Ever since the Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews was published, there have been countless dialogues and debates about how to stop what some have gone as far as to consider a crisis of the Jewish people.
Headlines such as “Diving Into ‘The Melting Pot’ for Answers on Pew Survey,” “Jewish Identity Crisis Revealed in New Pew Survey” and “The Pew Survey of Jewish Americans: Panic or Perspective” have made some organizations start to rethink the way they do business.
Statistically, Baltimore is behind some of the challenging trends in terms of Jewish identity and affiliation of young Jews and intermarriage — but not that far behind.
One organization thinks it might have an answer, and it comes in the form of warmth, connectivity and content. It comes in the form of Etz Chaim: The Center For Jewish Living And Learning.
Etz Chaim (Tree of Life in English) has been around since it was launched as an experiment in 1976 in the kitchen of a Ner Israel Rabbinical College couple, Rabbi and Mrs. Chaim Gibber, with the support of a neighbor couple, Rabbi and Mrs. Reuven Drucker. Their goal at the time was to attract, inspire and educate young Baltimore Jews who either were not affiliated with a synagogue or did not utilize the synagogue as a personal resource. On a shoestring budget, their first Jewish studies class attracted 20 people.
By the early 1980s, however, that 20 had doubled and then tripled, and no longer could the program be housed in the Gibbers’ home, and no longer could it be run on the $15,000 budget that had been raised. The office was moved to a 300-square-foot space in the Imperial Condominium complex, and with the hire of Rabbi Shlomo Porter it started a 30-year journey to the full-fledged program it is today, now located at 3702 Fords Lane.
With its roots firmly established, in the last year, Etz Chaim has focused inward, and now it is further blossoming.
In 2012, Etz Chaim and Rabbi Porter realized the organization was at risk of losing its flair.
Rabbi Porter describes the 1970s and 1980s as an era of spiritual resurgence. “Thirty years ago, there were Jews searching for Judaism. People were throwing the ball, and we said we would be the catchers,” he said. “We saw we had to develop a more proactive model, a non-threatening model for today.”
To be clear, said Rabbi Porter, the organization is not out to encourage its consumers to be Orthodox (though it will help them with this journey if that is the path they choose). Rather, he said, Etz Chaim aims to give its constituents a better Jewish identity so that they can pass that on to their children, find someone Jewish to marry or find a Jewish group of friends.
“We began looking at what people were looking for and not what we want to sell, what we want to promote,” said Rabbi Porter.
The organization worked with outside consultants, which defined for Etz Chaim a need to offer more family programming, to raise more money and to foster more youthful involvement. The end result was the merger of the Wow! Program, which targets young post-college adults for Jewish learning and programming, and Etz Chaim.
The hire of Rabbi Nitzan Bergman as the new executive director shifted Rabbi Porter to a role as dean and president. In that capacity, he spends most of his time mentoring his now much-younger staff and counseling individuals and families who have grown in their religious observance but are struggling with one aspect or another. Rabbi Bergman has brought new and stronger communication, capitalization and coordination to Etz Chaim’s many programs.
And while some organizations are vying for members or re-envisioning their missions and visions, Etz Chaim has done this and is daily reaching people where they are and in a way that allows it to continue to grow — and help the next generation of Jews grow, too.
Low Barrier, High Content
If anything came out of the dialogues about the Pew Survey at the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, it was that while we need low-barrier ways to invite in young adults and young families, we need to give them something when they walk in the door.
Said David Denker, senior associate for communications and government relations in the Israel Office of The Jewish Federations of North America at the GA: “The biggest turnoff is [an] event where there is not enough Jewish content. There is a tendency to dumb things down, and I think we need to raise the bar in all of our events. … I think we should demand … that we are learning all the time, learning and strengthening our interaction with tradition and with each other.”
He was speaking on a panel about young adult engagement.
At Etz Chaim, instead of latkes and vodka, said Rabbi Porter, it is whiskey and wisdom.
“There is always wisdom,” said Rabbi Porter. “Every program has it.”
Take the Wow! Program, which is now run by Rivka Malka Perlman. She said the program got its name because “that is what people say when they walk in the door. … It is awesome to see all these young Jews engaged and interested.”
Perlman’s role is everything from recruiting and event planning to marketing, and “my most important role is caring. Caring means that every person that trusts me enough to walk in the door needs to know that this place is where they matter, where their questions matter and where who they are as a person matters.”
Perlman shakes her head at the notion that there should be a stigma to kiruv.
“You are assuming kiruv means you are selling something. I have a product and I say come and buy it. Kiruv just means draw close. I help people draw closer to themselves, find answers. I draw the Jewish people closer together,” she said.
Perlman described the wisdom she imparts as “relevant.” She said her classes are drawing more than 50 people per week because she thinks that while her warm welcome might draw them in, the Torah sells itself.
“There is, in the deepest place, rootlessness, a loneliness in the young adult community,” said Perlman. “We want freedom, but the minute we have freedom, we book ourselves up at the gym, we get a job. … Being single [means] you want to be doing things, so how do you fill your time?”
Wow! once a week, she said, is “very affirming to them. … You are doing something that matters, you feel good.”
Rabbi Yisroel Porter has a similar experience to Perlman in working with families with young children, mostly young mothers. He said, “People have a desire to connect Jewishly and an even stronger desire to connect Jewishly for their children.”
The website of Rabbi Yisroel Porter’s division, Jewish Family Institute, states, “At the JFI, we work hard to create connection, relationships, understanding and growth — within and for the entire Jewish family. Our goal is to provide meaningful opportunities for growth in Judaism through learning, fun and connectivity.”
While the younger Rabbi Porter and his wife, Chaya, offer few courses, what they do is offer informal programming and connection geared toward increasing the spirituality of young mothers. He said the mother sets the tone in the home, and if she opens up to Judaism the whole house changes.
One of their signature offerings is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program, a low-cost trip to Israel that ignites young mothers on a Jewish journey and also gives them the tools to create more Jewishly connected homes.
Baltimore attorney Tara Posner Cornberg helped bring JWRP to Baltimore through Etz Chaim four years ago when she was involved with Wow!. She said Etz Chaim knows “the importance of exposing young and lesser-affiliated women to Jewish traditions and values, and that is one of the missions of JWRP. It is giving them a pathway to explore their Judaism no matter where they fall on the spectrum.”
The other item that the younger Rabbi Porter focuses on is social media. Young parents are busy, he said, but he utilizes his Facebook page (facebook.com/raisingkidstolove. beingjewish), which has nearly 900 followers, to post articles and other inspirational content. He said he hears feedback that people are looking, and the digital engagement rate is high.
“No one is knocking down our door,” said Rabbi Yisroel Porter. “But every time I post something it is a Kiddush Hashem [sanctifies God’s name]. Even if people don’t come to the programs, they are getting a positive message about Judaism and taking their Jewish identity and making it more meaningful.”
Rabbi Yisroel Porter said he is careful that when he or his wife does run programs that they are intentional and planned with maximum chance for impact. For him, similar to Perlman and to what Rabbi Shlomo Porter said, content is king.
“Every time we put on a program, we make it high quality. They are walking away with substance. A person’s neshama [soul] knows when it has found the truth,” said Rabbi Yisroel Porter.
“We are not going to have impassioned Jewish people who are proud of their heritage unless they know what it is,” said Rabbi Bergman. “There are passionate [non-Orthodox] Jews who are living Judaism as much as I do, but they don’t have the words to tell their children why. … They have to know what we stand for and what it means to be Jewish. … They have to make the necessary sacrifices for their belief. That is the only way we will pass [Judaism] on to the next generation with any success.”