Point-CounterPoint: Youth Friendly? Why Not Just Plain Friendly?

POINT: By Leon Adato

I had the good luck to grow up with Lee Unkrich, who’s been at Pixar since (just about) the beginning. He and I have talked about how the “traditional animation studios” complain that nobody wants to see regular old animated movies any more, they all want CGI.  Lee argues (and I agree) that this is utter hogwash. Movie-goers just want a good story. It can be hand-drawn, CGI, mixed media, live action, or sock-puppets. Give people an engaging narrative, Lee assured me, and they will come to the theater.

Why am I telling you this? Because synagogues may be making the same mistake.

Recently, the URJ advertised a course (an online “webinar”, no less) on how to build a youth-friendly congregation” (“What Does a Youth-Friendly Congregation Look Like?“).

I’m skeptical, because I’ve heard and read a lot about this subject in the last few years (being an IT professional AND fairly active with a few synagogues in my area). The discussion takes many forms, from how to make a service more “hip” or “relevant” to ways to use “social media” (which is really just code for “How to get people to click “like” on your Facebook fan page”).

I think these efforts are not only doomed to failure, and not only a waste of effort and resources, but also are completely missing the point. Just as in Lee Unkrich’s comment about movies, people are simply looking for a good story. In the case of a congregation, they are looking for a compelling narrative – a narrative where they can envision themselves as playing a part.

You don’t make a congregation more “youth friendly” by running down a list of check boxes, any more than you can make a movie worth watching that way (“Hero viewers can identify with?” check. “Heart-stopping action sequence?” check. “Wholesome yet enticing love interest?” check….).

You don’t create a compelling Jewish community by building a website that auto-syncs the shul calendar to the visitor’s iPhone.

My real beef with this thinking is that it’s disingenuous from the very start. There is a huge gap between wanting a congregation which is just plain welcoming to everyone who comes through the doors and one which says “OK, let’s go after THAT demographic!”

As my friend Doug says: “It’s like the old quote by Jean Giraudoux. ‘The secret of success is sincerity.  Once you can fake that you’ve got it made’. All of the techniques to build a youth-friendly congregation are actually just ways to fake that you want a ‘youth friendly congregation’ – because otherwise you would already have it!”

Doug highlighted another flaw in the logic: “Do you REALLY want a youth friendly congregation?  Be prepared to be less comfortable yourself, particularly if you need to resort to webinars to figure out how to do that, because you are, obviously, not part of the youth culture yourself and, if you succeed, will create a community where they will be comfortable and you will not.”

Changing your congregation – or even building a programming track for a sub-community – that is specifically for one demographic has the built-in pitfall of being, almost by it’s definition, NOT appropriate for other sub-groups within your organization. Sometimes this is normal, natural and organic. Your “Tot-Shabbat” program is pretty much self-explanatory and doesn’t include the “hip single 20-somethings”; and even a group as all-encompassing as a Temple Sisterhood has easily recognizable and logical limits (ie: no guys). But beyond those examples, why build boundaries where there don’t need to be any?

“Making your congregation more youth-friendly” falls into the trap identified by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman in his book Rethinking Synagogues , where he says

“I charge synagogues with being a market, not a sacred community; hewing to an ethnic and corporate model that was outmoded twenty years ago; and pursuing an atomistic existence (as if they need not collaborate with each other or with other Jewish organizations).”

What I’m getting at is this: I don’t want to see synagogues waste precious time and resources building a “youth-friendly” environment. Or a “singles-friendly” environment. Or an “old-fart-friendly” environment. I am also not advocating being “friendly to all” because – while it’s a good goal – it’s far too vague to be acted upon and, as Rabbi Hoffman points out,

“…despite the claims of the regulars, synagogues are by and large neither welcoming nor warm;…”

Instead, I would like to see congregations put effort into removing elements that make them youth-hostile (or singles-un-friendly, or old-fart-exclusionist). That’s not the same thing as being friendly to a specific group, either. In removing un-friendly barriers, you haven’t STOPPED doing what was good and successful for the core existing group (unless part of that success was in excluding other folks, in which case we need to have a talk.). And once the barriers are removed, you can use some means (yes, that can include whiz-bang internet tools like niTwit and MyFace) to let youth know that they are, at least, not unwelcome…in fact, would be welcomed into the community…on their own terms, as a human who has to bend a little to the others in the community, but not be broken in the process. Just as the OTHER members of the community are going to have to bend (enough with the complaining about the kids with piercings already, Mildred!) but without being forced to break.

As The Rebbetzin says, “Offering people a way to participate that is meaningful to them is the key to building membership. Then use social media to keep them connected.”

So my advice? Skip the webinar and just take a walk around your organization (whether that’s a building, a website, a mission statement, or a weekly service). Look at it like you really mean it; look at it like you want to see what it REALLY is, rather than just what you remember it was or wish it was or believe it is in your heart if only other people could see it the way you do.

