An Artisanal Judaism Grows in Brooklyn
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An Artisanal Judaism Grows in Brooklyn

Home-based, small-batch programs take root in Williamsburg as millennials search for authenticity.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Gregory Uzelac, a 26-year-old freelance writer living in the increasingly trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, describes Jewish life there as being in the “Jewish start-up age.”

“Young Jews are hungry for places to explore their roots in innovative ways,” said Uzelac, who is currently working on a book exploring why so many young members of the tribe seem to have a negative outlook on their religion. “We’re looking for a truer, deeper Jewish feel.”

His sentiment is amplified by statistics: According to recent data gathered by Brandeis University’s American Jewish Population Project, Kings County has the second largest number of Jewish millennials in the country, with 98,000 Jews in residence between the ages of 18 and 34. (Los Angeles County was first, clocking in at 102,000, according to the study.)

While the large number is bolstered by the fact that the neighborhood is home base for Satmar chasidic Jews, the figures also highlight the recent influx of secular Jews to the neighborhood, according to the project’s director, Len Saxe.

“Our overall numbers suggest that the charedi community is not as large as previously thought,” Saxe said in an e-mail to The Jewish Week. “No doubt, it’s influenced by the influx of secular and less-religious Jews.”

Young Brooklyn Jews seek a 'truer, deeper Jewish feel.' Courtesy of Base BKLN.

Daniel Parmer, a research associate on the project, explained further, writing in an email that: “The 98K figure is based on anyone who identifies as Jewish when asked about religion, so it is all-inclusive and covers the majority of the total Jewish population.”

While the current data represents only a one-year snapshot, the next phase of the study looks at demographic change from 1990 to the present, Parmer said.

Indeed, the Brooklyn Jewish scene is characterized by its diversity, and the desire, by millennials of all stripes, to engage in Judaism authentically, said Uzelac. Those who do so by moving to Brooklyn are drawn by its reputation as a “creative place that shines with individuality and quirk, with culture and character.”

Uzelac, for example, grew up firmly Reform in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. His family belonged to the Reform congregation Rodef Shalom, where he attended day school. As an adult, he moved to Brooklyn to start fresh. “We’re looking to get involved in Jewish life in a new way — whether it’s an outward rebellion or not, we grew up knowing about being Jewish, and now we want to assert that identity in our own way.”

Alyssa Petersel, a 24-year-old writer and social work grad student at NYU, moved to Williamsburg a year ago for similar reasons. Though she grew up going to a Conservative synagogue in Long Island, where she attended Hebrew school for many years, she described her earlier Jewish experiences as a “chore and an expectation.”

“When I moved to Brooklyn, I was surprised and comforted by [being surrounded by] so many other people who had the floating question mark of: ‘What kind of Jew am I?’” she said. Though she no longer identifies with any particular denomination, the Buddhist philosophy she studied as an undergraduate at Northwestern University greatly influenced her desire to reconnect with her spiritual life. “I was coping with a lot of transitions and I wound up seeking out meditation groups and yoga,” she said. “That led me to question whether such a thing existed in Judaism.”

Both Uzelac and Petersel found the authentic Jewish experience they were looking for at Base BKLYN. Launched by Hillel International in June 2015 with funding from UJA-Federation of New York, the program aims to engage millennials by using the home of a rabbi and his wife as the convening point for pluralistic Jewish life. This High Holiday season, activities were in full swing. Joining with the Base DWTN in Lower Manhattan, Base leaders Jon Leener and Avram Mlotek ran “experiential” High Holiday services that pulled in several dozen people. The service included reading various texts to “guide intentions” before shofar blowing, and an in-depth analysis of the Torah portion.

Influx of secular Jews in Kings County seek out tradition in unconventional ways. Courtesy of Base BKLN.

“There’s a weight to this type of Jewish experience,” said Uzelac. “Not in a burdensome way, which I think a lot of young Jews do feel, but in a creative, serious, intellectual way.” In Brooklyn neighborhoods booming with creatives — writers, musicians, artists — this is exactly what the young population wants. “It’s all about questioning and going beyond traditional limits,” he said.

“As opposed to the Jewish people who migrate to Murray Hill for that post-collegiate, finance-dominated setting or the Upper West Side to kind of replenish the ranks of Jewry there,” he added, “young, Brooklyn-dwelling Jewish people are seeking an alternative lifestyle and a community of unique individuals.”

Leener, who opened Base BKLN one year ago on Powers Street between Manhattan and Puerto Rico avenues in Williamsburg, said that the atmosphere of “openness and fluidity” in hip Brooklyn neighborhoods is drawing young Jews.

“Young millennial Jews want to build their own vision of Jewish life,” he said in a phone interview. “Brooklyn is a canvas for that.”

The movement of young Jews away from the traditional synagogue does not surprise him. A March 2014 Pew Research Center study found that millennials are increasingly removed from religious institutions; the results came on the heels of Pew’s 2013 “Portrait of American Jews,” which found that nearly a third of young Jews define themselves as having no religion.

“Young people are looking for informality, a feeling of openness,” said Leener. The common characterization of Jewish millennials as “unengaged” frustrates him. “If there’s anything I’ve seen in this past year, it is that young people desperately want to be engaged in Jewish life and community,” he said. “What was offered before was simply not fulfilling their needs.”

Around the corner from Base, Moishe House Williamsburg, opened in December 2011, is routinely drawing a crowd. The house residents, young Jewish professionals, are responsible for organizing events for other Jewish 20-somethings in exchange for subsidized rent. Founded in 2006, Moishe House is one of the fastest-growing outreach initiatives for Jews in their 20s. Two of its seven New York locations are in the hot Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope and Williamsburg. Since opening, the Brooklyn houses combined have engaged over 12,000 young adults in the area, according to a Moishe House spokesperson.

“Our Brooklyn houses — particularly the Williamsburg house — makes Judaism accessible for the secular crowd,” said Becca Kass, Moishe House’s eastern regional director, and herself a millennial. The houses’ “low barrier of entry” programming caters to a broad audience, particularly in Brooklyn.

A picnic Shabbat lunch hosted by the Moishe House of Park Slope. Courtesy of Moishe House.

“Less traditional Judaism is a great overarching idea for the type of Jewish life people are looking for in Brooklyn. Whether it be social justice work or having a conversation about how Jewish identity plays into the Black Lives Matter movement or helping people in the community, the people who come are looking to connect Judaism to the values in their own lives,” she said.

Emily Colman, one of the residents at the Williamsburg Moishe House, was surprised to find a Jewish outlet that spoke to her so deeply when she moved to the neighborhood four years ago. Growing up in the small town of Bloomington, Ind., she was not accustomed to Judaism being hip.

“In a small town, it’s never the cool thing to be Jewish,” said Colman, 27, who attended a small Reform synagogue growing up. Still, when she moved to New York, she started searching for the Jewish community she felt she had lost. “I would go to every single 20-something meetup in all the different synagogues, but I didn’t find something that resonated.”

When she moved to Brooklyn, she started to attend Moishe House events and quickly became heavily involved. Today, as a resident, she helps organize and run seven events a month for like-minded young Jews in the neighborhood.

“I’m continually surprised by the thirst for knowledge I see among my peers,” she said. “We’re hungry for tradition, but in an untraditional way.”

As attendance at events continues to grow, Colman reflected on the change. “If I were to have one major takeaway from the last few years it would be this: Where you can’t find what you’re looking for, build it. If you feel disconnected from your religion, create what you want to see.”

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