Perhaps one of the most important rules of outreach is to meet them where they are. The journey along which one learns and integrates values and practices of tradition into their life requires a multitude of incremental steps and should start with something familiar.
I want to share a snapshot of one journey over the last few months. It is a journey just beginning but one with ripple effects I hope will continue for a long time.
Jake is a bassist in town. Our first encounter was after a gig. I was apartment hunting and, thanks to musical mitosis, Jake was the new guy in a new band comprised mostly of old friends. We first connected on my lament for having given up my own run with the upright bass in eighth grade, after just four short years of playing. Jake generously handed me his bass and allowed me to pluck a tired rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Just short of a year later, Jake and his wife, now my neighbors, came to my home for Seder, where he heard Hallel for the first time. Hallel is one of the most notable collections of tunes and melodies and plays a significant role in how we distinguish special times on the Jewish calendar. He told me he wanted to learn everything as he left my home that evening.
We have begun an almost weekly chevruta, getting together to immerse in learning and text. In our case, the text is the liturgy and tunes I have picked up as an experienced shul hopper and Jake’s training as a musician that allows him to hear and translate into notes and scores so other musicians can follow suit. I understand the interplay between written and oral tradition more in the last few months from meeting with Jake. I imagine it is analogous to the tales of how our sages expressed orally with some so that others could write it down in order to share the teachings of our tradition more broadly.
This past Shabbat, Bolton Street Synagogue hosted us for the second time for Shabbat Unplugged. Just as I serve as a translator of Jewish tradition to my community, Jake is a translator of music in his. Together — along with some other musician friends — we have been trying to take the sounds that would be familiar in shul and the music that would move and lift spirits and present them to a demographic of folks looking for something they haven’t yet found.
I often recall these words: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not leave. Just walk beside me and be my friend, and together we will walk in the name of Hashem.”
My work is to champion the multiplicity of paths one might take on a Jewish journey and provide opportunities for next steps. This may or may not be enough to sustain a meaningful Jewish identity over time. We know, however, from Pirkei Avot, it is not our duty to complete the work, but we are also not permitted to desist from it.
I hope many of the people I touch will take steps toward deeper Jewish engagement. I am inspired by watching the fruitful nature of the steps we take together.
Rabbi Jessy Gross runs Charm City Tribe, a program of the Jewish Community Center.