Friday evening typically finds the community of Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper East Side, at services, extending a traditional, tuneful welcome to the approaching Sabbath.
But in the fall, some of KJ’s clergy and congregants will begin celebrating Shabbat outside their accustomed settings, venturing forth to local spots like restaurants and bars to host “Sabbath salons.”
“The challenge is to get [young people] to realize that the synagogue, that boring place with the pews and the long services, is a place where they can be comfortable,” said KJ Rabbi Ellie Weinstock.
KJ’s initiative is funded with a grant from UJA-Federation of New York, part of a larger effort to make outreach to unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s a higher communal priority.
The shift came about because of the appointment last year of a new lay leader, Amy Bressman, to the “Gen i” task force, which funds services and programs for the demographic that has graduated from college, but not yet married, a demographic that has grown as people delay marriage and one that has long been seen as the least engaged in Jewish life.
Bressman’s combined experience as a mom and volunteer — she was president of Park Avenue Synagogue — convinced her that the task force had to work harder to pull young people in from the fringes of Jewish life.
“Institutions are not resonating with this generation at this stage in their lives,” Bressman told The Jewish Week. “Young people are not choosing to walk into synagogues.”
Jewish leaders like Bressman can justify their focus on outreach with findings that more and more American Jews are identifying as “Just Jewish.” According to the American Jewish Committee’s March survey, 26 percent of American Jews think of themselves that way, making it the second-largest category after Reform at 34 percent, and equal to Conservative, according to the American Jewish Committee’s March survey.
“By nature synagogues offer community, but [they] have to use a different way of embracing young adults,” said Ariella Goldfein, one of the federation professionals who works most closely with Bressman. “You have to change the way you approach them.”
So when Bressman’s task force sat down to decide how to spend its 2012-2013 budget of almost $500,000, it tried to use the money to reach young people who may not even know they want to be reached.
Central to this effort is about $170,000 in small grants — $10,000 or less — to synagogues and other organizations reaching out to young people. One grant, to the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations and RJeneration, will gather Russian-speaking Jews for a festival, lectures and outings to synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Romemu, a Renewal synagogue on the Upper West Side, will offer monthly Friday night dinners featuring music, silence and “eating meditation” in partnership with Brooklyn’s Jewish Meditation Center, which received its own grant to work with a consultant to increase its income and develop a marketing plan.
School librarian Joanie Terrizzi, 29, attends meditation sessions at the JMC and is a typical member of the demographic Bressman is striving to reach.
“I’m a little bit all over the place,” she said. “I attend services of varying kinds, and one of the things I particularly like about the JMC is that it is not a particular denomination. I feel like I don’t have to identify a piece of myself externally, in order to find an internal place, and that’s really freeing.”
Of course, the Gen i task force grants constitute only a small percentage of the funds that flow through the federation. Even Bressman’s task force is part of the larger Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, which has a $15 million budget.
But the task force’s priorities put its corner of the federation squarely on one side of a long-running debate between “outreach” and “in-reach” running back to at least 1996 when academics Jack Wertheimer, Charles Liebman and Steven M. Cohen wrote on behalf of “in-reach” in Commentary magazine. To ensure Jewish continuity, they stated, leaders should invest in the sectors of the community that are already engaged.
“Reaching the far less-affiliated can be a more expensive proposition, with a lower likelihood of success, than serving those who are already involved,” said Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation in North America, adding, “I can certainly understand wanting to reach those who are further out.”
In recent years, that debate has subsided, with a general consensus that outreach and in-reach are both necessary. And in the past two years, UJA-Federation of New York has launched new initiatives in each strategy: on the outreach side, stepped-up efforts to reach young unaffiliated families and the intermarried (outreach), and on the in-reach side, programs to help day schools access government funds and build their endowments.
Bressman’s priorities are reflected in her task force’s approach to Mechon Hadar, the full-time, egalitarian yeshiva it has long supported. A star in the field of Jewish education, Hadar is beloved by funders such as the federation for its professionalism and the quality of its content, which include a daily minyan, a team of consultants that support other independent prayer groups and such weekly classes as “What Can Human Beings Do? Judaism’s Emphasis on Human Creativity and Responsibility.”
But when Bressman took the Gen i job, the $160,000 that went to Mechon Hadar in 2011-2012 made her pause, as she was concerned that its offerings weren’t sufficiently accessible to a wide range of Jews in their 20s and 30s. In the end, Hadar developed an alternative program: it’s training its own students to teach in casual settings, like living rooms, to groups of friends that probably don’t have the skills necessary to attend Hadar’s regular classes, Goldfein said.
Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which is known for its focus on young adults, applauded Bressman’s approach.
“This age population … is not enamored of institutions or organizations as they’re conventionally designed,” he said. “They don’t come as often to a place, and not even to a program. They go where their peers are.”