Engagement: The Jewish Way
The end result, she added, is not necessarily that the student comes to Hillel; just having an ongoing Jewish conversation is the goal.
Sam Konig, 30, is executive director of Towson University Hillel; his campus has about 2,000 Jewish students.
Freshman Arielle Adler, 20, sought out the Hillel as soon as she arrived, primarily to attend weekly events such as services and Shabbat dinners. She quickly got to know Konig, who recommended she go on an Alternative Break trip to a Navajo community in Arizona.
“One of the most interesting parts, even after being there for a day, was that we saw similarities between the Navajo and Jewish cultures, things we believe and have been through,” said Adler.
Konig described the trip as an opening of young adult minds discovering parts of their Judaism through the questions posed by members of another culture. For instance, Navajo language was discussed, which led to questions about Hebrew and Hebrew names.
“And then discussions of the sweat lodge for the Navajo came up,” said Konig, “and that makes them excited, and then the students say, ‘What makes me excited? Shabbat makes me excited.’ Looking at similarities, a lot of Jewish questions come up when you explore another culture.”
After college, those looking to stay involved in the Jewish community have plenty of other options in Baltimore.
Jews of all backgrounds can converge at the Moishe House in Federal Hill. The group is run by three young Jewish adults who live together in the house, with rent subsidized by a national organization according to how many events a month they hold.
“Everyone has their own way of defining for themselves what Judaism is and their own way of connecting with it,” said Vadim Kashtelyan, one of the residents.
Moishe House hosts monthly Shabbat dinners and events with other organizations, Charm City Tribe among them. House residents notice a shifting population at each event, and the group is always diverse.
“Vadim, Sara [Feldman, another resident] and I all come from different religious backgrounds and all draw different groups in,” said resident Eta Flamholz. “I think it reflects varying degrees of being involved in various Jewish activities.”
Different organizations have created niche approaches to Judaism, tailoring more to young adults’ interests combined with Jewish engagement.
Those looking for philanthropic, fundraising, leadership and volunteer work can find it at IMPACT, The Associated’s young adult philanthropic group. Using tzedakah and tikkun olam as guiding principles, participants can give their money and their time.
“I think the millennial generation is very inclined to give, but they want to give to something they’re passionate about,” said Marisa Danto, a development associate with IMPACT. “Money’s not falling off trees … and our job is to lay out the menu of options.”
While it hosts some largely social events — casino night and Chanukah’s Latkes and Vodkas attract decent crowds — IMPACT tries to foster events that enhance Judaism for those who may not have been reeled in by Hebrew school and Shabbat services.
“There has to be stuff that’s not low barrier,” said Danto. “The people who know what they want are sometimes looking for something that has more content.”
For other young adults, being engaged in Judaism isn’t something extracurricular; they want it infused in their everyday life.
“I think, especially young adults today, they really want to have a say in what that programming [for them] looks like,” said Jodie Zisow, director of Repair the World: Baltimore, which launched this year with nine fellows working on social and community justice programs. “Some of the fellows certainly have grounding in Torah study, some have an interest in spirituality and yoga. How do we link them?”
Zisow, the fellows and other community leaders have weekly learning sessions, where they use their interests in politics, current events and social justice as springboards to discuss larger questions.
At the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, volunteers, apprentices and staff members approach environmentalism, sustainability and farming through a Jewish lens.
“Our mission at Pearlstone is to ignite Jewish passion, so we can’t do that without content,” said director Jakir Manela. “And you can’t do that without a dynamic kind of experience, so we go for both.”
The organization will be holding its sixth annual Beit Midrash from March 7 to 9. Manela called the event “an immersive, pluralistic Shabbaton celebration” that features song and dance and Jewish study focusing on creation and the environment. The event attracts 100 to 200 people each year from around the country; about half of the attendees are young adults.
“This is, for many of them, a peak Jewish experience of the year, where they’re in a vibrant Jewish setting having a spiritual experience in prayer, in community, in song and dance,” he said. “It’s goose-bumps stuff.”
In the spring, Pearlstone will host Rosh Chodesh celebrations and focus on what Judaism offers in regard to the changing of the seasons.
“For us, it’s just knowing who we are, knowing what we do and being proud of that,” said Manela. “Not really compromising in terms of Jewish integrity, Jewish content, Jewish learning, but also being sensitive to where people are at and doing stuff that’s accessible.”
Manela said the apprenticeship and hands-on Jewishness in the organization can transform a young adult’s Jewish path. While he feels that Judaism for young adults in the 21st century is changing, he thinks organizations shouldn’t forget about other age groups. At the Beit Midrash events, he sees families with small children, young adults and older folks creating a connected community.
“The tapestry of community is what I think makes congregational life so rich with all of the outreach and efforts to ignite young adults,” said Manela. “We as a community will miss out if we get too [restricted] in single-generational programming. Engagement with other generations, with other age groups in a more integrated, holistic setting — those are the richest moments.”
In other populations, particularly those in the LGBT community, maintaining one’s Jewish connections often happens alongside navigating other aspects of identity.