The Benjamin Project

Introduction

My Jewish epiphany came in what I imagine is the least Jewish of settings: the open platform of a train steaming eastward through the lush Mississippi backwoods. I was on the train as a participant of the Millennial Trains Project, which describes itself as “a non-profit that leads crowd-funded transcontinental train journeys for diverse groups of young innovators to explore America’s new frontiers.”

Simply put, MTP is a cross-country train trip with 25 spots onboard. To get onboard, a Millennial (generally, someone born between 1980 and 2000) must raise $5,000 for a specific project to be completed along the course of the trip, which, in this case, went from LA to Washington, D.C. Our projects ran the gamut, from an analysis of community-based invasive species management techniques to the launch of a platform educating cancer patients about proper nutrition.

I learned of the program by sheer chance (I saw the intriguing logo on a t-shirt in Brooklyn) and suddenly I was overwhelmed by a need to get aboard that train, no matter the project. I had quit work and was looking for an adventure. But what did I care enough about to raise $5,000 for? The Maroon 5 tour would have ended by May…

What came to me kicked off The Benjamin Project, a journey that continues to this day. The project is all about discovering and promoting the ways in which Jewish communities across the country are adapting to a new generation of American Jews. Going to synagogue never appealed to me and finding Jewish community was a real challenge. I hoped through my experience to find fun and interesting Jewish communities that I — and one day my kids — could join.

So there I stood, looking out the back of the open platform as the train rolled towards Atlanta, more than halfway through my trip. A metaphor came to me then that I could not shake: American Jewish culture is a beautiful thing in an ugly dress and that dress needs a change. Based on my learnings from this trip, my hypothesis as to how to shape American Jewish culture to suit the needs of my generation depends on advancing three crucial reforms:

We must 1) encourage established Jewish organizations to better mix with the secular interests of young people within each Jewish community; 2) be more inclusive of Jewish diversity; and 3) master the tricky art of supporting bottom-up community building.

1) Connecting Judaism with young Jews’ secular interests:

Synagogues and Places of Faith:

The Benjamin Project was borne of a tension I’ve always felt: I loved being Jewish but never really enjoyed going to synagogue services. When I did go to services, the part I enjoyed was being mindful, contemplative and disconnected from my phone for an hour or so. (I probably would have gotten similar pleasure from doing yoga in a place with no cell reception.) Neither the content, so to speak, nor the environment of services connected with me. I always felt a million miles away from the rabbi up on the pulpit, uncomfortable in my formal wear, understanding none of the Hebrew and guessing haplessly at which page we were on in the Siddur. I liked the sermons but they were always short and didn’t give me an opportunity to opine!

These sentiments concerned me because, of all things Jewish, I should love services. I studied History and Spanish literature in college and am a law student. Analysis and discussion of the past — its rules, folklore, liturgy — and the application of its lessons to the modern world is, frankly, my jam. I suspected that I was not alone, not only because many of my friends expressed similar reservations but also because synagogue attendance is plummeting around the country. I wondered, is there a way to address that?

There is, and it is a relief to know that Rabbi Sharon Brous is one of the leaders at the helm. I met her at her office in the Los Angeles where her congregation IKAR is adapting spiritual practice to the needs of the Millennial generation.

To understand IKAR, it is worth understanding another modern social force: startups. Startups are reshaping American culture by inverting social norms. Many of these shifts pertain to formality. For example, Chipotle removed the barriers of formality to quality food; Tinder did so in the realm of dating, and Mark Zuckerberg inspired a generation (myself included) to wear hoodies to work. These changes made good food easier to get, potential partners easier to meet, and the workplace more comfortable. They are celebrated by Millennials who have gladly sacrificed propriety for these conveniences.

In the same vein, Rabbi Brous’ congregation, IKAR, is inverting the traditional structure of Jewish spiritual practice since its founding in 2004. According to Rabbi Brous, the consequence of formality in traditional synagogues created prayer environments that were “perfunctory, rote, spiritually uninteresting” and, as a result, prone to disengagement.

