The idea of “conversion” from Judaism is loathsome to even non-religious Jewish people. Part of that comes from the simple fact that we are descended from people who refused to convert to Christianity and suffered for our refusal. However, it also stems from the fact that we are a small people group: worldwide there are about 13 million Jewish people, less than 0.2% of the world’s population. Being such a small minority, every Jew who appears to leave the fold is painful. Many Jewish people experience the weight of our heritage; we feel a responsibility to carry on the Jewish people. Thus, the threat of evangelism: why would such a large, powerful religion be so intent on targeting such a smaller more vulnerable group? The very idea of what is called Christian “proselytism” is offensive.
So much for the past reluctance to engage with the gospel. But Sam next addresses the reasons for the changes in attitude, both across the spectrum of Jewish generations and specifically for Millennial Jews:
While this hostility and offense continues to be a reality for many Jewish people, it is also true that there is more of a willingness to interact with Christians, and even to discuss spiritual matters, including other faiths. There are a few possible reasons for this.
First, American Jews feel relatively secure and accepted. We are now part of the American mainstream in the way we weren’t just a few generations ago. In fact, Judaism regularly is polled as being among the most popular religious groups in America.
Second, there has been vast improvement in terms of Jewish-Christian relations. Many Christians have shifted away from anti-Judaic theological beliefs and have embraced more positive views of the Jewish people. The Catholic church rescinded the accusation that the Jewish people are guilty of killing Jesus. Evangelicals largely identify with the Jewish people as the descendants of the Israelites, their biblical heroes, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus himself. Evangelical support of Israel, while raising suspicion for many Jewish people, has also helped to shift the perception that Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic.
Third, Jesus’ Jewishness has been rediscovered and emphasized in a way that it hadn’t been in a very long time. Jewish people are even “reclaiming” Jesus as one of our own—albeit as a renegade rabbi or prophet of Jewish renewal rather than as the Messiah. The idea that Jesus was Jewish is now widely known in the Jewish community and can even be a source of pride.
While the above holds for the Jewish community in general, there are a few additional factors specifically relevant to Millennial Jews that have opened up their willingness to explore other faith traditions.
Fourth, like others in our generation, Jewish Millennials are much less likely to affiliate with a religious tradition. Many are more interested in a “spiritual Judaism” that embraces tradition but doesn’t confine them to a particular set of values and practices. Since we are often less committed to a particular tradition, we are open to learning about others’ and even fusing those traditions with our own.
This corroborates with Barna’s finding that Millennials are more, and more diversely, spiritual than previous generations, yet with a concomitant drop in organizational (e.g., denominational) affiliation. Barna also describes this as less “institutional” and more “mystical.” Interestingly, though, while 33% of Millennials do not affiliate with any Jewish denomination or branch, a much larger 48% of Baby Boomers do not affiliate. But there is a difference. Lack of institutional affiliation does not automatically translate into a greater openness to “spirituality”; in this the Millennials stand alone. Consider that fully 43% of Jewish Millennials are “very” interested in matters of faith and spirituality (pretty even with Gen-Xers), compared to only 23% of Baby Boomers and 19% of Elders. Likewise 40% of Jewish Millennials “definitely” considered themselves to be a “spiritual” person, the largest among the generations.
Fifth, younger Jews are less likely to have experienced anti-Semitism personally.
As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, it is still alive and well in America (as noted by Barna, p. 48). Nevertheless, only 44% of Jewish Millennials agree strongly that anti-Semitism is a domestic issue, the lowest among the generations. Barna notes that this may correlate with their lower personal experience of anti-Semitism (though over half were “extremely” concerned about international anti-Semitism). Whether the multicultural society in which we live will tend towards continued lack of personal experience of anti-Semitism is a moot question.
Barna notes, “Most Millennials, who are known for their transitory nature and are less likely to be married or have children, may not have navigated quite as many life changes or environments that invite insensitivity, whether from anonymous strangers or intimate relationships.” In other words, the experience of Millennial Jews may change as they grow older and move on in life—which may or may not correlate with a difference in receptivity to spiritual and Christian discussions. At any rate, as Sam shows, this is but one factor in a much larger mosaic. Barna tentatively thinks that “maybe, times have changed” and Millennial Jews live in “a more welcoming era.”
One final factor, though, is that for those in universities, Millennial and beyond, the anti-Israel sentiment widely reported on college campuses factors into the “personal experience” of anti-Semitism. “Though Millennials are the least likely age group to acknowledge facing anti-Semitism, when they are victims of prejudice they are actually the most likely generation to say that the experience had a profound effect on their Jewish identity” [emphasis original]—perhaps, we can venture, because it runs so contrary to the pluralism and multiculturalism they have experienced in other areas. See further Stan Meyer’s contribution on Israel issues as it touches campus life.
Sixth, having grown up in a pluralistic and multicultural society we value talking to and listening to the beliefs and views of others.
And seventh, many of us are the children of intermarried parents, and so were nurtured on interreligious dialogue.
Indeed, Barna indicates that 58% of Jewish Millennials are from an intermarried family, up somewhat from the 52% of Gen-Xers and radically different from the 31% and 17% of Boomers and Elders respectively.
What do these things mean for us who want to engage with this generation of Jewish people, especially with the gospel of Jesus the Messiah? Because of their openness to spiritual conversation, and to discussing Jesus in particular, Millennials are more open to interacting with and learning about evangelicals and Messianic Jews. However, while Millennials are more open intellectually to interacting with Christians, they aren’t necessarily more open spiritually to receiving and believing the gospel. It might be that a new movement of Jewish believers in Jesus is about to erupt, but thus far we haven’t seen a significant revival among Jewish Millennials. This means that we have a great opportunity but also a great challenge: we are sharing the gospel with a generation with a lot of curiosity, but also a good amount of spiritual apathy.
How does what Sam describes as “spiritual apathy” mesh with the greater openness among Jewish Millennials to “spirituality”? We can suggest that the claims of the gospel are not necessarily the kinds of spirituality to which Jewish Millennials are attracted. We can also note that spiritual apathy is not spiritual antipathy—while Jewish Millennials may not be actively seeking the “answers to life” as the Boomer generation did, they may be perfectly open to having a casual “spiritual” conversation at Starbucks, one that engages their real interests and concerns.
Lionel Blue once said, “Jewish people are just like everyone else, only more so.” I’ve been told that Jewish people are impressed by the same thing that everyone else is: love. As unique, and perhaps in many ways unprecedented, as this generation of Jews is, they can only be reached by the love of God—the only way to reach anyone. At a time when Jewish people may be the most open to having conversations about faith than they have in years, the question is as Rabbi Akiva said, “if not now, when?”
