The Jewish festival of Purim, celebrated this week, is a time for kids to don costumes, enjoy a slice of Jewish history and share traditional foods with their families. Such intergenerational gatherings are coveted by faith leaders, many grappling with a growing trend — age segregation in their houses of worship.
"We have six generations of people alive today, and we don't have a playbook for them to meet and be part of one another's lives," said Hayim Herring, a St. Louis Park rabbi, consultant and author of the forthcoming book "Connecting Generations."
"We're probably living in one of the most age-segregated societies," he said. "How do we make it [blending generations] normative again?"
While the trend of age segregation is occurring across society — from housing to the workplace — religious institutions are in a unique position to blend generations, he said.
"I can't think of another institution with access to multiple generations over a long period of time," Herring said.
Age integration is not a new issue for synagogues and churches, but it is increasingly important as the age of people in the pews rises and the under-30 crowd thins. Nearly a third of millennial Jews and Christians report having no religion, according to the Pew Research Center. Creating meaningful connections among generations is one way to strengthen faith and deepen ties to religious communities, faith leaders say.
It can also offer personal support to both young and old alike, they said.
Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel in Minneapolis is among faith leaders pondering ways to bring generations together. This week, she smiled while watching costumed kids participate in her synagogue's Purim celebration that commemorates how the Jewish Queen Esther saved the Jews in ancient Persia from a plot to kill them.
Parents and grandparents watched from the pews as the children twirled noisemakers during key moments of the reading of the Queen Esther's story. The congregation's generations join together for such celebrations, she said, as well as for the Sabbath, for bar and bat mitzvahs, and holy days.
But is there a way to build more and other intentional connections? She thinks so.
"Religion has always been a place to bring up the next generation," Zimmerman said. "We need to make these opportunities more available."
Herring offered a couple of low-budget ideas to get the ball rolling.
Make every third board member on committees be someone under age 35. Create an intergenerational task force to explore ways to blend age groups. Create volunteer projects with broad-range appeal. Create a business startup space in the synagogue or church library, and offer congregation members as mentors.
Stop operating in strict age silos when planning, he said.
"Every year, when groups lay out their calendars, bring all the stakeholders together — from preschools to senior groups — and see where they come together," he said.
Building age-blended programs is the subject of everything from how-to websites to workshops and research studies. But religious leaders warn that any new program needs to have the buy-in of all players, as well as staff with skill sets to build relationships. Both the young folks and the seniors may need some nudging.
"When you're a 12-year-old girl, you want be with other 12-year-olds," said Beth Pfeifer of Minneapolis, a parent at the Purim celebration.
The Eisner Foundation, a California-based philanthropy focused on uniting generations, has monitored age segregation in society. It commissioned an online Harris Poll in 2017 that found that 53 percent of the 2,100 Americans surveyed said they rarely spend time with anyone much older or younger than themselves, apart from family.
More than 60 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said the same, reflecting an even more age-isolated generation. Herring suggests starting with a smile and saying "hello" to people you'd normally not address.
"Take a risk," he said.