Rabbi Brous, who works out of an office in the Los Angeles Westside JCC, is bringing the synagogue experience back to basics: to serve the spiritual, as well as political, social and intellectual needs of a Jewish community. She wants to reinvigorate Jewish practice in an authentic way. No big box synagogue buildings but rather members’ living rooms; no singular sermons but rather group discussions around a coffee table; no denominations — IKAR’s slices Judaism in a way that renders denominations irrelevant and her congregants couldn’t care less — but rather pure spirituality, eager intellect and liberal-skewing sense of social justice.

IKAR started in the living rooms of its congregants and has flourished there because it is a space that fosters spirituality and builds strong community among its members. And the community has kept on growing. So too have similar congregations popped up all over the country, including Chicago and New York.

Before I left, I asked about the future of IKAR, particularly if they had plans for a building of their own. Ideally, Rabbi Brous told me, IKAR’s place in Los Angeles would also house an amalgam of other Jewish organizations that can share its home, collaborate, and grow together. In other words, IKAR would pioneer a Jewish co-working space.

Fortunately, it looks like IKAR is not unique in its success. Congregations both new and old across the country are seeing similar success as they incorporate the secular interests of young people. A quote from Rav Kook that adorns IKAR’s website conveys fittingly what I see as its importance to American Judaism: “The old will be made new, and the new will be made holy.” Amen.

The Potential of Non-Religious Jewish organizations:

The other part of the equation comprises non-religious Jewish organizations — Hillels, JCCs, Federations and non-profits in communities across the country. These organizations are excellently positioned to suit the needs of Millennial Jews for several reasons.

Firstly, they exist where a vast majority of Millennial Jews are: on college campuses and in cities. As for college, virtually all American Jews attend. And, according to Hillel International, 80% of college-age American Jews attends colleges that have active Hillels, and most major universities in the US have large Jewish populations. These statistics are not likely to change. And from those universities, young Millennials — Jews included — are setting a striking trend by choosing to live in cities over suburbs at an unprecedented rate. These two facts aver that established non-religious organizations like Hillels, JCCs and Federations will have vibrant populations to serve — if they so choose — because young Jews are going to where they are presently entrenched.

Secondly, these organizations are well suited to serve the Millennial Jewish generation because they can be agile. In contrast to synagogues, which are more prone to constraint by expectations, traditions, and stigmas, non-religious organizations are freer to adapt. They are also generally well-funded, which makes it even easier to adapt. And they should adapt — as the title of this section suggests — to changing needs.

I met with several organizations across the country but, of them all, the textbook example of an organization doing this right is the Silverlake Independent JCC in Los Angeles.

I first learned about this particular JCC in a front-cover story in the LA Times featuring its popularity. In true Silverlake, LA fashion, my meeting with Zan Romanoff, Program Coordinator for the Center, was held in a trendy coffee shop (oh, that brownie!). The SIJCC is getting lots of attention for something that is apparently revolutionary: cool Jewish events hosted by young people for young people. SIJCC programming is guided by a simple question that the staff of 20-somethings asks itself: “Would I want to go to this? Would I invite my friends?” ‘Yes’ is requisite. Period.

This MO has had a few interesting consequences. For one, the focus of the events is much more positive (one of their most popular events is the Festival of Love, celebrating the sadly undercelebrated Tu B’av), creative, and — no surprise — closely in line with the interests of secular culture. Notice that they don’t ask themselves anything about the Jewishness of the programming. The SIJCC hosts events that young Jews would want to participate in with or without its Jewish content. They sponsor an arts and culture residency called Culture Labs where local artists create work inspired by a specific, loosely Jewish theme [example]. Within the SIJCC is a group called East Side Jews founded by a handful of friends — among them Jill Soloway, creator of Transparent and Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds — who wanted a more vibrant Jewish scene on the east side of LA. Through that platform, SIJCC hosts a monthly dinner called Last Sabbath where people meet at different restaurants to discuss different topics relating to spirituality. This was the event featured favorably in the LA Times — “A Hipster Take on Spirituality” blared the headline. This article is important because it demonstrates secular society’s affirmation that SIJCC’s work is cool. (It would mean less in this context if it were featured in the Jewish Journal). If nothing else, this indicates that their programming passes their own initial Would I go to this? Would I invite my friends? test; that it’s a Jewish event is an added bonus.

