HomeDecember 2011Challenges & Opportunities

Challenges & Opportunities

“Free agent” is a term used commonly in sports to describe a player who has opportunities to venture from one team to another for personal or financial benefit.  Jewish life also has free agents.  The singles, twenty- and thirty-somethings of our community, possess the power to prioritize Jewish events on their calendars and veto others.  Likewise, singles between the ages of twenty and forty are able to pick which synagogue they attend.
Nefesh Minyan, a Jewish Federation & Family Services-sponsored Shabbat and grassroots start-up independent minyan, was created to gather these free agents within the community and give them an outlet to celebrate Shabbat.  There are no membership dues, and food is provided after the service.
This program has become a success within the Young Leadership Division (YLD) and JewGlue community.  (JewGlue is a portion of YLD aimed at 21- to 35-year-olds.)  Seventy or more people — both single Jews and young families — attend each Nefesh Minyan Shabbat.  The atmosphere is warm and friendly.
Unfortunately, Nefesh Minyan services are not provided weekly.  The quandary Nefesh Minyan has is that it is running out of space and needs to find larger venues to house the many vibrant community members seeking meaningful Jewish experiences in a peer-based setting.
While Nefesh Minyan’s growth is forcing it to relocate, synagogues are not filling their services on Friday nights.  As a community, we must ask, “Why is a grassroots effort so successful when we have a strong variety of more than 30 synagogues already established in Orange County?”  This question has large-scale national implications.
Free agents, being singles or young families, do not have buy-in with a synagogue for a variety of reasons.  Children, spouses, membership dues and other variables are just not a factor in making a decision to show up to a Shabbat service.  People in their twenties, and into their forties, want to establish meaningful connections with friends and likeminded people.  It is not to say that synagogues have nothing to offer free agents.  They do!
Synagogues must understand that their model is not effectively embracing these particular demographics.  How are unaffiliated Jews supposed to afford membership fees when they are unemployed or lacking capital?  What outreach is being done?  According to Chanie Cohen Kirschner’s article, “Can You Afford to be Jewish,” Professor Emeritus Gerald Bubis of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College estimates that American Jewish families utilize approximately $25,000 to $35,000 a year of flexible income for: synagogue membership, Jewish Community Center membership, Jewish summer camps and religious education.  With today’s struggling economy and new families emerging without financial security, it is impossible for families to part with such large sums.
As an active participant in the community, I have never met a synagogue member or rabbi who has sent someone away because of money.  However, I do not see these figures sending materials to the organizations that do attract this demographic, nor do I see figures from the community attending events and engaging with this population on a consistent basis.
Nefesh Minyan is a testament to the reality that OC’s free agents are looking for social and spiritual connections; they are willing to postpone wild Friday night ventures to express their Judaism.  The grassroots model is popping up all over the country, and while synagogues struggle for new membership, these small groups are flourishing.
Free agents are the next Jewish big hitters, otherwise identified as major stakeholders in the community.  They are aging, largely unaffiliated and contain a zest for Jewish life without the attachment that their parents had to brick-and-mortar synagogues.
The potentially profound effect this demographic has on Orange County’s Jewish community is immeasurable.  As a part of this demographic, I know we are those with children in preschool, the next board members for social and philanthropic organizations.  We are businessmen and women, we use technology differently than those before us and we find community important.  Synagogues should identify grassroots models and use them as pools for their next legacy.
Nefesh Minyan is successful because it finds people like me on Facebook and via e-mail; I did not search for Nefesh Minyan.  It searched for me.


  1. It’s such a pleasure to read about independent minyanim. I am a firm believer that the Jewish world should embrace alternative models, not because it’s inherently better, but because it’s better for SO MANY PEOPLE.

  2. This is a fantastic article and very insightful. Being a memeber of this demographic and also being a very involved individulal in my Jewish community I hope this article will attract the attention of current leadership within Synagogues . It is vital for us to engage this younger demographic for us as a people to continue. Rachel Schiff brings up a very strong point that it’s hard to afford to be Jewish with membership, Community events, and even High Holiday tickets and the economy that we’re currently in.

    I would really like this article to spark the direction of synagogue’s attention to engage their younger demographics.

  3. It’s a very interesting point, that synagogues could/should benefit from the technology trends. It would be very useful in helping them find new members or congregation participants by establishing a presence in the internet social world. On tools like Facebook, they can promote their events using web advertising specifically targeted to local Jews, and maintain interest and awareness of activities using tools like Facebook groups.

  4. Very true. My son is enrolled in the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, CA. As a non-religious family I take comfort knowing he is getting an early start in his Jewish faith and is surrounded by peers and families with the same goal. I had to choose to put my monthly synagogue dues into my son’s early education as we can’t afford both.


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