- Question boards. In some of our branches, Jews for Jesus has adjusted our outreach methods to reach out to Jewish people who are more open to spiritual discussions while still apathetic to the gospel. For years Jews for Jesus handed out “broadsides”—tracts that lightheartedly introduced the gospel and served as conversation starters. This method is more direct and is a good way of bringing up an issue that people are uncomfortable talking about. But we wanted to try things that would be more inviting to people who might be more open to having a spiritual conversation. One thing we’ve started doing is putting up boards that ask a question like, “What are you for?” and giving people an opportunity to write something on a sticky note and post it. And because they are taking the initiative by demonstrating that they have something they want to share, it’s easier for them to hear about what’s important to us.
- Shabbat meals. We’ve seen that many young Jewish people who might be curious about Jesus or Messianic Jews might not be willing to sit down and have a Bible study (at least at first). But they are often willing to come to a Friday night Shabbat dinner, a tradition that is comfortable and familiar to Jewish Millennials whether they come from a religious or non-religious home. This setting gives them an opportunity to observe believers without having to make any commitments. Inviting people to meals or events with a group of people gives us the opportunity to build relationships with them and gives them the space to investigate what faith in Jesus for a Jewish person could look like.
- Spiritual conversations. The fact that there is so much curiosity and openness means that we should take the opportunities to initiate spiritual conversations with our Jewish friends, family and coworkers. How can we do that? By asking quality, leading questions (in other words, not answerable with a yes or no). For example, asking “What does being Jewish mean to you?” can open up a lot of different routes for conversation, since this will encourage your friend to think out loud about something they may or may not have given a lot of thought to. You can also ask, “How do you celebrate Passover?” or “Does your family have any traditions?” These are good ice-breaker questions because they touch on identity and spirituality without being too personal. Eventually asking questions like, “What does Judaism teach about the Messiah?” or “What do you believe about God?” are good ways of getting the conversation to go a little deeper. As the conversation develops and you get your chance to share about faith, emphasize the continuity of Christianity with Judaism, the Jewishness of Jesus, and God’s love for the Jewish people (and therefore your love too) in order to emphasize that yours is not a separate, non-Jewish religion, but a faith whose foundations are Jewish. The more they see the Jewishness of Jesus, the gospel and your faith, the more willing they will be to consider it for themselves. Listen more than you speak. Be patient and prayerful, ready for the right moment to say the right thing. Jewish people are still sensitive to being “proselytized,” so be aware that you can come off as being overly earnest or preachy (two qualities that aren’t considered very Jewish) if you ignore these principles.
Jewish Millennials and Digital Outreach
by Iris Adler
One obvious and salient feature of Millennials applies not just to those who are Jewish but across the board: the widespread immersion in the digital world and especially social media. While Barna did not ask specific questions regarding Jewish Millennials and the digital world, the digital immersion comes in a particular context having to do with identity and relationships—both of which were addressed by the Barna survey. This is, so to speak, the sea in which social media and the Internet swims.
For example, one aspect of this context is that “[Jewish] Millennials seem to be pendulum-swinging toward becoming more (and diversely) religious, or at least more ‘spiritual,’…” (Barna, p. 21). Furthermore, 48% of Jewish Millennials “consider their Jewish identity to be ‘very important’ to them” (Barna, p. 23), with “family and upbringing” the topmost factor in what goes into making up their Jewish identity as well as their value systems (Barna, pp. 23 25–26). Interestingly, community and friends rank significantly lower as a source of values. As Monique Brumbach points out in one of the articles accompanying the Barna study, Millennials have been close to parents (family) with a great deal of openness about their “flaws and foibles” and personal problems. But this very openness suggests a potential spillover in non-family relationships such as one encounters via social media. In other words, having learned openness at home, Jewish Millennials may find it easier to be open with others as well.
All this and more is summarized by Barna in this way: “Millennial Jewishness has taken on both a personal and immediately relational tone—defined by one’s own beliefs, one’s community and the practices that bring the two together (such as holidays or customs)—rather than by the history and heritage of Jewish people.” All this has implications for social media: the relationship component (the social aspect of social media), the personal component (social media lends itself to disclosure, at the user’s discretion, of numerous personal details, struggles, etc.), the family and community component (which also figures high in the characteristics of social media).
With this context in mind, Iris Adler who is digital director for Jews for Jesus, offers her reflections on this topic.
To Know and Be Known — The Individual and the Many
Rapidly becoming a well-integrated part of daily life since approximately 2006, social media tools have scaled the fences of our daily lives, and now dwell among us—usually in the form of downloaded apps and semi-constant push notifications that itch for interaction. This is especially true for the Millennial generation—and younger. Even with the recent pendulum swing toward private communication via social media platforms of all kinds, the ability to broadcast a message to innumerable peers remains a daily quest and a not-so-impossible dream. And yet, the bedrock metric of digital connection remains: fulfilling the human longing to be truly known.
There is an apparent contradiction here: social media lends itself to private communication, yet it is also a platform for reaching a potentially huge number of people. The resolution of this apparent contradiction is that whether communicating one-on-one or seeking to “go viral” and garner a large public following, the bottom line is that, as Arielle suggests, people want to know and be known.
From a whole sea of online accounts, each user is looking to be seen and understood: fins, scales and all. And that is where the gospel rings true and where believers can be fishers of men and women in a new light. Viewing followers on social media as an audience with which to build trust can be the cornerstone toward publicly broadcasting (or privately inviting) gospel interactions with a goal toward offline, realtime, real life connection—first with a believer (or a representative of a Christian organization), and ultimately with the true God.
One might naturally ask why Jewish Millennials would be willing to engage about the gospel even to the point of meeting up with someone offline. The Millennial openness described above helps explain why an initial interaction might take place, especially if someone else’s experience resonates with one’s own. But Barna has discovered that there is something additional going on with Jewish Millennials: “While U.S. Millennials—like all Americans—still generally cluster around those with similar worldviews and experiences, Jewish Millennials seem to be uniquely interested in and capable of living among those who claim a different faith tradition” (Barna, p. 95). This can help explain why, as Arielle describes later on, some Jewish people first encountered online have gone on to accept an invitation to a Shabbat dinner or another in-person event. There is both an openness to discussing one’s own struggles, spirituality, and so on, but also a willingness to hear from those who inhabit a different spiritual “space.”
Arielle continues by emphasizing, as far as evangelism is concerned, social media’s ability to reach the many, which in reality is reaching the individual—since each person is individually on the receiving end of the communication. Again, the theme of authenticity or openness surfaces:
Social media’s core utility is to tell or share with as many people as possible something of importance to the “you” behind the curtain of a pixel-perfect existence. This can be a lifestyle, a brand, and of course, a life. But how can this work to Jewish evangelism’s advantage? The Internet age has made the importance of sharing the Lord with others easier to do than ever before. And when it is done with authenticity—rather than creating a glossy version of perfection—random users can and will notice something different, something strong enough to compel them to interact, as the digital world puts in, IRL (In Real Life).