Baltimore’s JCC is also doing this right. Ellie Brown of the Baltimore JCC’s Charm City Tribe, a Jewish young adults’ group, deserves an honorable mention. I met her for tacos in the Waterfront area of downtown Baltimore. Besides being awesome, she is the program coordinator for Charm City Tribe. Rabbi Jessy Gross and she plan “thought provoking and socially engaging programs designed to connect to the Jew in you,” i.e. events that you will find interesting but that will also related to your Jewishness, similar to SIJCC. Their series of events exemplifies the breadth that JCCs should reach in terms of secular-focused Jewish content. They have the Mobile Sukkah which sets up a Sukkah at a different bar every night of Sukkot and then hosts a tailgate with etrog ice cream; they helped support the launch of Jews United for Justice, a social justice organization, in Baltimore; they host the Wild Purim Rumpus, a creative event of performers of every type that includes a puppet show; they run a “VolunTeam” of people interested in volunteering the Baltimore community; and they host a group that explores the culinary world called Jewish Foodies. From food to arts and culture, Charm City Tribe does a fantastic job of covering every base. Their events extend far beyond professional groups and fundraising events; the goal should be for events to be “transformative, not transactional,” Ellie attests wisely.

Two other exemplary organizations deserve recognition. The first is a non-profit called Challah for Hunger that bakes and sells challah, donating the proceeds to fight hunger and other social justice issues. It was recognized by the Clinton Foundation, has more than 70 chapters predominantly at universities, and boasts a name that is a real-life representation of my thesis: Jewish element (challah) + secular interest (fighting hunger) = meaningful and attractive. The second is Ana Robbin’s Jewish Kids Group which is reinventing Hebrew school by weaving a full-bodied Jewish curriculum into a “ridiculously cool” summer camp atmosphere. When 84% of Jewish children are not getting a Jewish education, her work in making Jewish education fun for kids is crucial. I recommend you watch her explain her amazing concept in the link above.

The JCCs, Hillels, Federations and other Jewish organizations in our cities and on our campuses across the country will succeed in attracting young Jews by approaching programming with the Would I invite my friends to this? mentality because it nets the broadest common denominator. The Jewish content will attract people interested in Jewish topics, and the elements of secular interest will attract those young Jews who don’t care about the Jewish content but would be looking to do something fun and entertaining that night anyways. In case you were wondering, SIJCC is growing like crazy.

In conclusion, the established Jewish community, both religious and non-religious, can attract Millennial Jews by catering to their secular interests in art, culture, food and finding meaning in the world. There are a few ways communities can take steps towards doing this. Firstly, make sure that a young person with secular interests is involved in coordinating the programming. That will be the only way to create programming authentic enough to work. Secondly, reach out to organizations in communities far and near that do a good job of it for advice. They will be happy to help. Thirdly, take your message into the community — lots of young Jews don’t assume to look to synagogues or established organizations for interesting things to do on a Saturday night. Let’s change that.

Expecting the next generation of American Jews to conform to old cultural standards simply does not work. While these remedies are surely more easily recommended than implemented, they are eminently worthy of pursuit.

2) Embracing Jewish Diversity

The next generation of American Jews will be more heterogeneous than any that preceded it. They will come from every range of sexual/gender orientation. They will cover the whole spectrum of religiosity and non-religiosity. They will have varying opinions on Israel. They will be more likely to engage Jewish-ly beyond the synagogue with progressive issues of race, social justice, food sustainability, LGBTQ rights. More than half (if not more) will come from interfaith marriages. This is simply the reality. No amount of guilt, prodding or shpilkes is going to change anything, yet it is critically important that this panoply of Jewish expression be welcomed into our communities. It is in everyone’s best interest, and we will be judged by how accepting we are of such change.

