The Jewish ‘Millennial’ identity crisis


While many practicing Jews celebrated the beginning of Passover this past Monday at sundown, in 2014, the meaning behind all of the matzo eating and story telling during Seder is as important as ever.

I may not be Jewish — I am a born and raised Catholic — but this year I have been mesmerized by the traditions that practicing Jews have passed on to the Millennial generation. These traditions not only carry the symbolism behind the history of the Jewish people, but also remind a new generation as to how important faith and family are — even when this sense of importance is skewed.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one in three Jewish Millennials, meaning they were born around the turn of the 21st century, say they are not practicing Jews, but identify themselves as either ethically or culturally Jewish. These numbers correlate equally with the changes the nation is experiencing as a whole, where 20 percent of the public consider themselves as not affiliated to a religion, the Pew report found.

Among Jews in the youngest generation — the Millennials — 68% identify as Jewish by religion while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish based on ethnicity, ancestry or culture. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue and one-fourth do not believe in God.

This is why many spiritual leaders and elders see the eight days of Passover as an opportunity to continue to engage the younger generation. This includes a growing number of young adults who are struggling with their faith due to the distractions of this day and age as well as apathy towards religion.

During the Seder, “One of the things you are always looking for in the Passover Seder is the youngest child. They are the ones who recite the (traditional) four questions,” said Eric Smitt, the president of Congregation Beth El, a conservative congregation in West Melbourne. These questions are the root as to why it is important to keep the Jewish faith alive, he pointed out.

Smitt said:

“The whole evening is a joyous moment that teaches and at the same time has a lot of symbolism. There is a lot of history and it’s very engaging. The most interesting thing that I see is the people who are coming in through a marriage. You find that the non-Jews are more involved and tend to be more religious than the Jewish person.”

This makes sense, after all, these non-Jews deliberately made the decision to convert to a religion in its entirety, and most likely have a newfound perspective of the value of religion and the traditions that come along with it.  Whereas young people who were born into the religion may find it more difficult or unnecessary to connect with their faith.

While the older generation’s concerns about the new wave of reform and non-practicing Jews are valid, many Millennials are discovering new ways to challenge, question, and adapt their religious beliefs and practices to fit in today’s progressive world.