What’s the best way to get unaffiliated millennials interested in Jewish activities? Have their friends design and host those activities. That’s the idea behind the Union for Reform Judaism’s JewV’Nation fellowship program, which launched this month.
The goal of the program is twofold: to create relevant Jewish programming designed by millennials for millennials and to foster a cohort of engaged leaders who will bring their leadership skills to the next generation.
The program is a project of URJ’s recently created Audacious Hospitality department, which was created with the belief that the more traditionally marginalized Jews are brought into the center of the movement, the more vibrant the movement will become.
The yearlong program provides micro-grants of $3,000 each to 10 diverse projects. The 12 project leaders (two of the projects are run by a pair of leaders) will meet twice a month for the study of Jewish texts, leadership training and project troubleshooting.
“Rather than us being a direct service provider of, say, a couples retreat for interfaith couples, which I think is a program that I would love for either our congregation to do or for us to do in the future, right now we’re a start-up department, and one of the core resources that we need are powerful, inspired leaders,” April Baskin, URJ’s vice president of Audacious Hospitality, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “And so I chose for us to invest a significant amount of time and resources into 12 different leaders who we would support in reaching more people and empowering them to do the work that we hope will be a shared practice.”
Another reason to invest in hooked-in millennials is because they know what programming is needed, and already have the networks of people to invite to the events, Baskin said.
The 10 projects cover a range of interests: a monthly Kabbalah study group; a show featuring monologues by Jews of Color; a video that weaves together narratives of LGBTQ Jews and their families; a workshop on writing spiritual autobiographies for interfaith couples; a Hebrew school aimed at interfaith families that might be hesitant to join a formal synagogue community; a series of performances exploring the shared Jewish-black narrative of bondage, deliverance and redemption; programming for young adults in the Jewish programming desert of Jackson Heights, Queens; monthly bridge-building workshops for Muslims and Jews; community building among Jews of color and dialogue with the white Jews in Toronto; and monthly dinners that are paired with short lectures or musical performances.
“We were specifically seeking out people who were invested within the Jewish community and also recognized that they still had a need that was not yet met or that they noticed that there were other people in the community who have a need that is not quite yet met, and wanted to help create more opportunities for more people to feel included … opportunities for them to engage authentically in Jewish life,” Baskin said.
On a meta-level, the fellowships also have the function of promoting URJ’s ethos of inclusivity. “We’re sending out the message to Jews that there’s a place for you,” said Baskin. “And if you have an idea and you really want to belong and you’re working on something [we want to say that] we care about you, we see you and we want to work with you.”
That message, ultimately, was what convinced Marques Hollie to submit his idea of exploring the shared Jewish-black narrative of slavery, deliverance and redemption.
“The thing that really struck me about how the URJ molded their language about the fellowship is that they talked about ‘being Jewish and,’” Hollie said. “What are these other pieces of your identity that inform your Judaism? And I thought, there’s something really powerful in exploring those personal intersections.”
Hollie, 30, who trained in opera at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, came up with the idea for his project while at a Passover seder several years ago. “I was with some friends who were soon to be starting at HUC [Hebrew Union College] and we were using a Haggadah that had a human trafficking lens,” he said. “And that got my brain thinking that there are these layers upon layers upon layers of relevancy and meaning in Jewish liturgy. And I started thinking there is this really powerful narrative between the music of slaves, of the spirituals and what those signify as well as the themes of redemption and deliverance in the Pesach liturgy. So the project, which I’ve been calling ‘Go Down Moshe,’ is an exploration of the themes of Passover but through the traditional Negro spirituals.”
Another element of the fellowship that appealed to Hollie and all of the fellows interviewed by The Jewish Week is the support of a cohort of fellows engaged in similar work. “Our cohort is already proving to be incredibly valuable, just in pitching ideas and talking about the various aspects of our project that we’re trying to figure out,” he said.
Evan Miller, who is planning to lead a monthly study group on Kabbalah, agreed. “It provides a support system of 11 other people,” he said, which will allow the group to “hold each other accountable and really excel.”
Miller, 26, who is earning a master’s in public administration at Long Island University, has been exploring various forms of mindfulness practice over the past five years but really connected with Kabbalah because of the sense of connection he felt when studying Jewish texts. Miller, who is on the board of Tribe NY, which inspires millennials “to find meaning and build community,” thinks a Kabbalah study group might draw Jews and “Jewish-interested millennials who may not align with institutional and traditional Judaism the way it is now” but who have a spiritual need.
The URJ program was a perfect fit, he said. “It’s about finding inspiration and building community and JewV’Nation, specifically, that’s what they’re all about.”
Deborah Fishman, 32, is using her fellowship to expand monthly dinners she holds that include short talks, often, but not always, on Jewish topics. She calls the events “FED.” “It’s like TED, but you get fed,” she likes to say.
Fishman, who is director of communications at the Avi Chai Foundation, sees the dinners as multipurpose. “I had this idea that if I could have dinners where there would be speakers, I could provide inspiration and creativity and motivation, and at the same time allow the attendees to network with each other [and] connect on a real level.”
Because the dinners are held on Shabbat, they allow people to be more present than during the week, she said. “It’s something that I think is really in the beauty of the Jewish tradition: When you come there you leave your phone behind. You really connect and are really present with those around you and have a meaningful conversation. And hopefully it’s something that extends beyond the Shabbat table,” she said.
“I hope to create community where people are there for each other in a real way,” she said. “I’m hoping that this community can grow and really show the power of what a communal meal can look like.”