From Online to Offline — and Vice Versa
Moreover, digital interaction may be only one part of a larger experience that someone has in their exposure to Jewish believers or to the gospel:
As in some real-life scenarios we are aware of, before their current digital interaction, people may have seen other content from Jews for Jesus or other messianic sources in the past—either physical or digital. But multiple exposures (typically three to seven) can help increase the awareness and ultimate engagement with those in social media, as well as those who are encountered on the street, on a website, or elsewhere.
Consider another conclusion reached by Barna: “Jewish Millennials, particularly those with two Jewish parents, still highly value being Jewish and cling to traditional markers of Jewish faith and identity—often more so than older generations . . .” (Barna, p. 96). This is not only a willingness to hear from other faith traditions, as we noted above, but also a high value placed on specifically Jewish traditions. Consider Arielle’s ideas in this context:
Viewing those reached on social media, fans, followers, and their friends, as an audience with which to share in a compelling way can be the cornerstone toward publicly broadcasting (or privately inviting) gospel interactions. For example, a potentially compelling post for which to attempt Millennial nibbles could be specifics of Messianic Jewish practice in the setting of a Saturday morning Torah service. Embodying the ritual of Jewish liturgy or an inside view of a worship session could be that moment of higher spiritual involvement that many Millennials find themselves drawn to. It could be compelling to a current Jewish audience, whereas older generations might be more closed off to religious expression, especially in messianic form. Then, for the Millennials who feel less inclined toward religious expression, but do identify as spiritual, there may be a better angle from which to highlight the same event (a Torah service), for a slightly different subset of Jewish Millennials.
The end goal is always to make personal and intimate connections:
From a trending hashtag to a seasonally relevant post, digital communication can pique the interest of those interested in new perspectives—especially with humor. When it comes to Jesus and Jewishness together, those with a base knowledge of the pairing can use their social accounts to spread the Word further and ultimately draw new seekers out of cyberspace and into spiritual one-on-one conversations.
Those intimate connections are often what social users seek most, and that is certainly evident in the Barna data here. Social media’s flatness feeds a need for true intimacy and real relationships. It can also lead to questions or requests for contact information which are often best suited to reply to in a less-public format. From social media, people can be guided toward one-on-one digital conversation on a clearly-messianic platform such as email, Live Chat, app-based messaging, video chat, or offline altogether via phone, at a local event, or even over coffee (should time and trust allow).
Arielle gives examples of the transition from online to offline:
Jews for Jesus has found success in inviting Jewish-identifying young adults from social media “spaces” to real, live ones that are welcoming and clearly messianic, for example, a Passover seder or even something solely cultural, such as a house concert performance by an Israeli band of believers in Jesus. Even a meetup through a socially-posted event of not-specifically-Jewish activities that happen to have a lot of Jewish interest can work well. In some major cities this can span the galut (diaspora) gamut from crafting to coding.
The art of inviting strangers in to experience life together with believers will only continue to become more luring among young adults. A desire for the tangible and palpable grows every month, even as digital design becomes flatter and simpler. It pushes people to a literal place where they can actually touch and interact with a living, breathing human at a wooden table, with a cup of locally-roasted coffee in hand.
Social media becomes especially useful because of two inbred components: one, people like other people (or brands), and two, peoples’ perceptions affect their decisions. This is especially true of Millennials. Social media crafts perception. The tone of a person or brand, both through voice and visuals, becomes their signature, which a user can either embrace or ignore. Millennials regularly make decisions based on social media interactions with a person or group, or more so perceptions, before anything else.
Advertising—which plays a huge role in today’s digital world—comes into play, too. In an age in which “Millennials of all stripes feel strongly that their religion is a personal choice, and young American Jews are no different” (Barna, p. 98), targeted online ads take advantage of the personal aspect:
Part of the DNA of social media accounts is the hope to attract a larger following of those interested in a unique perspective. Some are able to do this naturally, but many need a combination of both organic and promoted content. Some might say that social media is becoming a place of hyper-monetization and losing its true value to users. While some brands may be overfishing the natural resources of social media, it is quite a reliable stream. In the case of missions, advertising money can instead be used to ultimately gain new leads of a different kind. Advertisement of the gospel message can and does happen—and can reap fruit. For example, a New York Times print ad placement from the 1980s for a book and a Facebook e-content offer from 2017 both offer value to someone who is willing to hear more about Jews who believe in Jesus.
Belonging, Believing, and Community
For Jewish Millennials in particular, Jewish “space” is one to which a person can belong regardless of personal belief (the interplay between personal and collective described by Barna). Barna notes that “While Christian Millennials lean heavily on individuals … in discerning their values, Jewish Millennials tend to rely on the collective” (Barna, p. 89). This is historically true of Jewish people. Note that many contemporary churches, and perhaps especially those actively reaching Millennials, speak of “belonging before believing,” that is, experiencing life in the community before taking the step of faith. This, it seems, is even truer of Jewish Millennials.
Through interaction in spaces (this can stay digital, via a “like” for a Messianic brand or an event space or a thought leader), a Millennial Jewish seeker can belong (and get comfortable in a new setting) before belief. The hope is that they will continue to make that slow-but-steady climb to a point of decision for the Lord. For Jews for Jesus, this might mean helping seekers through social media content and eventually onto the website to contact a staff person. For example, Instagram could be utilized to show faces of seekers engaged in activities with Jews for Jesus that mesh with their personal interests. Initially, an interested person may like or follow the account. The hope is that they will click through to a bio link, and get to the main site, the true digital headquarters of information—and hopefully the place of digital conversion from browser to personal follow-up. Our goal would be for Jewish seekers to push past affiliation on social media to true decision.
Ultimately, social media’s end goal is a measurable one, namely reviewing who, of everyone that a social message touched, actually trickled down into contact with the brand. For Jews for Jesus, the best kind of contact is from new Jewish seekers who have had a personal conversation with a staff person. However, the ministry can also measure the number of those interested in doing so, or even the rate of true, spiritual conversations compared to more general ones.
- Video testimonies/journeys of faith. Our Israel director, Dan Sered, partnered with another ministry, One for Israel, to produce a YouTube video of his faith journey. As of September 11, 2017, it had 24,347 views. From the video, a number of seekers contacted One for Israel, who in turn funneled them to our missionaries. Dan was able to have one-on-one conversations with at least five different people because of his willingness to have his story shared online. None of these people were willing to “come offline” and meet Dan for coffee, for example, but the gospel was reinforced in a clear and unique way. True engagement and connection was delivered from a counterintuitive channel.The testimony video of another Jews for Jesus staff member, Karol Joseph (a Boomer), was posted on Facebook. Among those who saw it was a young Israeli woman, across the world from where our web site originates. She was so touched by Karol’s story that she asked to meet Karol and ultimately connected with her about the life-changing power that fueled Karol’s testimony. The woman came to faith in Yeshua.[Editor: Note that the kind of openness Millennials demonstrate was two-way: reflected in both the missionary’s testimony and the willingness of the Facebook user to embrace that openness and respond in kind. And of course, both were being highly relational. This was not (primarily) an argument to which the Facebook user responded with reasoning (though that may have entered into the process at some point) but a personal resonance.]
