Why Orthodox Judaism Appeals to Many Millennials

Josh Furman at a havdalah ceremony in Houston (Michael Starghill Jr.)
Josh Furman at a havdalah ceremony in Houston (Michael Starghill Jr.)

Young Americans might be leaving religion in large numbers, but for some, rules, ritual, and tradition are attractive ways to find meaning in daily life.

On a typical Friday night in Houston, many young people are out drinking at bars or curled up watching Netflix, grateful to be done with the obligations of the workweek. But in a few Houston homes, Jews in their 20s and 30s have opted to fill these evenings with a different kind of obligation: strictly observing Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath. This means no texting, no music, no use of electronics, no driving, no meeting last-minute deadlines, no carrying objects outside of a few hundred square yards. It is a choice to embrace ritual over leisure, a sacrifice of freedom in behavior, diet, and dress for an ancient set of rules.

On its face, this seems like a generation-defying choice. Young Americans are moving away from traditional religious observance in large numbers, and Jews are no exception. Roughly a third of Jews born after 1980 think of their Judaism as a matter of identity or ancestry, rather than as a religion, according to Pew.

But even the young Jews who gravitate toward Orthodoxy, rather than away from it, are still making individual choices about their beliefs and practices, picking among rituals and crafting lifestyles that fit their environments. And rules and rituals seem to have appeal. A greater proportion of Jews in their 20s and early 30s identify as Orthodox than do Jews over the age of 50; the opposite is true of every other Jewish movement. Many of these young people were likely raised Orthodox and have chosen to keep the traditions of their upbringing. But a small portion are baalei teshuva, a Jewish concept drawn from the Hebrew word for “return”: it denotes those who have become Orthodox as a way of “returning” to God. Like the rest of their generation, they are largely nonconformists—just traditionally minded, rule-bound nonconformists.

It takes particular chutzpah to choose Orthodoxy in the context of what one might call the “deep diaspora”—places like Houston, Texas, which has a long-standing and vibrant Jewish community but also sits squarely in the Bible Belt. In large, coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles, Jewish life is ambient and available; a slide toward ritual may well help young people fit in with a cultural community. But in a place filled with mega-churches and immigrants from all over the globe, Orthodox Judaism isn’t something young people slide into. It is an active choice.

The sprawling city of Houston has a large Jewish population sorted by highways and suburbs: Since it can take so long to drive from one side of the city to the other, geography often dictates what kind of Jewish life is accessible. Many Orthodox Jews live in one of two pockets in the Meyerland neighborhood. The more strictly observant synagogues are located to the southwest, where members often adhere to the codes of behavior and dress—wigs for women, black hats and visible shirt fringes for men—that one might find in a place like Borough Park in New York. A modern Orthodox synagogue lies on the other side of the interstate to the northeast. If you met its young congregants on the street, they might seem like any other Houstonians—they wear American-style clothes, lots of women leave their hair uncovered, and many have jobs in medicine or oil and gas. But the choices they’ve made about how to live—like keeping kosher homes, largely observing the rules of the Sabbath, and moving into homes within walking distance of a synagogue—define the patterns of their days and weeks and years. Although the members of this community would likely consider themselves observant, they’re also negotiating how that observance best fits into a distinctly American, secular world.

Young people don’t exactly dominate the modern Orthodox community in Houston, but a number of people under 35 attend services and live in the same handful of apartment buildings close to the synagogue, or shul. These Jews exist in a diaspora that’s not just geographical, but cultural: Their religious commitments put them fundamentally at odds with the values and habits of their generational peers. This difference is somewhat embedded within the term baal teshuva itself, which suggests that traditional observance is the only way of being with God. But these young, American baalei teshuva are offering their own spin on the concept. In picking and choosing the aspects of Orthodoxy that appeal to them, they are trying to reclaim not just traditional Judaism, but the kinds of communal rhythms and obligations that are so often missing from contemporary American culture.

Within a few months of moving to Texas from Washington, D.C., last summer, Josh Furman and Alisha Klapholz knew they wanted to start a new minyan, or prayer group. A lot of Jewish life in Houston is mediated through institutions, particularly when it comes to programs for young people: The Jewish Community Center runs Mishpacha & Me, a program for families with small children; Houston Hillel, which serves multiple college campuses and hosts city-wide events, runs a program called “Jewston,” which coordinates social outings for 20-somethings. There aren’t a lot of grassroots, independent groups, especially not for prayer, said Elise Passy, who until recently was the coordinator of an organization called Big Tent Judaism. This is part of “the conservative, with a small ‘c,’ nature of Houston,” she said; people tend to gravitate toward the institutions they’re used to.

Minyan Kochav defies that tendency. The group meets in various people’s houses on Friday nights for Kabbalat Shabbat, the songs and prayers that formally welcome in the Sabbath. It’s a lay-led, egalitarian group, meaning there’s no rabbi, women and men sit together, and women are allowed to lead the prayers. Nevertheless, the environment is designed for people who keep a strict Shabbat observance: No instruments are played, and cellphones stay hidden and turned off. On a Friday night in March, the Furman-Klapholz family hosted about a dozen adults and a few joyful children in their tiny apartment. Women lit candles, cutting arcs in the air with their hands as they moved to cover their eyes. Fresh-baked challah laid waiting on the counter for dinner, next to rows of casserole dishes filled with kosher food. Men and women belted the Hebrew of the psalms, with melodies alternately mournful and full of rhythmic, sing-song patterns. No one used English, and everyone followed along from a different book; Klapholz called it “varsity-level davening,” a Yiddish word for praying.

Lay-led, independent minyans are increasingly common in big cities like New York; Furman and Klapholz said they intentionally modeled their new group on communities they had been part of when they lived in D.C. This isn’t to say they’ve given up on institutional Jewish life in Houston. Most Saturdays, they attend services at two different synagogues near their apartment—when they first started dating, it was modern Orthodox for her, Conservative for him, but now they often go together. “We didn’t create Minyan Kochav because we thought the Jewish community is moribund,” said Furman, who is 34. They were seeking to create a certain kind of spiritual prayer experience: something smaller, more communal, and more personal than a synagogue, with a focus on singing. “The fact that this has come together so quickly speaks to the health of the Jewish community here,” said Klapholz, who is 35.

There are a lot of synagogues in Houston. Unsurprisingly, some of them are facing the same problems that are troubling Jewish communities across the country: aging congregations, costly infrastructure, and an upcoming generation that’s making far less money than their parents did. But while independent minyans don’t carry the costs of a staff or a building, they aren’t a true replacement for synagogue affiliation. “The older model is that the couple has kids and then they need the synagogue to send the kids to get a Jewish education, to get Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or whatever,” Furman said. “We have no designs to turn Minyan Kochav into that kind of institution.”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Emma Green

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