One recent afternoon at UJA-Federation’s Manhattan headquarters, three-dozen young Jewish lay leaders spent a few hours discussing how to allocate $200,000 in philanthropic funds.
The men and women, from St. Petersburg, Russia, took part in the exercise as part of a weeklong leadership-training program here under the auspices of The Brownstone, a new outreach program geared to the college-age and post-college generation of American Jews, Israelis and Jews from the former Soviet Union. And from France, Argentina and Brazil.
Based in a six-story East Village brownstone that was built specifically for a clientele of young professionals, the program is sponsored by Gateways, an Orthodox-run Jewish outreach organization, and it has already hosted several hundred people since it opened its doors a few months ago.
For New Yorkers, there’s a full menu of free classes, concerts and art shows in the building. They range from seminars on hedge funds and a reunion for Birthright alumni, to jazz concerts and a lecture on the “Yiddish-Russian” roots of Jewish music.
For the foreign participants, there’s New York City.
The visitors — like the recent ones from Russia — attend lectures and workshops on Jewish life throughout the area, go to museums and jazz clubs, and spend much of their time outside of the building at the city’s panoply of cultural venues.
Participants pay for travel and food, but everything else is free.
“New York is the hook,” says Rabbi Mordechai Suchard, the South African-born founder of Gateways who came up with the idea of the Brownstone seven years ago. His vision is of a location that out-of-towners can call their home during their time here, and that city residents can visit any day for a class or a chance to schmooze with the program’s staff members.
Or to socialize among themselves. “The last thing on their agenda,” the rabbi says, “is to hang out with some rabbi.”
For tourists, the Brownstone packages its weeks in New York as “Metro Adventures,” offering visits to cultural and historic sites, community service opportunities and discussions on “critical issues of Jewish identity and heritage … ethics, personal growth and relationships.”
At the building itself, the Brownstone hosts social events on its rooftop terrace, with a view of the Manhattan skyline, and in the basement lounge, which offers a mingling space complete with bar.
Think Birthright Israel in the Big Apple. Or Makor, the now-defunct Michael Steinhardt-funded Upper West Side Jewish cultural center for 20-somethings – but with a bed and bath. It also has some similarities to Moishe House, the international co-housing network in which young Jews get subsidized apartments in exchange for developing community programs.
The Brownstone (thebrownstone.org), which calls itself “a one-stop shop for college students and Young Professionals,” is not affiliated with any denomination of Judaism, although its staff members are largely Orthodox. According to its promotional materials, it’s a place where young people can “experience … New York City … from a Jewish perspective” — a drop-in center with a small Jewish library, large plasma TV and modest avant-garde art gallery on the walls.
There’s no real comparison with existing Jewish programs, says Yoni Greenwald, The Brownstone’s live-in program director, a Sabra who has run Israel trips for Meor, an Orthodox outreach organization.
Greenwald, who leads frequent “whiskey, cigar and Torah” discussions, says, “The Brownstone is a brand.”
The Brownstone encourages the men and women who attend its programs to design their own programs, on Shabbat or during the week.
According to Greenwald, most Brownstone activities have attracted several hundred people — despite minimal advertising. Acknowledging that “brochures” don’t work for people who came of age with social media, Greenwald says The Brownstone depends on word-of-mouth, Facebook, etc., postings by the participants to promote the events. “Less publicity is better than too much publicity,” Greenwald says.
The Brownstone, he says, is not in competition with Chabad, Aish HaTorah or other established Orthodox Jewish outreach networks that aim to introduce Judaism to the same cadre of Jews.
He calls The Brownstone a no-demands way (no dress code, no requirements for level of Jewish observance) to introduce Jewish tradition to Jews who largely grew up without it.
“We leave religion out of it,” Rabbi Suchard says. “We don’t tell anyone how to lead their life. We’re filling an incredible void.”
If someone wants to learn how to put on tefillin,” Greenwald says, he’ll show him how. “But it’s not my goal.”