- Personas. It might be helpful to create personas or data-driven archetypes (“stand-ins”) for actual types of Millennials you will encounter. Personas are given names and personal details so that you can see them as more life-like. They are defined by what is important to them, what their needs and goals are, etc. A Google search will give you many templates for designing personas. These personas can then be used to create the appropriate messaging to reach out to Jewish Millennials.
- Live chat. (This takeaway was contributed by Emmanuel Mebasser, who is part of the Digicomm [Digital Communications] team of Jews for Jesus.) Ever since we added a “Chat with us Live” feature to our website, when visitors linger on a particular page, we can greet them with a message and a friendly picture of whichever of our staff and volunteers are logged into the chat. We can ask if they have a question, and have chatted with people of all faiths and backgrounds from college students doing research for their comparative religion papers to anti-missionaries who want to heckle our staff. The questions and conversations are no less intense then those our missionaries would hear sharing about Jesus out in the streets. Last year (2016) our volunteers talked to 19,000 people; received 1,500 new contacts for the ministry; and saw 9 Jewish people make a profession of faith on the live chat platform. The potential can be seen in the fact that since our chat volunteers are a small team, the live chat function of our site was only available 36% of the time. Here are two examples of the benefits of doing live chat: Bob Mendelsohn, the leader of Jews for Jesus in Australia, “met” Jerry (not his real name) online when he was visiting our website. Bob was in Sydney and Jerry was on the East Coast of the U.S. Bob writes: “Jerry is a young professional. His question centered on the Trinity, on the nature of God himself, and was clearly a deep thought from a deep thinker. I answered his query, and then we chatted a bit more about his other questions. Our discussion turned to who Jerry thought Jesus was, and Jerry turned out to be a religious Jew who admired Jesus, albeit from afar. He had read both the Older and Newer Testaments.” A religious Jew who is very involved in his congregation and in the wider Jewish community, Jerry proceeded to read Bob’s story of his own journey to faith. They continued their email correspondence, and ended up spending 25 minutes on the phone.The second example: Gary had been dabbling in New Age beliefs and practices for years when he started to be drawn to the gospel through YouTube videos. He went onto the Jews for Jesus website and began to chat with one of our missionaries. By the end of the chat, Gary had prayed to put his faith in Jesus as his personal Messiah. To follow-up, we connected Gary with David Liebman, a missionary at our Washington, D.C. branch, who has been meeting with Gary since then for discipleship. Just recently, some of our staff attended Gary’s baptism/mikveh at a local church.
Israel Issues: On and Off Campus
by Stan Meyer
Barna devotes an important section of their monograph to Jewish Millennials and their relationship to Israel, one of both support and criticism. Stan notes the decline in Jewish American support for Israel even before the Millennial generation:
Since the late 1980s, Jewish American support of the State has declined from what it was in the 1970s. One scholar described a euphoric nationalism among Jewish Americans. Israel was “the be-all and end-all of Jewish existence … and … was above criticism.” Israel’s military victories in 1967 and 1973 imparted to Jewish Americans a sense of ethnic pride and solidarity with the tiny democracy.
A few more observations by Barna can help set the stage for discussion of this topic.
First, 31% of Jewish Millennials have been to Israel, a greater percentage than for previous generations. They point out the growth of programs such as Birthright that help account for this, since 75% of Jewish Millennials who visited Israel did so through Birthright.
Second, travel to Israel correlates with considering one’s Jewish identity as “very important,” though—as Barna notes—whether this is causation or only correlation is not always clear. Did the visit change the perceptions of American Jewish Millennials? Or did at least some Millennials already strongly self-identify as Jews before traveling to Israel?
And third, as in other areas, having two Jewish parents makes a difference in their relationship to Israel compared to those with only one Jewish parent.
Attitudes to Israel Past and Present
With this in mind, consider Stan’s remarks on the sources of Jewish attachment to Israel. Or at least, the original sources of attachment:
Israel is the Jewish homeland and the one sanctuary on earth most Jews believe they can live free from persecution. … The tragic Jewish history has led even the most assimilated, non-practicing Jew to feel that Israel is the only certain sanctuary. Therefore, in 1948, even the most patriotic Jewish-Americans felt some connection to the State. Moreover, most Jews feel a deep cultural and religious bond with their ancient homeland.
But what was true in 1948 and through the 1970s is no longer necessarily the case today:
In 2000, the American Jewish Committee National Survey reported that only three out of four Jews felt close to Israel. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed described themselves as distant from Israel. In 2013, Pew Research reported that 39% of Jewish Millennials felt no attachment at all to Israel compared with 79% of Elders who felt very attached to Israel. Scholars predicted “there may be a long-term decline in support for Israel as younger Jewish-Americans are slightly less likely to report feeling very or fairly close to Israel than older cohorts.”
Stan then addresses the causes of this decline, especially among Millennial Jews. He also asks the question, “Is the growing anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses fueling this phenomenon, or mobilizing some Jewish Millennials to support Israel?”
Three Reasons for Declining Support of Israel
1. Generational experiences and contrasting narratives. Some argue that the reasons older Jewish Americans feel more attached to Israel than young adults stem from their distinct generational experiences. “Members of the oldest generation of American Jews, born before World War II … remember the Holocaust and the subsequent founding of the State.” These events brought insecurity also to Jews in America, raising the fear articulated by Sinclair Lewis: don’t ever say “it can’t happen here.” The establishment of Israel held out the promise that there is one sanctuary Jews can flee to in the event of another Holocaust.
In an era when “narrative” is a significant grid through which to view not only generational differences but those between contemporary peoples, this is a helpful way to understand the differences.
Most Millennials grew up with a different narrative than did Baby Boomers. Most are two or even three generations removed from those who experienced the Holocaust. Most have not personally experienced religious discrimination; for example, being denied a job for being a Jew. Those born after 1973 remember Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the First and Second Intifada, international protests over encroaching West Bank settlements, and the demolition of Arab homes, all of which are often “perceived as far more morally and politically complex … casting Israel in a more troubling light.” This is the generation that has known three decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, criticism in the news media of Israeli “occupation” [itself a controversial term] of the West Bank, and allegations of Palestinian injustice.
Quite apart from the issues of narrative, history, and justice, there comes a second reason for the waning of support for Israel by Jewish Millennials.
