Report Urges Jewish Groups To Not Ignore Baby Boomers

We’ve heard a lot about the need for nonprofits to engage millennials—the generation born between 1979 and 1990—as a way to ensure their interest, not to mention ensure the long-term survival of the Jewish community. And it’s easy to understand why.  Millennials in the U.S. are nearly 33 million strong, and stand to inherit $40 trillion in the coming decades.

But a new study finds Jewish organizations that cater to millennials while giving short shrift to the three older adult generations may do so at their own peril.

That especially applies to Baby Boomers, who represent half of the active adult Jewish community, said David Elcott, co-founder of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform.

David Elcott“If we fail to find a way to engage Boomers as they move into their 50s, 60s, and 70s, that’s not a failure for Boomers, it’s a failure across the board,” said Elcott, left, during a recent JFN webinar with Stuart Himmelfarb, B3’s CEO and other co-founder. Elcott is the Henry and Marilyn Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership and Himmelfarb is a Senior Fellow, Faith-Based Civic Engagement, at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

B3 surveyed more than 12,500 people online drawn from the email lists of 55 U.S. Jewish organizations, including 40 local federations. In contrast to the Pew report, this survey was designed to focus on those considered more connected and engaged in Jewish communal life.

At the same time, Elcott warned, the Pew findings—such as a lower level of engagement with organized religion by millennials—cries out for the need for Jewish institutions to abandon age as a criterion for learning and leadership programs.

“Baby Boomers represent such a large part of the population that what they do and how they behave can represent the future of the Jewish community,” said Elcott. “When you look at the data you realize that a 10 percent drop in Baby Boomer membership could actually bankrupt synagogues across the country.”

The study found Jewish Boomers are:

  • More willing than generally assumed to volunteer, ranging from one-day projects and ongoing commitments to long-term immersive projects—even if they have never done so before.
  • Not necessarily moving away from their communities as they age, but many are dropping their membership in synagogues, JCCs, and Jewish organizations, despite the higher level of connection reflected in this sample.
  • More open to trying new things than commonly perceived. Many also indicated an interest in getting involved only when they are interested rather than making a longer-term commitment. Such episodic involvement is a rising trend across generations that affects many institutions, both within the Jewish and general communities.

“This is an unprecedented period of change and opportunity for Jewish life and Boomers in general,” Himmelfarb, right, said, “but it could also be a missed opportunity if new models of engagement are not developed.”Stuart Himmelfarb

While some of the study’s more striking findings involved Baby Boomers, it also provided insights about how other generations engage in Jewish life. In fact, the study found Boomers have more in common with subsequent generations than prior generations did to each other. That includes the fact that the Holocaust “while remaining the lead story for an overwhelming number of Jews, does not describe the experience of Jews in the U.S.,” especially the three post-war generations. Moreover, attitudes among post-war generations toward and allegiance to Israel are also changing—and, for many, waning.

Collectively across generations there is, among this connected sample, a strong commitment to a Jewish identity. But there is also dissatisfaction with Jewish institutions. Less than 20 percent are happy with their local Jewish federations and JCCs, while only one-third express “great satisfaction” with their synagogues.  And 21 percent of these “highly committed” Boomers have quit their synagogues or never joined.

Elcott said too many institutions either take their membership for granted or don’t do enough to hold onto—or adapt to the emerging needs of—older members who may have the most to contribute.

“Don’t think those who are in will stay in,” Elcott said. “And don’t think those who are out will stay out.”