This past Labor Day I stood on the roof of our Moishe House here in LA and looked over the eighty or so Jewish young adults crammed around the pool in our not overly-spacious backyard and thought to myself – someone, somewhere pays for us to do this. Some generous, philanthropic person somewhere, who I’ll probably never have the chance to meet, helped make it possible for me and eighty of my Jewish peers to sit around the pool at our beautiful house on Labor Day eating hot dogs together, drinking, schmoozing, splashing each other – it’s like someone filmed a commercial for “fun young adult Jewish life” in my back yard. For this blog post I want to talk about why this is important, and about how I’ve been able to find meaning in all the fun I’ve been having here in LA, in addition to the wonderful Jewish programming we do.
For us in LA, as I’m sure is the case in other places, we start each month with a few basic questions: How do we reach more people? And make the programs fun and engaging for those people? And then how do we give that whole experience meaning? It’s easy to host a Shabbat dinner or lead a volunteer program and say afterward “I did something meaningful today that strengthened my connection to the young Jewish community.” It’s also pretty easy to say “We're swimming and cooking meat on an open flame all day and the weather is perfect… and there will be beer,” and have eighty people show up in your backyard. But how do you reconcile the two? I mean, can’t we have both? For us, the challenge has been in bringing some of those party elements to our Jewish events and service work, and on the flip side, to make some meaning out of the more “social” events we host.
One Friday in September, we had the idea to turn our Shabbat, held in partnership with Birthright Israel NEXT, into a dinner theater spectacle. Luckily, one of our roommate’s close friends is a talented, professional magician. So we set up tables, cooked a delicious dinner, said the prayers and had ourselves a nice traditional Shabbat dinner. When people were done eating we cleared the tables and watched RJ set things on fire, make doves appear out of thin air, and pull hundreds of scarves out of his mouth. It was an amazing night and a very uniquely special Shabbat experience. But that doesn’t answer the other question – about how to make our purely social events more meaningful. I mean, we can’t make every event a Birthright Shabbat dinner – we thought about it but there aren’t enough Fridays in the month. So are those other events just pure fun? Is there any meaning in a group of young people just hanging out together? For me, that answer will always be yes.
When I stood on the roof and looked around at all the happy faces at our Labor Day party, some who knew each other, many who didn’t, mostly Jews but also some random non-Jewish friends, the social butterflies and socially awkwards, having a genuine good time all the same, I thought to myself that this really is the point of it all. Getting young people together by offering free food is one thing, but it doesn't mean anything if the experiences aren’t genuine. And all of us hanging out having a great time together, not because a synagogue or our parents told us to, but because we all wanted to is what ultimately creates real community.
But it has to be both – the engaging, unique Jewish events, and the genuine awesome times spent together that ultimately leaves us with lasting positive associations with our community and our Jewish heritage. That is something our donors can be proud of.