2. Engaging Jewishness differently. Jewish Millennials engage their Jewishness and construct their identity in distinct ways. Being Jewish is only one component of their identity which is constructed more like a mosaic. While generations debated whether the term “Jewish-American” or “American Jew” most accurately described their identity, Millennials see their identity as simultaneously American and Jewish, “reclaiming their identities as proud … Diaspora Jews who do not necessarily believe that Israel is the center.”
Moreover, Millennials are less institutionally affiliated. Young adults engage through cohort “communities that deliver personal meaning, not … cultural products.” Thus the way they engage their Jewishness, understand their identity, and their lack of institutional affiliation weakens their attachment to Israel.
Stan raises a question that affects many aspects of this discussion beyond the issue of Israel: Are these differences “a birth cohort effect or a life-cycle effect?” In other words, are the differences we are seeing in fact generational or are they pegged to a person’s particular stage of life, with the implication that the differences might level out as the Millennials grow older?
Yet if many Millennials are more critical of Israel, they are not necessarily growing less attached to it. Whether the Millennials’ critical perception of Israel is described as a birth-cohort effect or a life-cycle effect, it is clear that their relationship to and perceptions of Israel are very different than older generations.
A third factor is uniquely present for this generation. This section provides necessary background that supplements the Barna study, which tends to deal with internal attitudes. The effect of external pressures can also be seen to play a significant role, at least for those Millennials in college, but indeed also beyond:
3. Navigating opposition to Israel on college campuses. Many Millennial students feel conflicted by the charged anti-Israel atmosphere. Anti-Israel sentiment often spills over into anti-Semitism, leading Jewish students to feel alienated and insecure. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, founded in July 2005, seeks to pressure commercial, political, and educational entities to boycott the State of Israel and divest from the country.
The result is that many Jewish students feel alienated when they are confronted with public criticism of the Jewish State in their own community and by their own peers. Jewish students who are politically liberal encounter criticism of Israel from their own political colleagues.
For example, throughout the Civil Rights movement, Jews partnered with African-Americans to end the discrimination of minorities and work toward social justice. Many in the Jewish community lent their support toward the more recent Black Lives Matter movement, speaking out against discrimination by law enforcement. However, many found themselves caught in the middle when the movement’s criticism turned against Israel.
In August 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement drafted a resolution that included a condemnation of the State of Israel. They charged Israel as being an “apartheid state” that is committing a “genocide” of the Palestinian people. This inflammatory rhetoric alienated Jewish supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. Stacey Aviva Flint, a student who is both Jewish and African American said, “It broke my heart…I want to support this [Black Lives Matter] as African-Americans are being targeted by the police [but] this dashed my hopes.”
At a lecture of Students for Justice in Palestine in 2013, a group of Jewish attendees were expelled from the talk because they were Jewish. Kat Kolin, at Boston University, says she is Jewish and pro-Palestinian. She supports the cause for Palestinian rights and attempted to join Students for Justice in Palestine. In spite of her pro-Palestinian stance she experienced harassment by pro-Palestinian students who she said described her as an enemy of the movement because she is a Jew. “I was even interested in joining their organization, but it seemed they didn’t want me.”
Two Kinds of Responses
The effect of these external pressures has led to two kinds of responses on the part of Millennial Jews:
Millennials mobilized to support Israel. In March 2016, The Forward interviewed six Jewish students and discovered a range of responses to the politically charged atmosphere on campuses. Rebekah Molasky, at Indiana University, became actively pro-Israel. She joined Students Supporting Israel. She publicly confronted anti-Semitism by writing articles, speaking out publicly, and working to pass a student government resolution condemning anti-Semitism on the campus.
Millennials critical of Israel. Some raised in practicing Jewish homes, whose families support Israel, shifted their political views, citing disillusionment with the Zionist narrative they were raised to believe when they encountered criticism of Israel. Gabriel Goldstein, at Brandeis University, describes himself as a former “Pro-Israel poster boy.” He was “raised on one narrative—that of Israel’s unquestionable moral superiority…I became the poster boy of the pro-Israel establishment.” However, at Brandeis, “I found that some [Palestinian] claims were true … It’s opened my eyes to the shortcomings of the state I once so vigorously defended.” He tried to share his journey with his Jewish peers, “who never fail to respond with shock and awe.” Some friends listened, while others felt he was a traitor.
Given the complexity of Jewish Millennials’ attitudes towards Israel, here are six principles to keep in mind:
1. Avoid broad assumptions about Jewish Millennials’ perspectives on Israel. We cannot assume a level of loyalty, nationalism and attachment on the part of Millennial Jewish Americans to Israel—much less that they view Israel as the “Holy Land,” the land of the Bible, or their homeland. We should expect to find criticism of Israel and concern over Palestinian rights to the Land. We may discover that a Jewish college student has joined a pro-Palestinian campus organization, or participated in an anti-Israel protest.
Most students are still processing the issues and have not settled on their own views or their relationship with the State. Young people’s views of Israel, as in many other areas, are still being developed. It is important to patiently listen and allow Millennials space in which to process their questions.
2. Evangelicals view Israel through a theological lens. Jewish people view Israel through a cultural and ethnic lens. Viewed by the Christian, Israel is the Holy Land, the land of the Bible, the historical setting for Scripture. It is the place where Jesus walked and taught. For many Evangelicals, the regathering of the Jewish people and re-establishment of the State of Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. The rebirth of Israel proves for many Christians that the Bible is not another human book but divine revelation.
Jewish people view the Land very differently, whether they are Millennials or not. For the Millennial generation specifically, some see Israel as a land relevant to their parents but not necessarily to them. Others see Israel as a country that in many ways failed to achieve its own standards of social justice. They feel it is their obligation as Jews to address these issues as they criticize the State. As Christians engage their Jewish friends in spiritual conversations, the State of Israel has very different meanings to different generations of Jews and summons very different sets of emotions.
3. Remember to listen. Israel is in the news every week. The subject comes up among Jewish people with their family and their Jewish peers. Students are confronted with criticism on campus and wrestle with issues to determine what they agree and disagree with. While it may be tempting to share personal views or even Bible verses on the subject, take the time to listen to the conversation. Ask open-ended questions. This is particularly important when engaging college students who may feel conflicted.
4. Respond honestly and humbly if asked your perspective. Most young adults value honesty and authenticity. When a person is overly guarded about their personal views, it can raise more suspicion than trust. However, temper what you share with qualifying language. The issues surrounding the State of Israel are complex and invested with deep feelings. Language such as “In my view,” and “It seems to me” helps moderate the discussion. Avoid absolute statements, using words such as “always” and “never”, and emotionally charged phrases. Avoid accusatory language that imputes blame to Jewish leaders.