That revelation came as a result of a conversation with Sheila Katz, a Vice President at Hillel International, in Washington, D.C. at Kramer Books & Afterwords Café in Dupont Circle. Washington was my last stop on the trip, and her words stuck with me. We discussed not only the morality of Jewish inclusivity, but its necessity for sustaining our culture. Our conversation focused on two topics.

Interfaith Marriage

Statistics published by Pew Research show that today more Jews marry outside the faith than inside the faith. Anyone who is serious about making American Judaism sustainable must deal with this reality.

But let’s back up for a second and consider two types of Jews who marry outside the faith. There are those who are not Jewish-ly committed, and then there are those who are Jewish-ly committed. For those who are not Jewish-ly committed, there may be many reasons why they are not. If the reason is that they have not found Jewish culture interesting or compelling, I can understand that, and Part 1 of this report deals with how Jewish American culture can improve. That may not be the issue but making Jewish experiences more interesting can’t hurt.

For those who are Jewish-ly committed and have married someone out of the faith, they face many obstacles to leading Jewish lives from the outset. They often face general scorn from their families. They have to explain themselves each of the hundreds of times they get the “Is he/she Jewish?” question. Many rabbis — likely the ones that presided over their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs — won’t even officiate their marriages. This says nothing of the experience of the future non-Jewish spouse who probably could not have anticipated causing such a stir. While the conversion process is an important step, they may still be treated as an outsider, to say nothing of the knowledge gap as a result of growing up not Jewish and then being thrust into a Jewish life.

This ordeal is exhausting and exclusionary. To see that it would engender resentment — or more likely, apathy — towards the Jewish community does not take a huge leap of faith. Therefore, such a welcome to Judaism for interfaith couples is bad for American Jewish culture. While the numerous benefits of marrying in the faith remain strong and persuasive as ever, American Jews must not only accept interfaith marriages. We must go out of our way to accommodate interfaith couples and their children, or risk alienating a large and growing segment of the Jewish population.

We can start by welcoming the couples wholeheartedly to the community and treating them as any other Jewish couple would be treated. Synagogues and JCCs should offer opportunities for interfaith couples to meet others so they can form community. Their children should be treated like any other Jewish child. Most of all, we should ask them what we can do for them to smooth their transition.

Young Jews should not have to choose between their Judaism and the ones they love. As the numbers show, the choice won’t go Judaism’s way. In order to sustain American Jewish culture, it is incumbent upon our community not to guilt, pressure, or ostracize but to make sure they can happily have it both ways.

Views on Israel

Another area of Jewish diversity regards views on Israel.

It is ludicrous to think that there will be one opinion — AIPAC’s — among American Jews of relations with Israel. The days of unanimous support for AIPAC, if those days ever existed, is over. Its chief counterpart is J Street, a much more liberal organization that is not afraid to criticize Israeli politicians, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu. AIPAC and much of the Jewish community maligns J Street and actively seeks to exclude them from the larger umbrella of Jewish organizations in the US.

I find this attitude shockingly counterproductive. Attacking J Street is not going to make those opinions go away. And, why would the Jewish community want to alienate a group of Jews who care about Israel, even though their views deviate from AIPAC’s views? The established Jewish community should be thrilled that an organization is mobilizing Jews, especially young Jews, in growing numbers. I understand that many traditional Jewish groups consider J Street’s positions as compromising of Israel’s security but a plurality of Jews agree with J Street’s main tenets. I can only see benefit in bringing J Street to the table and welcoming any group that cares about Israel.

3) Supporting bottom-up, organic communities

Organic communities are those built and run by a group of people for that group of people. Supporting their growth among young Jews is critical, because, with the right support, young Jews will create Jewish communities that reflect their secular interests and their own diversity, and thus usher in the change they need.

