Engagement: The Jewish Way

In any given week throughout the year, there are dozens of events in the greater Baltimore area aimed at engaging young Jewish adults. In many ways this age group represents the future of Judaism. They know that, and so do the people programming events to attract them to their Jewish faith, to their culture and to other Jewish adults.

Whether it’s found in one-on-one coffee chats, small religious gatherings, Purim costume parties or at 200-person Shabbat dinners, the crucial link in promoting and strengthening Jewish identity, say young adults and the communal professionals who serve them, is the spark of a personal connection.

Michelle Saltzman, recently married, had that connection in her formative years. Saltzman grew up in a family with a strong Jewish identity, attended Beth El Congregation and, as a college student at Princeton University, considered herself Jewish in every way. Over the next couple of years, Saltzman and her brother, Sam Grilli, shared many conversations about Judaism. Grilli had become Orthodox, and Saltzman was drawn to learn more.

“I’ve known my brother all my life,” she said. “If he believes in something, [it’s] something worth investigating. That doesn’t mean you have to get into it and you don’t have to agree, but I think people often stop before the investigation part; [it’s] the same for anything — religion, politics.”

Saltzman’s turning point came from the difference between identifying as Jewish and the obligation to act upon that identity. She traveled to Israel twice to study at Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya and felt deeply connected to the rabbis and friends she met during her travels. When she returned home from the second trip, she had fully embraced Orthodox Judaism.

“What changed was that I felt obligated as a Jew to follow the Torah and follow all of these principles and values and mitzvahs, and that was part of the collective Jewish identity that goes back thousands of years,” she explained. “I just realized I needed to be a part of that and to do it fully.”

Some young adults aren’t as sure as Saltzman; many, in fact, can be better described as on the fence concerning what it means to be involved as a Jew. For them, a variety of organizations exist that cater to their interests with the hope of creating a connection.

At Charm City Tribe, Rabbi Jessy Gross tries to engage Baltimore City’s young adult Jewish population with events that are low barrier but high content. She wants to get people in the door and engage them in Jewish values and ideas related to a particular event.

The Tribe’s Chanukah BrewHaha, held in December at Union Craft Brewing near Hampden, was largely a social event that attracted hundreds with a food truck selling a variety of latkes, dreidel tournaments and beer infused with etrog left over from Sukkot. Some attendees also took part in activities with JQ Baltimore, Repair the World and the Jewish Volunteer Connection.

Gross, who also hosts more content-heavy events such as a recent Four Rabbis, Five Opinions round-table discussion, said that she seeks out events that give people unique experiences.

“It gets people in the door, softens the resistance of showing up next time,” she said. “And next time, you might show up at my house for Shabbat dinner.”

Meredith Raucher, a Johns Hopkins University art history doctoral candidate, found the one-on-one connections she was looking for in Charm City Tribe. When she came to Maryland seven years ago, she discovered, as an outsider, that it was really hard to find a group to fit into.

“Jewish identity is important to me,” she related. “When I got here, I sort of lost touch with the religious aspect of it because there wasn’t a place I felt at home.”

Raucher, 30, gravitated toward Charm City Tribe because of Gross’ goal of creating networks of people. At times, she feels more comfortable going to events with other people who don’t know each other.

For Raucher, socializing can be a part of a Jewish event, but it needs to serve a higher purpose to feed her Judaism; that doesn’t necessarily mean intense Jewish content, she explained.

“When I got to a Shabbat dinner, and even if we’re only saying just the three prayers, it’s nice to be in a room of people celebrating this part of the week that we all think is important,” she said. “It’s part of our tradition; it’s part of our background; it’s part of our identity; it’s part of our community. And I think that’s what was lacking for me.”

One reason young adult engagement is a topic of concern is that according to the Pew Research Study: A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the intermarriage rate among American Jews is 72 percent, the highest it has ever been.

Alissa Heneson, co-chair of Council 2434, a task force of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore that studies local Jews in their 20s and 30s, thinks every generation has wrestled with this issue.

“Every generation thinks the Jews are going to die out,” she said. “I think it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.”

But the high intermarriage rate deeply concerns Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“We’re in a period of population meltdown that is as severe for the Jewish population as global warming is for the world,” he warned.

Cohen supports the idea that there should be significant content in Jewish programming to engage young adults. But even more than that, he wants to see them engaged in the marital sense.

He noted lower birth rates — except in Orthodox communities — as one component negatively impacting the Jewish population. The other is intermarriage.

“We can’t affect the birth rates,” he surmised. “But we can affect intermarriage. So we should try.”

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