Instead, YOU see it the way THEY do.

And then be prepared to start breaking down a few walls.

COUNTERPOINT: By Rabbi Susan Stone

Let me start off by saying that I really like kids.  A lot.  I especially like them when they are running through the halls at temple or boarding buses at 5:00 a.m. on their way to youth group events in distant cities.

More about them in a minute.

So, here I am in mid October.  I am sitting at my desk after a morning of hospital visitation and lunch with an old friend.  (He’s less impressed with my being a rabbi than those in the congregation I serve. It is a good thing.)  I’m typing this while waiting for a conference call to begin.  The bat mitzvah family just changed their 6:45 pm appointment to 5:00.  It means that my son and I can grab dinner before the 7:30 mikveh association meeting.

It’s a good thing that our Executive Director and office manager have been in the building to get the letter from the chair of the Women’s Committee that I need to edit to go with the baskets they send to our newest members on Chanukah.

But back to the conference call – it is my second one this week.  The first was a study of texts from the Qu’ran.  This one is a gathering of rabbis who are working in interim situations.  We are meeting with a coach from the Interim Ministers Network – a minister with extensive experience in what is an emerging field in Jewish life.

Elsewhere in the building, the Educator is following up on children who haven’t shown up for Sunday School yet this year.  The Family Educator is working on logistics for the 8th grade Shul-In (overnight program) with her counterpart from another congregation down the street.  They both need to remind the students that there will be no class on October 31st so the teachers can attend an in-service program they designed.

The custodian is occupied with the landscapers, trying to get ready for winter and installing the new plantings donated by congregants in memory of a beloved parent. We really want to get those in the ground before winter – they hide the gas well which was drilled last year.  The Board negotiated that contract and we hope it will provide the Temple with some income.  One of the groups which rent space from us during the day is packing up; my guess is that they’ll be back next week.

Now that I’ve laid out all of that, I’ll get back to the issue at hand: why I think it is great – and not insincere or disingenuous – that congregations build youth-friendly environments.

We need youth-friendly environments because my son will only watch Dancing With the Stars when Kurt Warner is on.  We need a youth-friendly environment because teenage girls won’t shop in the same stores as their mothers. And I will go a step further – I think it is great that there is a seminar of building a youth-friendly environment in a congregation BUT it doesn’t go far enough.  I want a youth-friendly department because teenagers do get obnoxious and other people’s adorable children mispronouncing the Sh’ma while trying to lead services is only cute the first twenty three times.

But that is not all.  Leon claims he’s skeptical.  He should be.  And it is true that,

“You don’t make a congregation more “youth friendly” by running down a list of check boxes, any more than you can make a movie worth watching that way (“Hero viewers can identify with?” check. “Heart-stopping action sequence?” check. “Wholesome yet enticing love interest?” check….).”

But he misses the point.  Sometimes it has to be about checklists and clumsy use of social media – and artificiality and even insincerity.  And yes, it is going to make people uncomfortable.

Actually, I hope people are made incredibly uncomfortable.  I want our longest time members to wonder what is becoming of “their” congregation. I want them to complain a lot and then I want them to stop and watch what is happening and I want them to be glad.  And then I want them to still attend those functions and services and activities that they have loved for the last 50 years (and 50 more, please God).

And then I want them to realize that being youth-friendly isn’t as good as just being friendly.

Do I wish we didn’t have to do this?  I do – I wish we could build Leon’s utopia.  But plants need to be planted and conference calls endured and visits made and programs planned.  So much of the business of running a congregation is business.  I acknowledge that people needing to be met where they are is more important that gas wells (unless you want to pay the bills on time). I also acknowledge that we live in a world that is trending toward increasingly personal attentions being paid in group settings.  Yes, we should work against it but while we are doing that we cannot ignore the trend either.   Our congregations need to be contemporary (while upholding ancient values of course). So, once again, we are called upon not to chose either/or but to do both/and: to serve our constituents and then make them uncomfortable about being so well served.  Then we can plant the bulbs, pray that the roof holds for another winter and mail the publicity.  Yes, we have to take temporizing measures and live in the real world – and also work and hope for better.

And I will still read the latest research and try new things and dream of bottom-up rebuilding.

Do I wish we were more perfect?  Of course I do.  I wish we could be holistic and inclusive and seamless and always engaging.  But our synagogues have been the homes for our souls and the one and only symbol of our endurance for many a century.  Let’s make them better – of course!  But let’s also celebrate the beauty that radiates from their imperfections every day of the year.

Rabbi Susan Stone leads Suburban Temple – Kol Ami in Cleveland Ohio. She has been a congregational Rabbi for over 25 years (having been ordained at the age of seven, of course). In her practically non-existent spare time she worries about her two sons. She also loves long walks on the beach, which are sadly in short supply in Cleveland.