5. Stressing Christian support of Israel often alienates rather than connects with Jewish people. Many Jewish people politely appreciate evangelical support of the State of Israel. After all, evangelicals are Israel’s biggest supporters and have an influence on American policy. However, most Jewish people are uncomfortable with conservative Christian political views, including those whose views inform their support of Israel. Many Jews suspect that Evangelicals who believe that the State of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy also have a conservative Christian agenda for America. This agenda, in their understanding, includes imposing the Bible and prayer on public education, a Christian moral social code, limiting the rights of women and the rights of the LGBT community. Many Jewish Americans feel threatened by the agenda of the Conservative Right. It’s important to separate your biblical perspective from your opinion on American foreign policy.
6. Avoid criticizing Israeli leaders or Israeli policies. Jewish discussion about the State of Israel is a family matter. Many Jewish people feel they reserve the right to critique Jewish leaders and Israeli policies. Dr. Sarah Minken (2014), at University of San Francisco, compared Jewish discussion of Israel to a family discussion of “dirty laundry”: “Laundry is shared at home; the word [dirty laundry] indicates the backstage, private realm, connoting intimacy and suggesting that Israel’s ‘dirty laundry’ is a private Jewish story. It is the story of those who share the home. As such, the dirty laundry idiom reasserts the frame through which the claims of non-Jews are by definition extraneous to the primary discussion of Israel.” While you may hear Jewish criticism of Israel and her policies, be sensitive about voicing criticism yourself.
Intermarried Families and Jewish-Gentile Couples
by Tuvya Zaretsky
A Unique Demographic
For several years, Tuvya Zaretsky, himself a Boomer, has been engaged in ministry to intermarried families and to Jewish-Gentile couples, but nevertheless form a significant demographic. First, Tuvya highlights the long standing concern in this area:
Jewish Millennials with one Jewish parent are the largest invisible majority today! Yet even three decades ago, the American Jewish Community recognized the increasing rate of intermarriage. Today, when Orthodox Jews are excluded from the study samples, this rate exceeds 72%. The 2017 Barna Study confirms that more than half of college-age Jewish Millennials have one Jewish parent—not unlike their own parents. And they are seeking and defining their own unique identity.
Next he points out the unique demographic of Jewish Millennials who come from such “mixed” families, and reflects on the Jewish community’s approach to them:
The children of those Jewish-Gentile couples make up a significant subset of Jewish Millennials and will do so for subsequent generations. For those born between 1986 and 2016, it is likely that at least 52% were born to couples where only one partner was Jewish. Not only are they the majority in their age group; they are also in the process of redefining Jewish identity in North America.
And yet, the primary concern of American Jewish institutions, has been on how to “reattach” Jewish Millennials to Judaism. But Jewish partners who choose to be intermarried have already departed from halakhic (Jewish religious legal) authority. Unambiguous reattachment to Judaism is no longer their primary desire.
Even so, they are exploring Jewish meaning in history, traditions, rituals, and practices, and they are looking for a rich biblical heritage. At the same time they feel marginalized by the traditional Jewish community. No one likes to be treated like a second-class citizen, and the culture of American Millennials doesn’t want to judge others or to be judged.
It is time for evangelicals to offer these Jewish Millennials welcome and meaningful ministry.
Characteristics of Jewish Millennials with One Jewish Parent
Jewish Millennials are taking into consideration the religious identity and cultural heritage of both parents. The Barna study reveals that of this majority, where one parent is Jewish, 62% are more likely to consider Jewish identity as defined by something other than Judaism.
After all, their intermarried parents were not dissuaded by culturally religious or halakhic discouragement of marriage to a non-Jewish spouse. So they are no more inclined to seek validation of their Jewish identity from religious leaders representing Judaism than were their parents.
As one result, 73% of all Jewish Millennials in the Barna survey said that they were “very or somewhat open” to exploring faiths other than Judaism. Breaking that down further, when both parents are Jewish, 58% of their Millennial children are “open or somewhat open.” In the case of the Jewish Millennial majority—those with one Jewish parent—79% said they were open or somewhat open to exploring faiths other than Judaism. While traditional Jewish community leaders see this as a reason to advocate in-marriage, they end up judging, and thereby alienating, that larger population of American Jewish Millennials. That isn’t a good strategy for attracting those young adults to their cause.
Ways to Engage
Tuvya then offers suggestions for engaging these Jewish Millennials in terms of their developing identity, which includes the desire for community.
It is imperative that evangelical Christians, especially those who are Gentiles married to Jewish partners, respect this new and growing Jewish identity that is developing among Jewish Millennials. Community is, for them, an important component of their identity. More needs to be done to intentionally recognize and welcome Jewish Millennials with one Jewish parent into church and Messianic congregational communities.
Jewish Millennials with one Jewish parent are in turn very likely to marry partners who are not Jewish or who come from Jewish-Gentile parents. We can patiently embrace them in conversations as they explore other faiths, including our faith in Messiah Jesus, and acknowledge the uniqueness of their Jewish heritage. They can find a welcoming community as part of the growing number of messianic believers in North America who attend churches and messianic congregations.
Furthermore, there is an openness to spiritual conversations that stands apart from any commitment to a form of Judaism. This includes an openness to spiritual conversations as long as they are “safe” (a common word in discussions of Millennials):
Jewish Millennials want to explore religious faith that might or might not be consistent with their family experience. In homes with one Jewish parent, Jewish Millennials often received distorted or competing messages. They are asking “Where is God and where do I find him?” Though they love traditions and discovering their religious heritage, they want it with meaning: why we do things like that? They are especially encouraged by the continuity of God’s message through the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. We must make it safe for them to have those conversations.
Social research has shown that 75% of Jewish-Gentile couples that are unable to find spiritual harmony are at risk of marital dissatisfaction or divorce. We can understand, then, why Jewish Millennials with one Jewish parent are incredibly encouraged to find that Messianic faith in Jesus is consistent with their own Jewish identity. In many cases, it provides the spiritual harmony that they never found in their homes.
- Specialized ministry to Jewish-Gentile couples is available. I make it a habit to let pastors and church groups know that I specialize in ministry to Jewish-Gentile couples—and that it happens in a safe environment. Of course, most Christians are not trained in this kind of specialized ministry, should a Jewish-Gentile couple enter their life. So, it didn’t come as a surprise when I received an email from Linda.* Linda is a Christian who has a Jewish boyfriend. Her parents heard me describe my area of ministry at their church and subsequently suggested that she contact my office. Linda and her boyfriend, Oren*, were in a serious relationship and at the point of exploring the implications of getting married. They had already visited a pastor who told them he couldn’t offer counseling while she was contemplating marrying a non-believer. That was a non-starter for Oren and Linda; they recoiled from being judged. Another pastor advised her, “Do like my daughter and just convert to Judaism,” another non-starter for Linda, as it meant renouncing faith in Jesus. Lastly, they visited a rabbi who explained his view of Judaism and ended their meeting with “Good luck!”On our first meeting, I showed Oren and Linda from demographic studies that they aren’t unusual as a Jewish-Gentile couple. I assured them that there is hope in their search for spiritual harmony. We have since had a lengthy series of conversations over coffee that has continued for almost two years now. My aim is to create greater spiritual understanding between them. That means Linda is learning about the Jewish roots of her evangelical faith while Oren learns who Jesus is and hears the Gospel in a cultural frame that is clear and safe for him.* Not their real names.
