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Their Goal: to Entice a Few Young Unmarrieds

September 18, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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[From left] Shelby Zitelman, Alissa Worly, Lauren Skalina and Marc Kamin gather for a Moishe House-organized field day event in August.

Last Wednesday evening, Jews between the ages of 21 and 40 met and mingled at the Gershman Y during an event billed as a "Taste of the New Year." Co-sponsored by several local groups, the program combined kosher wine tastings -- served by young congregants from Center City synagogues -- and a getting-to-know-you opportunity just in time for the upcoming High Holidays. Additionally, a limited number of free tickets for High Holiday services for each of the participating synagogues was available.

The goal of the evening, explained Ross Berkowitz, director of the Collaborative, a 10-year-old local nonprofit whose programming is geared for singles, couples, young professionals and graduate students in their 20s to late 30s in the Philadelphia area, "is that we're trying to open the doors" to Jewish communal life.

Opening doors is exactly the point of a study commissioned by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies that took a long, hard look at single, non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 25 and 39 -- those who are post-college but pre-marriage and children. The study found that these young adults have high levels of pride in their Jewishness, especially concerning Jewish learning and culture; the problem is they have low levels of communal involvement.

The study's authors, professors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, called this group the "uncoupled" generation, a term not meant to explain a social status, but to pinpoint a more troubling Jewish reality: that these young Jews feel unconnected to organized Jewry.

This study comes at a time when institutional Judaism is looking for ways to increase participation in communal life, as evidenced by the popular Synaplex series that many synagogues now offer to draw people into a shul by scheduling a variety of activities to choose from to celebrate Shabbat: dancing, music, movies, presentations and dinner -- and a family service. The same general concept is being applied to the younger demographic: offering them yoga sessions or cultural evenings that draw links to Judaism. These are just some of the methods organizations are utilizing to engage young Jews.

Over the past few years, several local groups similar to the Collaborative have emerged to provide programming. Twenty- and 30-somethings don't necessarily want the Judaism of their parents or grandparents; rather, as Berkowitz noted, they're exploring all of their options -- including faith -- to decide what their identity is and what's right for them.

"We've created a very appealing network in Philadelphia for people in their 20s and 30s to meet new people," said Berkowitz, 35, of the various local groups. Each, he pointed out, has carved out a niche to offer their constituents the opportunity "to be a part of something."

The key to success, he's discovered, is "to go out where they are. You can't wait for them to come to you."

For example, Berkowitz noted that since most young people like to have a drink after work, the Collaborative began offering a "happy hour" on the first Thursday of every month -- and now 100 to 150 people can show up to do some schmoozing.

Beyond Just Matchmaking
In fact, Berkowitz said that he's been working for five years to raise awareness about one of the main points the "uncoupled" study addressed: that more specific programming needs to be offered for this age group beyond matchmaking.

Not too many Jewish communities in the United States "speak to our demographic, beyond setting up singles," said Adam Rose, 24, one of five 20-somethings living this year at Moishe House Philadelphia.

Moishe House is a collection of homes in 25 cities around the world that serve as a hangout hub for Jews ages 21-30.

The five young people who applied to live in the Philly space this year receive rent subsidies and additional funds to plan activities for post-college and pre-family individuals, most of which are held at their four-story town house on Washington Square West.

This year's housemates -- Rose; Rachel Vassar, 24; Rebecca Karp, 26; Shelby Zitelman, 23; and Brian Cohen, 23 -- host Shabbat dinners, yoga sessions, bowling parties, arts events and challah-making, for example.

The goal, said Vassar, is to get young Jews together -- networking, making connections and friendships -- based around the one thing they have in common: They're all Jews, no matter with which Jewish denomination they were affiliated growing up.

Karp noted that their programming is not religious, "just Jewish in general." But, as Rose was quick to interject, "if it's 20 Jews in a room, then it's no longer secular."

A Stepping Stone
"Moishe House is a stepping stone to the Jewish community, whatever that means to you," noted Vassar. "It's people looking to connect -- or [just] being able to talk to someone about bagels and herring, and not having them laugh."

Synagogues are also searching for whatever means they can to appeal to this same demographic. One such synagogue doing so is Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia. The Reconstructionist congregation "engages a disproportionate number of Jews in their 20s and 30s," explained its Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann. Case in point: Two-thirds of its members are under 40 years of age, and nine of the 12 current board members are also under age 40. In addition, the rabbi herself is 31, a member of the age group in question (though she is married).

Herrmann said her shul strives to offer an array of programming that appeals to this generation -- for example, alternative music performances, and also hands-on experiences, such as Habitat for Humanity projects, or a recent partnership with the Jewish Farm School for a series featuring sessions on environmentally friendly urban sustainability.

"Young people are looking for a Judaism that feels integrated in their daily life," said Herrmann, "and I really try to tap into this."

Also, not requiring tickets for entrance to holiday services, said Herrmann, "brings in a lot of young people."

Jon Erlbaum, executive director of the Chevra, which provides a blend of cultural, educational and spiritual experiences for professionals -- singles and couples -- in their 20s and 30s seeking a deeper connection to their own Jewish identities, noted that although his group is currently based on the Main Line, it's looking to move to a new space with a cafe-like vibe in Center City -- where there is "a scene" that didn't exist before "but where most of our demographic lives, works or plays."

"[There] is a need to adapt to the wants and needs of your demographic that's coming out," added Leon Vinokur, director of development for the Chevra -- even if that means to "meet them where they are."

And one of places they are is online, something Birthright Israel NEXT has noticed and utilized to keep in touch with the first wave of alumni of its free educational trips to Israel, people who are now in their late 20s and early 30s, noted Rabbi Daniel Brenner. Since those in this age range "are an extremely mobile group," he said, many of them don't know where they're going to be in a year.

Hundreds Sign Up
Brenner, executive director of the alumni component of the 10-year-old organization, noted that within 48 hours after a recent Shabbat dinner program was advertised -- solely on the Internet-- more than 800 people signed up to take part.

(The organization also recently received funding to develop programming for its alumni, and Philadelphia is one of five cities taking part in this new initiative; Adam Oded, 40, was hired as the new director of Birthright Israel NEXT Philadelphia to tap into more than 7,000 local alumni.)

Birthright Israel's not the only group arranging Shabbat programming. Many of the groups already mentioned offer home hospitality for Shabbat and/or holidays as this type of personal welcome appeals to the young.

"We're making it a Shabbat experience for them and their friends," explained Brenner. "We're putting it in their hands to create their community."

According to Alison Margulies, those who are involved with the Renaissance Group ("the young adult arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia" geared for 25-45-year-old professionals, singles and young marrieds alike), of which she is a senior development officer, connect not only with each other, but also with the Jewish community, through volunteerism -- such as Jewish Relief Agency food packing and delivery projects for the needy -- outreach and fundraising programs, and events for Federation and other organizations, through the hands-on experiences this age group favors. Along the way, she added, the young philanthropists gain leadership experience, including networking with established, long-time Federation leaders, and secure their entrance into the portal of the Jewish community.

With many co-sponsored programs among these various local groups, such as "Taste of the New Year," 20- and 30-somethings who attend one group's events can find out about the other groups and other opportunities.

It's through social-based networks, insisted Berkowitz, that today's young generation will become involved in the community, and groups need to be prepared to direct young Jews -- when they're ready and on their terms -- to the next stop on their communal journey

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