(RNS) — When I was 18, I moved from Round Rock, Texas, to Greenwich Village to attend New York University, my dream school. My mom moved me into my dorm, which happened to be around the corner from the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. I wasn’t Jewish but had always been interested in the faith. So, knowing no one and desperate for connection, I walked into the center and told the first rabbi I met that while I wasn’t Jewish yet, I thought I wanted to be: Could he help me?
The rabbi, who I learned was a rabbinical intern, promptly recommended the Kabbalah Centre, a mystical group based in ancient Jewish wisdom but better known for its celebrity adherents and for mixing meditation and astrology. Mortified, I walked back to my dorm room, totally defeated.
But my attraction to Judaism was real, and after a year studying at NYU’s campus in Tel Aviv, I returned to New York, and a friend introduced me to some of the rabbis who led the Bronfman Center. They guided me through a rigorous conversion to Orthodox Judaism. These men were somehow able to balance my emotional and spiritual needs in a way that showed they cared about me, while communicating their love for Jewish law and practice.
That was 15 years ago. Today I have dedicated my professional life to developing Jewish leaders and building Jewish community, in part because I understand how important rabbis can be to young seekers.
My experience is reflected in a new report sponsored by Atra: Center for Rabbinic Innovation, which shares findings from a survey of 800 young Jewish adults in the United States, conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group in the fall of 2022.
The report, called the “Rabbi Effect,” is the first study in a generation to look at the relationship between 18- to 44-year-olds and rabbis of all Jewish denominations. These young people told the researchers that rabbis they had encountered had helped them feel more spiritually connected, more connected to a Jewish community and more comfortable and confident being Jewish.
In addition, 64% say a relationship with a rabbi is still important to them today. Most of those who said they don’t currently have a meaningful relationship with a rabbi expected that such a relationship will be important to them later.
It’s not surprising, then, that the survey also found that a large share of the adults in our study — 69% — have had an experience with a rabbi and overwhelmingly found those experiences to be positive, welcoming, friendly and knowledgeable. Almost all, 91%, said the interactions made them feel more positive about being Jewish; 90% said they felt more spiritually connected and 88% said it made them more confident and comfortable being Jewish.
Only 7% said they had a purely negative experience with a rabbi, usually reporting that the rabbi had been judgmental, rude or unhelpful or left them feeling disappointed, annoyed or uncomfortable. It’s important to note that positive experiences have a greater impact than negative ones.
The bad news in the report was that 40% of respondents said they have had difficulty finding a rabbi. Synagogues were seen as being too expensive or not accepting of young adults.
This all suggests that Jewish leaders should be working to enable more rabbis to meet young adults where they are — outside of synagogue walls. Rabbis are the portal to Judaism even for those who mistrust institutions. They understand what kind of Jewish experiences are meaningful to young people and understand what might make them feel they belong.
Meaningful encounters with rabbis may happen on college campuses, as happened for me. They happen through organizations like Base, which invites people into rabbis’ homes to share meals, learn Torah and develop stronger community connections. But it can and should happen everywhere that young adults hang out — in coffee shops and parks, bookstores and gyms.
Over the past month, we at Atra have been meeting with hundreds of rabbis, scholars and Jewish leaders to discuss the report’s findings and its implications. Many said the research confirms what they have observed in the field. They asked good questions about how the research should inform rabbinic training and what kinds of encounters with rabbis have the most positive impact. Are the most positive experiences with rabbis one-offs, or do they occur over time?
“Young people want leaders in their lives who relate to them, accept them, and who signal to them that it’s ok to be vulnerable, to be unsure of things in life,” said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, executive director of NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and one of the rabbis who stewarded my own Jewish involvement. “Now we need to figure out how to match as many rabbis as possible with as many young adults as possible to develop these meaningful relationships.”
Their lives and the Jewish people will be better served if we are able to do just that.
(Rebekah Tokatlilar is chief program officer of Atra: Center for Rabbinic Innovation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)