- Resources are available for weddings for Jewish-Gentile couples. I’ve performed weddings that are “not religious, but filled with tradition, and spiritual.” That phrase actually came from a young Millennial couple who had asked me to marry them. Most Christians do not perform weddings but can be made aware of the resources available. Her parents had been religiously traditional throughout her childhood, but then came to genuine saving faith in the last three years. His parents were both Messianic Jews, who came to faith in Jesus during their young adult years. Neither of their kids were followers of Jesus. So, they asked me to marry them, since I was a family friend and understood the culture of both families. I said I would be honored to do it, but we would have to agree on the traditions shared and the spiritual message in the ceremony. They were fine with a wedding ceremony based on the Bible as the primary resource for spiritual truth. They were enthusiastic about the explanation for the meaning of marriage found in the Torah, Genesis 2:23-25. Helping them choose symbols that reflected Jewish and Christian traditions was actually fun and gave them a voice in the culture of their ceremony. The result was a wedding that appropriately shared the hope in Christ (expressed as “the Jewish Messiah”), in his provision of forgiveness of sin and the resource for loving God and one another. Spiritual conversation with the couple continues as they do life and plan for family.
- Small groups for Jewish-Gentile couples. I created a small group for Jewish-Gentile couples to meet in our home. Five such couples have been willing to meet. In every case the woman was a Gentile Christian and the husband was Jewish. In only one case was the Jewish partner currently practicing Judaism. At our first meeting, I asked the couple to offer a list of questions about topics that they wanted to discuss, but which were not safe to engage with in their relationships. My role, I explained, was to serve as a cross-cultural translator and to keep the discussion safe. They came up with a list of nine key topics, including “What’s the difference between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Judaism’?” or “What do Christians mean by ‘being saved’?”. We met once a month for nine months. I saw significant progress among the Christians as they understood more about Jewish perspectives. Jewish partners had an opportunity to hear the Gospel, to the point that the one practicing Judaism said, “It seems that Jesus is the Messiah.” To my knowledge, none of the Jewish partners have professed faith in Messiah Jesus—yet.
- Make it safe. Evangelicals can be all too eager to impart Jesus’ story and gospel content when the question has never been asked. Yet as we have seen, Jewish Millennials are eager to talk about their spiritual views and are open to listen. Here are some pointers on making a conversation safe:
- Listen carefully. Only answer questions that are asked and do it with an appropriate amount of content. You are listening to someone who is trying to find their way to the truth. That is a privilege and method that Jesus modeled.
- Jewish Millennials don’t want to be told what to believe any more than anyone else does. And the kids from Jewish-Gentile families come from a complex and confusing experience. It may have been extraordinarily difficult for their parents to find any kind of spiritual harmony in their home. Until they find a home in truth, they are likely to be uncertain and feel vulnerable. That is a sacred trust to be respected; do not judge them or their ideas.
- Live within your own spiritual connection with the Lord. Focus on the truth of your relationship with God. See John 17:3 for an example of “eternal life” explained as a relationship through Jesus. Remember, you aren’t responsible to “shape up” their beliefs as they are trying to find what is spiritually real.
- Don’t be in a hurry to make something happen. God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, reaches human hearts on his own timetable. Terrific spiritual conversations can happen over cups of coffee, inspirational walks or over a fun activity together. You might just be a signpost the Lord is using along his path to eternal life. All of this is a process. It takes time. So, keep it safe.
SUNDRY PRACTICAL TAKEAWAYS
Finally, we have the perspective of another Baby Boomer, Susan Perlman, who serves as Communications Director for Jews for Jesus. She gives these additional practical takeaways. Some of these expand on principles described earlier.
- Engage in hospitality as the most basic setting for having spiritual conversations. Make your home a space where Millennials feel comfortable to hang out. Make your dinner table a place for spiritual dialogue. Make yourself open to others and God will use you in amazing ways.
- Be prepared for crisis moments in a Millennial’s life. It could be a broken relationship, a family issue, a career shift. Identity the burning platform: What is the motivating factor—a life event, a crisis in belief—that is propelling them to have a conversation with you that will cause them to affiliate.
- Allow for belonging before believing. Many of our efforts are focused on getting people to believe but we need to do more to give people a way to belong. We need to come up with creative ways of making this happen. For example, at our Moishe Rosen Center in Tel Aviv, Israel, we have held art shows, garage sales, and photography exhibits in which many local residents of the Florentine neighborhood participated. One of our events, that we have held annually for the past few years, is called India through the Eyes of the Traveler. In this exhibit, Israelis who backpacked to India displayed their photographs, enjoyed the hospitality of our Center, and often engaged in gospel conversations with our staff. Our Center has become known as an event space which allows the community to belong without first believing. What kind of event might you have in your community using a space that is welcoming?
- Consider using the wisdom literature of the Bible as a doorway. While apologetics (making the case for the gospel) certainly has its place, we need to recognize that for Millennials, being Jewish is a path to finding meaning and connectedness. That’s why some of the most important literature for Jewish Millennials today is the wisdom literature in the Tanach. These are the books that speak of the practical side of life, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes chapters 11 and 12 on ambition, “Young person, when you’re young think about what it means to be young.” Or Lamentations can help as we look at the horrific events of our day and seek ways to publically lament and express deep sorrow. The Song of Songs speaks to sexuality. And Proverbs is the original Twitter. This literature could be a entry point. Only through a truth outside of ourselves can we understand what it is to right-size our ambition. Through the wisdom literature of the Bible, you can be introducing them to the decoder ring for life.
- The gospel can be a way to help Millennials make choices. Millennials are immersed in a society with a myriad of opportunities. They are debilitated by having too many choices, fear of marrying the wrong person, getting the wrong degree, etc. So there is a whole theology of how God allows us to make choices. There are rich Jewish traditions to tap into. Biblical faith involves a covenant which is different than just a choice. It is much more binding and perhaps more restricting to Millennials. Therefore, believing and committing to God’s perspective on truth is difficult for all of us and especially in this moment in time. Our challenge will be in motivating Millennials to embrace this option.
- Use storytelling/narrative. We can carefully challenge assumptions while being creative and affirming. One way is through storytelling. Jesus did this: “to him that has ears let him hear.” The widespread use of storytelling podcasts is an example of how interested people are in narrative. Believers have a story. What are we doing to craft it in a way that allows the truth of God to come through to others who need him, including Jewish Millennials?
