It was after reading about the vicious attack on a Jewish student at the University of Arizona that Rabbi Ronald Brown felt a need to do something to help Jewish college students.
“It was such a terrible story to read,” said Rabbi Brown, of the attack that sent Gideon Rafal, the president of a Jewish fraternity, to the ICU with head injuries in 2014. “And then I listened to the stories about anti-Semitism.”
Concerned about anti-Semitic graffiti, verbal attacks and the isolation Jewish students felt due to anti-Zionist and pro-BDS activities at their schools, the rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am of Merrick and Bellmore (L.I.) wanted to send a clear message to Jewish college students: “Wherever you are, whether you’re in college or you’re out of college, the Jewish community is not going to disappear. It will be there for you.”
At the same time, Rabbi Brown was noticing that many Long Island synagogues were “somewhat empty for the High Holidays compared to what they used to be 20 or 30 years ago.”
“I was thinking: ‘Isn’t there a way to try to bolster and assist the [established] Jewish communities and at the same time help young people who perhaps wish to go to synagogue?’ I was trying to solve two problems at the same time,” he said.
Rabbi Charles Klein of Merrick Jewish Center had similar concerns, and a discussion over coffee led to a partnership that resulted in the debut of Synagogue Connect (synagogueconnect.org) in 2016.
“One of the sad realities that we were both aware of is that there are hundreds of thousands of students who just don’t have a synagogue to come home to,” Rabbi Klein said.
The website setup is basic: type in a zip code and get a map with the 25 closest synagogues that will welcome young Jews to High Holiday services for free. Then it’s up to users to call the synagogue and register. Some synagogues can offer 20, 30, even 50 seats for free, while others might only have room for a few people, Rabbi Brown said. Most synagogues will take people between the ages of 17 and 26; a few, due to a lack of space, reserve the seats they have for 17- to 22-year-olds.
In its first year, 2016, about 200 synagogues participated. So far this year, 1,144 synagogues have signed up. There are participating shuls in 49 of the 50 states and in 31 additional countries.
Zach Neiger, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Dallas studying software engineering, found out about the program through Rabbi Klein, the spiritual leader of his family’s synagogue back in Merrick.
“Flying home isn’t really an option for me, and I wanted to go to a synagogue of my denomination — that seemed to me to be the best way to connect with my faith. So this seemed to be the best option,” he said.
There are synagogues participating in nearly every state and denomination, Rabbi Brown said. There are “mega” synagogues and tiny congregations.
“I was surprised by how receptive synagogues were,” he added.
“We have literally a rainbow,” said Rabbi Brown. “I say to people: ‘If synagogue A or synagogue B is not to your liking, don’t stop there. You can go to C, D, E or F.’”
One of the New York-area synagogues that is on the Synagogue Connect list is Kehilat Moshe of Sheepshead Bay. Rabbi Shlomo Segal said via email that he signed his shul up the first year because he “thought it provided a new possibility for students and younger people to connect with a congregation.”
Several young adults who came to Kehilat Moshe through Synagogue Connect have continued to attend, he said, attributing it to their appreciation of the congregation’s “intimate and nonjudgmental setting” and “opportunity to connect one on one with the rabbi.”
Still, many synagogues have not signed up. A search of Brooklyn synagogues brought up just 12 participating congregations; in order to reach the promised “25 nearest synagogues,” listings included shuls in Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and Hoboken, N.J.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, thinks that synagogues that haven’t signed are either “besieged” with High Holiday preparations, or already have policies of welcoming people without tickets.
“I have yet to find a synagogue that doesn’t welcome people who want to enter,” he said. “I think there is always a provision made for those who don’t have seats reserved.”
Rabbis Klein and Brown are working hard to convince congregations to participate.
When synagogues tell Rabbi Brown they simply don’t have space for students, he replies that there’s always room for one more.
“I had a synagogue in Australia and they said: ‘We are almost standing room only … . We are one of the major synagogues.’ And I said: ‘Do me a favor: Take in just one student.’” For that student, he said, you will make a tremendous difference.
Other organizations are offering High Holiday outreach and free tickets for students and non-members.
Chabad is known for providing free services (jewishnewyear.org). Since 2004, Rabbi Judith Hauptman has been providing traditional egalitarian pop-up services for Jews in their 20s and 30s through her organization Ohel Ayalah, or Helen’s Tent, named after her mother. Ohel Ayalah (OhelAyalah.org) has services at three locations: Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan and also holds Passover seders.
Kol HaNeshamah: The Center for Jewish Life and Enrichment (kolny.org) offers free High Holiday services on the Upper West Side. Offerings include children’s services, childcare, a break-fast on Yom Kippur and a hot kiddush on Rosh HaShanah.
Unlike Synagogue Connect and Ohel Ayalah, Kol HaNeshamah, which means Voice of the Soul, has no age limits and runs year-round, offering Friday night services, pop-up Saturday morning services, classes, Hebrew school, one-on-one learning, private bar and bat mitzvah classes, pastoral counseling and help with lifecycle events.
Synagogue Connect is run with almost no budget and by just four volunteers: Rabbis Klein and Brown, Rabbi Eric Greenberg of Brooklyn and Eric Farbman, who is affiliated with the fraternity AEPi.
“We’ve done this with virtually no funding. Imagine what we could do if we had funding,” Rabbi Brown said.
“One of the things about Rabbis Klein and Brown is that they are tenacious,” Rabbi Potasnik said. “They believe strongly in a pluralistic Jewish community, that there has to be a place for everyone. Because we’re so divided, anyone who is able to strengthen connections deserves special recognition.”
“I think we very much are seeking to attract the unaffiliated, the disconnected, those who don’t have a relationship with a congregation or a community,” Rabbi Potasnik said. “Synagogue Connect is enabling many of those people.”