Greenwald says he’s already “seen hundreds of people,” participants in activities of The Brownstone, “whose Jewish connection is much stronger,” who host their own Shabbat dinners and bring their friends to The Brownstone.
“He doesn’t pressure anybody” to take on specific Jewish actions, says Adam Greenberg, a 25-year-old Manhattan resident from “a typical secular community” on Long Island. Greenberg works in a digital graphics center and has regularly attended events at The Brownstone since meeting Greenwald in Israel last year. “He prefaces everything by ‘This is what I do.’ Yoni’s personality helps mold the entire place because he is very comfortable to be around and would never try to make you feel like you’re not doing something right.”
Greenberg comes to Shabbat dinners at the Brownstone with his friends, who come from similar Jewish backgrounds. “It’s very relaxing,” he says. “It’s a nice way to relax from a long week. It’s just adding another part to our life.”
“It’s more about the people The Brownstone attracts,” says Julie Colletti, 23, a Manhattan resident who shows up regularly. “It’s part of my community.”
The 12,000-square-foot building houses living space for Greenwald and his family and for visiting scholars-in-residence, a small office suite, dorms with bunk beds for visitors (men and women on separate floors), two kosher kitchens (one meat, one dairy) and a large meeting room where worship services take place occasionally.
“It’s not a shul,” Rabbi Suchard says, though the meeting room’s shelves are lined with copies of the Koren Siddur, edited by England’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
“I don’t think there’s a need for another shul in the East Village,” Greenwald tells this writer during a tour of the facility.
Rabbi Suchard first decided to try out his concept by sponsoring programs for visiting groups of young Jews and putting them up at hotels or renting dormitory space at New York universities. The interest was there, he says, but the cost was prohibitive.
He decided to build his own building.
“Everyone said, ‘You’re meshuge,’” he says — why would large numbers of young Jews want to spend so much time doing so many Jewish things? Who would support such a concept?
The critics were wrong on both counts, he says. He’s raised “close to $10 million.” He built the building and the people keep coming — from South America and Europe for the weeklong programs, from the Greater New York area for the daily classes, college alumni meetings and holiday celebrations and, simply, for chances to meet like-minded Jewish singles.
They want to “create a community,” the rabbi says — young Jews who have relocated here often find a Jewish home, or a continued sense of belonging in the various young professionals groups that meet here every few weeks in their sponsoring organizations’ office space.
The young Jewish leaders from St. Petersburg who took part in The Brownstone’s recent training program said they will try to bring this model of Jewish empowerment back to their community in Russia.
“I found out there is a place where you can feel like a Jew,” openly proclaiming one’s religious identity, “and you don’t feel scared,” said Pavel Liberman, a member of the Russian delegation, comparing the social climate of the U.S. to that of his homeland.
After the group’s meeting with a wide variety of religious and communal leaders, he said, he learned that “the meaning of being Jewish here is wider.”
“There is a lot about Judaism that we did not know,” said his wife, Tatiana. “There are a lot of Jewish organizations.”
When the couple has children, Tatiana said, “I want [them] to live in a society like it is here.”
Other participants in the St. Petersburg group left full of community-building ideas, said Yigal Kotler, who coordinates the Brownstone Russian Initiative programs for Russian-speaking Jews here and for the visiting Russian groups.
“They wanted to start a new foundation that young Jewish businessmen will participate in … [to] give mini-grants to Jewish start-ups,” said Kotler, who acted as the visitors’ guide to meetings with leaders of the émigré and wider Jewish community.
In meetings with Jewish leaders and pro-Israel activists, including professionals at UJA-Federation of New York’s Russian division and leaders of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, “They learned the structure of the local Jewish community … [and] the motivation of Jewish volunteers and philanthropists, which is the cornerstone of Russia’s emerging Jewish community,” Kotler said. “They learned how to create sustainable and financially independent Jewish organizations. It was totally inspired by meetings with Brownstone activists.”