Young Adults in the “Back to the 1930s” Scenario
What are the implications of this scenario for the system of engagement programs for young adults and college students that our community has been building over decades? How do this sector’s organizations fare in this alternative future? What new strategies are needed to succeed in that world?
We provided some tentative answers to these questions. Other observers and practitioners may provide their own or disagree with ours.
What assumptions and assets are no longer relevant in this scenario? What will change?
- Today, an estimated 80 percent of all American Jews go to college and have a campus experience. As a result, our engagement strategy relies heavily on campus organization and activities. In “Back to the ‘30s,” the assumption that most Jewish students will go to campus needs to be revised. Due to the long economic slump, many will not be able to afford college and those that can will prefer cheaper options, like commuter schools and community colleges. On top of that, online learning will become standard and most students will learn from home at some point in their studies. The top universities will still have many Jewish students, but on other campuses, organizations like Hillel will find themselves with empty buildings.
- We don’t tend to think of young adults as a population in need, but in “Back to the ‘30s” a substantial number of young people will need help for basic needs. Hillels may have fewer participants, but those participants will need more than Shabbat dinner; in fact, they’ll need dinner, period.
- The economic crisis means that more students live with their families, rather than in dorms or with their friends. In fact, there are more multi-generational households than before. The age of economic independence gets pushed further away.
- More and more young people rely on the Jewish community for jobs, internships and employment opportunities.
- Today, despite its recent growth, we assume that antisemitism is a marginal phenomenon. Despite high-profile incidents on some campuses, by and larger Jewish students and young adults don’t feel like targets of bigotry in their daily life. In “Back to the ‘30s” this changes, and antisemitism becomes a major concern of Jews and young adults.
- Travel continues to be severely restricted by both the virus and the economic crisis. The assumption that college-age Jews will travel – especially to Israel – is no longer relevant.
- The vast majority of young Jews today are politically aware but not politically active. We don’t assume that political activism is a serious competition to Jewish engagement. However, in this scenario of political upheaval, we will see two contradictory and simultaneous tendencies. Some young people will consider politics too “dangerous” and eschew them completely; others, maybe the majority, will become politically active and even radicalized.
- In a context of insecurity and upheaval, the Jewish community becomes more insular and protective. That attracts some young people but is a turnoff for many who dislike the parochialism of Jewish life.
- We assume the young to be more secular than their elders; however, in this scenario, religious studies may thrive as they provide a degree of peace and refuge from the outside world.
- The expectation of social mobility is dashed. Most young people in this scenario expect to do worse than their parents, and the value of “hard work” diminishes, because it doesn’t guarantee a better future. That produces a range of consequences; from political radicalization, to stress, to addiction and other self-destructive behavior, to cynicism and nihilism.
- In this scenario, aliyah, now assumed to be marginal behavior, becomes a possibility for many young Jews.
What opportunities arise for this communal system in the new scenario?
- This scenario restricts campus activities but allows organizations serving college-age Jews to do more community outreach. In this scenario, the community is the new campus.
- Student organizations can (and need to) partner with other Jewish organizations that expand their reach beyond campus.
- Since fewer people can afford college – and a college diploma doesn’t guarantee a better job – there’s a need and an opportunity to revive a robust network of Jewish vocational and professional schools. Accreditation and skill building can become gateways to Jewish community.
- This scenario could also present an opportunity for the revival of traditional “Jewish universities.” They’ll be havens from antisemitism, and, if they can provide tuition support, they’ll be a magnet for Jewish students.
- In a world in which young people can’t afford to live alone, organizations that provide communal living, like Moishe House, or “urban kibbutzim” offer a desirable alternative to living with families.
- Times of crisis are also times of spiritual quests and search for meaning. A religious revival, as we saw above, presents an opportunity for Jewish engagement. Seminaries may see an increase in enrollment.
- The long economic crisis will make it easier for the community to attract great professional talent, and the professional level of the communal human resources can increase.
- The community can now use “basic needs” as a driver of communal belonging. Young people may join if communities can offer practical solutions to their concrete problems, like finding a job or a place to live, or access to health insurance. There is an opportunity to revive many organizations that Jewish immigrants used in previous centuries.