For more resources, please contact: [email protected]
 These numbers are based on the “List of Incidents of Civil Unrest in the United States,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_incidents_of_civil_unrest_in_the_United_States.
 A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS (2013), www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/.
 Theodore Sasson, “Pew Data Shows Children of Intermarriage Still Identify as Jews,” Tablet Magazine (November 11, 2013), www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/151506/young-jews-opt-in.
 Wayne Firestone, Mark J. Penn, “Op-Ed: Jewish Millennials Are Showing Increased Attachments,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (August 15, 2012), www.jta.org/2012/08/15/life-religion/op-ed-jewish-millennials-are-showing-increased-attachments.
 Anna Greenberg, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam …”: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices (New York: Reboot ), research.policyarchive.org/14576.pdf.
 Theodore Sasson et al., Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement (Waltham, MA: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2015), www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/pdfs/intermarriage/MillennialChildrenIntermarriage1.pdf.
 Ecclesiastes 1:4a and 9.
 “Pew Research Center 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews Final Questionnaire” (February 15, 2013), www.pewforum.org/files/2013/10/Pew-Research-Jewish-American-Questionnaire-2013.pdf.
 Greenberg, “Grande Soy Vanilla,” 7. Cited in Barna, 18 and 100, n. 18.
 In English translations; verse 12 in the Hebrew.—Ed.
 Various surveys also give figures of 14 million up to 16 million.—Ed.
 It would be interesting to see how much of this is a correlation of generational differences per se vs. stage of life. In other words, were Boomers and Elders also interested in faith matters when they were the same age as current Millennials? Did interest decline as they aged?—Ed.
 This may be even truer of the generation succeeding the Millennials, many of whom have experienced digital immersion from their earliest childhood.
 Daniel Judah Elazar, Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry, revised ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), 107.
 Boston Rabbi Jonina Pritzker explains, “The Land of Israel is the Jewish national homeland: the history, faith, religion, culture and identity of the Jewish people have always been tied to this land which bears our name … this is the land of our ancestors, the heritage of our children.” Jonina Pritzker, “How Can I Explain Why Israel Is Important to the Jewish People?,” Jewish Boston (June 13, 2012), www.jewishboston.com/how-can-i-explain-why-israel-is-important-to-the-jewish-people/.
 2000 National Survey of American Jews (New York, NY: American Jewish Committee, 2000), 2. www.jewishdatabank.org/Studies/details.cfm?StudyID=495.
 A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 82.
 Cited in Jacob B. Ukeles, Ron Miller, and Pearl Beck, Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today (New York, NY: The American Jewish Committee, 2006), 35. www.jewishdatabank.org/Studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=2940.
 Steven M. Cohen, Ari Y. Kelman, Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel (The Jewish Identity Project of Reboot, 2007), 2, www.issuelab.org/resource/beyond-distancing-young-adult-american-jews-and-their-alienation-from-israel.html.
 Ibid., 2-3
 Lewis, Sinclair, It Can’t Happen Here (New York, NY: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1935).
 Greenberg, “Grande Soy Vanilla,” 7.
 Cohen and Kelman, Beyond Distancing, 3.
 Greenberg, “Grande Soy Vanilla,” 7.
 Cohen and Kelman, Beyond Distancing, 3.
 Steven M. Cohen, Ari Y. Kelman, The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives (New York: 21/64, n.d.), 44. 2164.net/resources/the-continuity-of-discontinuity-how-young-jews-are-connecting-creating-and-organizing-their-own-jewish-lives/.
 Elsewhere Stan Meyer points us to Cohen and Kelman, Beyond Distancing, 20, for a birth-cohort view, and Theodore Sasson et al., Still Connected: American Jewish Attitudes about Israel (Waltham, MA: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2010) for a life-cycle view. In addition, the Birthright program, a subsidized program that allows young adults between 18–26 to experience Israel, has deepened attachment to Israel among many Millennials; see Leonard Saxe et al., Evaluating Birthright Israel: Long-Term Impact and Recent Findings, (Waltham, MA: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2004). www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/pdfs/evaluatingbri.04.pdf.
 ““Palestinian BDS National Committee,” bdsmovement.net/bnc. Members of the BDS movement have also protested or banned visiting scholars, pressured administrations to cease business relations with Israeli companies and universities, and refused to buy Israeli technology. The movement has fueled public demonstrations on college campuses and made inroads into many sectors of college life.
 Green, Emma, “Why Do Black Activists Care About Palestine?” The Atlantic (August 18, 2016). www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/why-did-black-american-activists-start-caring-about-palestine/496088/.
 Kestenbaum, Sam, “Jewish Allies Condemn Black Lives Matter’s ‘Apartheid’ Platform,” The Forward (August 4, 2016). forward.com/news/346828/jewish-allies-condemn-black-lives-matters-apartheid-platform/. See also Brianne Garrett, “Jewish Students Battle Rising Anti-Semitism on Campus,” USA Today College (November 3, 2016). college.usatoday.com/2016/11/03/jewish-students-battle-rising-anti-semitism-on-campus/.
 Eric Alterman, “The B.D.S. Movement and Anti-Semitism on Campus,” The New York Times (March 29, 2016). www.nytimes.com/2016/03/29/opinion/the-bds-movement-and-anti-semitism-on-campus.html.
 Garrett, “Jewish Students Battle Rising Anti-Semitism on Campus.”
 Gabriel Goldstein, “I Was the Pro-Israel Poster Boy at Brandeis — Here’s Why I Quit,” The Forward (March 14, 2016), forward.com/opinion/335801/i-was-the-pro-israel-poster-boy-at-brandeis-heres-why-i-quit/.
 Sarah Anne Minkin, “Fear, Fantasy, and Family: Israel’s Significance to American Jews.” Doctoral dissertation (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2014), p. 36. digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/etd/ucb/text/Minkin_berkeley_0028E_14403.pdf.
 See the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), which showed that the rate of Jewish intermarriage had reached 52%. The 2000/2001 NJPS showed that the trend had continued.
 Again, one might ask to what extent factors such as desire for “community” reflects a generational or rather a stage-of-life distinctive. Did twenty-something Boomers, for example, value “community” as much or in the same way?—Ed.
 The Barna survey found that 37% of all Jewish Millennials identified with no Jewish denomination or something other than Judaism. The Pew Research Center study on American Jewish life in 2013 coined the term “Nones” for that same group. Pew reported an even higher 59% disaffiliation rate.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich has been on staff since 1978. He has served at several Jews for Jesus branches and was a pianist and songwriter with their music team, the Liberated Wailing Wall. He is now at the San Francisco headquarters, where he conducts research, writes and edits as the senior researcher. He is author of the books Christ in the Sabbath and The Day Jesus Did Tikkun Olam: Jewish Values and the New Testament, and co-author of Christ in the Feast of Pentecost. Rich received his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1978 and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.