TOMS is a classic example of my generation. For every pair of their shoes you buy, they give a pair to someone living in poverty. It’s a win-win! Do something good for the world and in exchange become a proud owner of trendy footwear! Not to mention that when you wear your new canvas kicks, everybody will know how ethically conscious you are. The success of the wildly popular brand has spawned so many copy cats that its “one for one” marketing model is now considered the holy grail of selling both products and charitable causes to a massive demographic. Millennials are over shoes. We want shoes with benefits.
Generation Y: we’ve been called “Generation Me” for our emphasis on individualism and “Generation Why” for our ability to question convention in any form. We want to create community and drive social change simultaneously, but what really gets us off the couch is extrinsic motivation.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a self-hating millennial; self-deprecation is part of our shtick. But when a third of Jewish Americans born after 1980 describe themselves as having no religion1, I can’t help but wonder how many of us will make an appearance at temple or synagogue for the High Holidays this year. Before we RSVP, we want to know what we are going to get in exchange for the pleasure of our presence.
Rosh Hashanah is an easier sell. The key is to arrive late and sneak a seat in the back so you can most easily scope out the other Jewish singles who will soon all be in the same room lined up in neat and convenient rows for such a time as this. Not to mention the back row puts you in the fast track for lox and bagels. But why show up for Yom Kippur? No food, no flirting, no payoff for your time. And for a generation raised on unlimited data, boredom is worse than death. Even if we do manage to shlep to services, there is no guarantee we will be engaged. In her article for Tablet titled, “High Holiday Services Are Boring. Here’s How We Can Fix Them,” Abigail Pogrebin observes “On the High Holidays, large numbers of American Reform and Conservative Jews are inert spectators, expecting clergy to sprinkle atonement like fairy dust,” and that “The clergy know that although a significant swath of worshipers reliably show up for the High Holidays, a large number of them check out even while they’re still in their seats.”2
One of Pogrebin’s solutions is for rabbis to try harder. But rabbis are already well aware that the detachment and indifference among young Jewish people has become the faith crisis of the twenty first century. And what’s at stake could be the very institution of American Judaism. Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Daily Forward, is concerned that millennials are less likely to donate to Jewish charities, care strongly about Israel, or belong to Jewish groups. She says, "What worries me is their tenuous ties to the community."3
We really can’t deny it. As a generation we are bored with God. We are bored with the old way of doing things. Why go through a lengthy and time-consuming process of repentance? You can accomplish the same thing with a post on AtoneNet or eScapegoat, sites which invite visitors to anonymously share their transgressions. Rabbi Ruth Adar feels there are times when alternatives are more beneficial than traditional services. Writing about depression on her blog, Coffee Shop Rabbi, she says, “Pikuach Nefesh means ‘preservation of life.’ It trumps nearly every other commandment. . . . If that means going to the beach for your Yom Kippur ‘service,’ do it.”4 Increasingly, Jewish young people are finding liturgical services do not meet their spiritual needs, but many of us still have too much pride to not show up. Perhaps we feel that just saving face on this one day a year is enough. In the words of Pogrebin, “Most seem to rationalize the minimal investment, saying, ‘I bought my ticket, went to shul, confessed my mistakes, and vowed to do better. Dayenu.’”5
It’s the TOMS conundrum on a spiritual level. We are consumers of a ritualistic experience and in exchange we get to put a check mark in our religion boxes. The downside is that you can’t connect to God if you are playing Candy Crush during Kol Nidre. But the real question is, do you want to connect? When it comes to repentance many of us would just rather not go there.
The Day of Atonement cuts to the heart of our generation’s central question about faith. The Baby Boomers wanted to know where was God when everything fell apart. Millennials want to know what gives God the right to judge us. In the words of a college freshman I recently spoke with: “Why does God care so much about what we do? It’s like He’s obsessed with us!” If this is your view of God, then why go through the motions of confession? Why give in to His co-dependent demands? After all, we wouldn’t want to put ourselves in an unhealthy role as enablers of divine narcissism.
While the success of TOMS might reveal the self-centered underbelly of the generation coming of age in the twenty-first century, it also points to something even more interesting. TOMS proved that millennials will be fiercely loyal to a brand if we see their product as part of a larger story. And Jewish identity is no different. But when the break the fast is over, so is the extent of our experience; it’s no wonder we’ve lost interest.
The fasting and prayers of Yom Kippur are part of a much grander narrative. In the Bible this holy day is called “a day of covering,” referring to the animal sacrifices that covered the sins of the people, weaving together a motif that began in Eden. God provided a covering for Adam and Eve, He provided an alternative sacrifice for the life of Isaac, and He provided the Passover lamb for first born sons of Israel. Ultimately, He provided Yeshua (Jesus), the incarnation of His very nature, to supply a sacrifice that would cover sin and shame for all time. In the words of the Brit Hadashah (New Covenant), God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On Yom Kippur we stand before God naked. He’s not judging. He’s offering a covering, and it’s ours to accept or reject.
So here’s my challenge to my fellow millennials (and everyone) for these High Holidays. Read the story. Approach the words of the Tanakh and the Brit Hadashah with an open heart and a willingness to consider that the idea of God you have in your mind might be skewed. You won’t get an Instagrammable product in exchange for this investment in your soul, but perhaps Yom Kippur will become much more to you than an obligation. It might even become your story.
1. A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
2. Abigail Pogrebin, Tablet, August 27, 2013, http://tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/142250/boring-high-holiday-services
3. Daniel Burke, “Study: American Jews Losing Their Religion,” CNN Belief Blog, October 1, 2013, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/10/01/study-american-jews-losing-their-religion/comment-page-17/
4. Rabbi Ruth Adar, “Yom Kippur and Depression,” http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2013/09/12/yom-kippur-and-depression
5. Pogrebin, op. cit.