Let’s start with Moishe House, an organization that caught my attention while doing research for my trip. I spoke their Chief Operating Officer, Jen Kraus Rosen, somewhere west of San Antonio, while stuck in some terrible train traffic. (I’d take rush hour traffic on the 405 over train traffic any day of the week). Here’s the scoop: with the help of local philanthropists, Moishe House subsidizes the rent of a house or apartment for three to five Jews in their 20s. In exchange, the residents have to do a certain amount of Jewish programming every month (generally between four and seven events) with the help of Moishe House staff and budget. In the nine years since its founding, Moishe House has ballooned to 79 houses in 18 countries, working with almost 20,000 young Jews. Moishe House is amazing because it does two very important things. Firstly, it brings young, interested Jews together under one roof and supports them in creating a space for Jewish programming that benefits the whole community — Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, Jewish learning, social justice activities. Secondly, and this was a point that Jen stressed, Moishe House teaches young Jews a critical skill: how to have a Jewish home.

My first time in New Orleans and with a belly full of beignets, I wended through the narrow streets of the French Quarter in search of the Big Easy’s very own Moishe House. There I met with two of the city’s three Moishe housemates. I don’t know why this surprised me, but they were extremely normal, candid, and were by no means über Jews. They liked Moishe House primarily because they paid very little for an awesome house right in the French Quarter. They used their budget to host Jewish events that were fun for them and their friends. Their supervision by the Moishe House organization — regional directors Skype monthly with each house to set programming calendar and review budget — seemed cumbersome but overall the benefits outweighed the costs. They reported that they were definitely more Jewish-ly active, more involved in the local Jewish community, and felt confident in their Jewish skills.

According to Moishe House’s internal surveying, their organization is having a remarkable impact. Their numbers are growing steadily, and those who participate feel overwhelmingly a stronger connection to Judaism and desire to lead a Jewish life. All this in exchange for subsidized rent!

While Moishe House participants and alumni are more Jewish-ly active and now have the know-how to create Jewish community wherever they go, the Moishe House model is tough to sustain. Each house requires considerable resource and is by nature limited in reach. A vital step in facilitating bottom-up, organic community growth will require lowering the barrier to the kind of funds and resources that make Moishe House so awesome.

Moishe House inaugurated Moishe House Without Walls (MHWOW) in 2011 to do just that. MHWOW was created to help Moishe House alumni face the inevitable steep drop-off in Jewish engagement as they went from 5–7 programs per month, learning exercises, built in community to zilch when they moved out of their Moishe Houses. MHWOW provides alumni — and only alumni — access to funding of $150 per event, up to twice a month for three years. That funding can go towards Jewish cultural, educational, holiday, or social service content. If someone wants to build community with an occasional poolside BBQ, that’s kosher in their book too.

Back home from the trip, and missing the feeling of falling asleep on a moving train, I spoke with the Director of MHWOW, Jonathan Morgan. A major goal of his is to lower the barrier to such funding and increase access to all those who clamor deservingly for it. Right now, they are piloting an expansion program in San Diego, Chicago and Washington, D.C. that grants funds with much more ease. And in the future, Jon told me, “if there is a person anywhere in the world in their 20s who is passionate about building Jewish community, we want to invest in their talent and their potential.” MHWOW participation is already on pace to outgrow Moishe House participation by 2016, and this new flexibility will only accelerate its growth.

Moishe House Without Walls inspires me the most of all the organizations I came across during my trip. By making money, educational resources, and Moishe House staff easily accessible, it is perfecting the way Jewish communities viably support their young Jews in creating communities of their own. I would encourage Federations and philanthropists to look into funding your local MHWOW — low cost, high impact.

Despite its power and potential, MHWOW is simply an ember, and young Jewish communities sparked from organizations like MHWOW cannot exist in a vacuum. They require local nurture to thrive. Young Jewish communities need Jewish establishments like synagogues, JCCs, and Hillels to tie in young Jews’ secular interests and embrace Jewish diversity. Then, with proper support, bottom-up communities of young Jews will grow from that foundation.

