Last Monday and Tuesday, I was in Chicago, attending a meeting of the Rabbinical Council for HUC-JIR.

I know. What’s HUC-JIR? 

It’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary. It trains rabbis, cantors, educators, non-profit communal leaders, and academics. It is the place that helped form my rabbinic identity, as well as Rabbi Shuval-Weiner’s, and Cantor Kohn’s cantorial identity. It is the place from which all the B’nai Jehudah rabbis have come. And some 15+ children of the congregation have gone to HUC-JIR to become rabbis and cantors, and lead or have led the Jewish people.

As we said thank you to Rabbi David Ellenson, for serving as President of HUC-JIR since 2001; and welcome Rabbi Aaron Pankin, the President-Elect, who will take the reins of the College-Institute in January, we spent considerable time contemplating the idea of “rabbinic formation.” The question before us was: “What are the key elements necessary to infuse into men and women, in order for them to emerge as rabbis (in the fullest sense of that term)? Is it a matter of XX courses from column A and XX courses from column B, mixed in with XX hours of practical experience? Or is it something more? And if so, what is that “more” that is needed?

Our conversation quickly morphed into one regard Jewish identity formation for all our emerging adults, not just those considering becoming rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal leaders. The challenges presented by the Pew Research study (which were echoes of the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys) are clear: The millennials (those born 1980-2000) are not joiners, are not defining themselves by traditional labels. Nor do they believe they should be judged or constrained by outside forces. In fact, when the issue was raised whether incoming rabbinic students should sign a commitment that they will only be in Jewish life-relationships, they could even understand why the question was being raised!

These adults – not all, but based on surveys, many – see Judaism as one of many avocations (not identity) they might pursue based on where their personal values and the interests/values of their particular communities intersect with Judaism. And they will do so in whatever way they find personal meaning, not being limited by history or traditions.

This new reality presents challenges to Judaism, which – at its core – is a communal, historical tradition. Throughout our 3500+ year journey, what has kept us together has been shared experiences, shared language, shared traditions, shared values. That which preserved us is exactly what millennials tend to reject…for them, it is all personal. 

What does all this mean? We really don’t know. Nor do we truly understand when/how the millennials step up to become the next Jewish leaders, nor how they will transform this heritage which will soon shepherd.

This Friday, I plan on speaking more about these changes and what the Reform movement, HUC-JIR, and B’nai Jehudah may do to plan for this new world of millennial Judaism!