I imagine that many people nodded their heads as they read the findings in the 2009 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia indicating a graying population and a dearth of younger Jews. For me, it raised more questions than answers.
In the last year, I have met hundreds of young Jewish adults who have moved to Philadelphia. Some of these people are in graduate programs because of a tough job market, some have returned after finishing college, and an ever-growing bunch are escaping New York in search of a better quality of life.
Philadelphia's rich cultural scene, along with affordable rents, makes it a perfect place for people who are in between college and settling down. From my vantage point, the local young adult Jewish community seems to be increasing in population. Could it be that there is something like the opposite of a "graying effect" going on?
The recent population study was conducted by surveying only households with landlines, which may have resulted in a serious undercounting of young adults.
Recent studies show that more than 30 percent of adults aged 18-29 live in a household with no land-line telephone. Related socioeconomic markers suggest that this percentage could be much higher among Jewish young adults. Before we conclude that young adults are a disappearing breed, it behooves us to look for them in the right places, including on campuses, in the cultural and downtown districts of American cities, and in the vast conversation-scape of the social Internet.
I have the privilege of working with one of the largest cohorts of young Jewish adults in America — alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. There are now more than 100,000 post-college alumni of the program in the United States. About 30,000 of them are in the New York City area, and more than 4,000 are here in Philly.
In the past year-and-a-half, we have had nearly 2,000 post-college Jewish adults participate in our Birthright Israel NEXT programs locally, including Jewish learning events, home hospitality Shabbat meals, Israeli cultural activities and summer fun at the Jersey shore.
We try to communicate with this crowd through their own media channels. As a result, we have hundreds of local fans on Facebook and Twitter and Mila-4-Phone, our Hebrew flashcard iPhone app, which has been downloaded by nearly 2,000 people in less than a month. Nevertheless, we've found that the best way for us to stay in touch is through personal, face-to-face contact.
My colleagues in other cities often face turf issues, each organization vying for their share of often overlapping audiences. But here, these groups tend to cooperate with one another to achieve common goals.
For example, we have teamed up with the Collaborative and the Jewish Graduate Network of Hillel to produce Topics on Tap, an informal Jewish learning series held near Rittenhouse Square. We've run programs with local institutions like the Jewish Farm School, LimmudPhilly, the National Museum of American Jewish History and Kol Tzedek, and with the local branches of other national organizations like Chabad, Moishe House and Jewish National Fund.
I'm sure that synagogues, Jewish community centers and other entities are concerned about attracting the next wave of young Jewish families. But if we want them, we first need to reach people between 26 and 32, and help them find a relevant Jewish connection.
Adam Oded is the director of Birthright Israel NEXT in Philadelphia.