Conclusion

I arrived in Austin, Texas on the heels of an epic summer storm. Rabbi Dan Septimus was still surveying the minor damage (a cracked window) to the Topfer Center for Jewish Life on the University of Texas campus when I came striding up. He welcomed me graciously, shuffling around in his flip flops, and took me to his office. We spoke for almost an hour, me asking questions and he leaning back in his chair answering in a mild-mannered Texan drawl. I left our conversation with something that I mulled over for months. He helped me see a necessary but missing component to bringing about the three major reforms: intra- and intercommunity communication and coordination. It is clear to me that in order to bring about the necessary reforms, the larger Jewish community is going to have to work together like never before.

Firstly, Jewish communities must share learnings and implement best practices. My trip showed me that groups all over the country are achieving huge strides in making their communities more accessible to Millennial Jews. Their successes must be shared to spare the wasted resource of other communities having to learn on their own. If a community wants to tie in secular interests, look to Charm City Tribe in Baltimore, the Silverlake Independent JCC, or IKAR. If a community wants to be more inclusive of diversity, look to the work of SOJOURN in Atlanta and Hillel on college campuses across the country. If a community wants to support young Jewish communities, look to your local Moishe House or Moishe House Without Walls. These exemplary organizations may not be perfect fits in every community but they will provide a great head start in the right direction.

Secondly, Jewish communities must act as concierges for young Jews, helping them get involved in any way they want. If a young woman doesn’t enjoy services but wants to get involved with social justice work, her rabbi should be willing and able to point her to the right place. If a young professional wants funds to host a Shabbat dinner for 10 friends, he must feel comfortable reaching out to the JCC in New York for guidance. If a young woman is looking for a different type of spirituality, her Conservative rabbi should direct her to a synagogue like IKAR.

Jewish communities must also coordinate to usher young Jews through the transition from high school to college and from college to the professional world. According to Rabbi Septimus, many young Jews are lost in the post-college/pre-marriage shuffle and never join a Jewish community. When a young man is preparing to graduate from college in Ohio, can his Hillel sit down with him to discuss Chicago Jewish life and the right people to get in touch with considering his needs? Can the Los Angeles Federation graciously direct someone to an organization beyond its purview?

In addition, the Jewish community needs an online platform showing all the activities in each community on any given week. Gather the Jews has made a good start but is limited only to Washington, D.C. The whole country needs one, and there is great potential in a website called GrapeVine. The Internet exists to share information; it is time the Jewish community started doing that. We must lower every barrier possible to being an engaged Jew.

To conclude, our communities must work within themselves — to tie in the secular interests of young Jews, embrace growing Jewish diversity, and support bottom-up community growth — and with other communities to better serve the needs of the Millennial generation of Jews. These are important steps towards a sustainable American Jewish future in the 21st century.

Recognition

The most special thing about our greater community is that there are a lot of Jews all across this country who not only care deeply about this intangible thing that is American Jewish culture but who dedicate their time and resource to helping it thrive. These are Jews who have secular jobs, families, and hobbies and they still find room in their lives to give back to their communities. They either cared, gave money, or cared and gave money and I’d like to recognize them: my parents, Leslie and Mark Werksman; my grandparents Miriam and Larry Goldberg and Betty and Jerry Werksman, the Cohn-Kowskys, Dan O’Connor, Charlie Soll of Los Angeles; Ron Barshop and Rachel Stern of San Antonio; Julie Oreck of New Orleans; Myra and Ivor Bamberger of Fort Lauderdale; Stacie and Marc Moss of Virginia; Brendan Burns and Yaron Schwartz of New York; Stuart Goldberg of Philadelphia; Russ Shulkes of Atlanta; Alec Miller, Lori Kauffman, Tamara Pier, Joe Pinsker, Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, and of course Jerri Bamberger of Palo Alto, CA.

Thank you to those with whom I met: Rabbi Sharon Brous, Zan Ramonoff, Seth Cohen, Jen Kraus Rosen, Rabbi Dan Septimus, New Orleans Moishe House crew, Ellie Brown, Sheila Katz, Jonathan Morgan, Erica Mandell, Jay Sanderson, Kate Belza, Eli Winkelman, Joshua Avedon, Phyllis Steinberg-Zauss, and Becca Kass.

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