- In a time of great upheaval, there’s an opportunity for Judaism to provide meaning and comfort. We may see a re-emergence of Jews championing global causes with a distinct Jewish message, like Rabbi A.J. Heschel.
- In parallel, security provides an avenue for engagement. Like in many European countries, the security organizations recruit volunteers and become “in” for young people.
- With online learning, there’s an opportunity to increase the quality and depth of Jewish education. Young people can remotely access the best scholars and teachers in the world, and the quality of Jewish content can increase.
- Global communities can develop online, across borders.
- Since aliyah has become an option for many, it can be an avenue for Jewish engagement.
What skills and competencies will be needed?
- To thrive in these scenarios our community will need to realign its skillset. Professionals and leaders will need to be skilled at pastoral care, as they’ll be required to provide social and emotional supports to constituents.
- In a community with economic challenges, local leaders won’t be able to offer all the programs and services needed. In that sense they’ll need to be more like “curators” guiding people to where the services they need can be found.
- Professionals will need the technical skills to help young people navigate concrete problems – like access to health benefits, legal issues, loan forgiveness, job retraining, etc.
- In a world in which young Jews are pulled between political activism and Jewish practice, communities will need to learn integration skills, to help students do both.
- Communal organizations working with young adults will need to be even more proficient in technology. They will need to be able to use tools, while also ensuring those tools reflect larger values around things like social media, privacy, civility, etc.
- Communities – and young people – will need more security skills.
- In a poorer world, there will be less room for duplication, so leaders will need to know how to cooperate and be synergistic across organizational boundaries.
- As young people in this scenario will be searching for meaning, professionals will need to be conversant in religious and philosophical issues. It won’t be enough to know religious practice, because young people will be asking transcendental and philosophical questions.
Which organizational architecture fares better in this scenario?
- In this scenario, consolidation of organizations becomes necessary. However, centralization will need to be “smart”, considering the diversity of interests of young Jews.
- A “network architecture” works well in this scenario, minimizing costs and maximizing access to services and programs.
- Models of membership will need to be revised, because many Jews won’t be able to afford dues.
- Big funders will gain prominence and influence. That may discourage democratic participation in organizational governance. As a result, organizations will need to create mechanisms of participation, especially for young people, that create a degree of democracy in Jewish organization.
- The role of “front-line” leaders (counselors, young rabbis, etc.) will be crucial, and organizations will need to find ways of providing the autonomy and resources to serve the changing needs of the constituents.
What do we need to do NOW to start preparing for this scenario?
The world in this scenario is different than the one we know. To succeed in this new world, there are actions that funders and communal organizations can take now.
- Provide organizations with support in scenario planning.
- Proactively look for synergies and possibilities for mergers and consolidations, and provide funds and technical support for these processes. This should start with a mapping of all organizations in this space to identify synergies, duplications and gaps.
- Create a “map of need” of young Jews, with the goal of identifying human services needs, such as food insecurity, housing insecurity, psychological and other health risks, etc.
- Learn from models that combine Jewish communal activity with job and career development; for example, the Detroit model of support for young Jewish professionals or the Ariel Job Center in Argentina.
- Create new models of scholarships and tuition support, like city-wide scholarship funds.
- Establish programs for student loan forgiveness.
- Encourage students to borrow from Hebrew Free Loans instead of taking on predatory student debt.
- Make sure that the best talent in the community survives the wave of Covid layoffs.
- Create a database of the best professional resources – educators; counselors; speakers; consultants etc.
- Develop resources to support families.
- Create a skill development program to train communal professionals in the skills that this scenario requires.
- Fund the development of new business models, strategic and business plans for organizations.
- Anticipate the quest for meaning and increase the Jewish literacy of professionals and leaders.
- Beef up security organizations, including those that train young volunteers.
- Train professionals to make the most out of technological tools – beyond the Zoom meeting.
- Start recruiting pro-bono lawyers to assist young Jews in issues of benefit access; loans, tenant rights, etc.