By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – What does it mean to be a young American Jew today? That’s the question that will define a series of workshops in Worcester this winter, sponsored by the Harold N. Cotton Center for Leadership Excellence, a program of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.
On Dec. 15, the first workshop, run by Brandeis research scientist Fern Chertok, will focus on the film, “The Five Year Engagement.” Subsequent meetings will bring in local rabbis as well as a leadership expert from the UJA Federation of New York to discuss the parameters of modern Jewish identity and involvement. [See sidebar]
This year’s Cotton series was developed specifically with young adults (ages 22 to 45) in mind at the behest of Federation Executive Director Howard Borer, Federation Outreach Director Mindy Hall, Rabbi Michael Swarttz of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough, and members of the Council of Federation’s Young Adult Division of Central Mass, or YAD.
More informally, the same question of how to be Jewish in our contemporary society has provided the underpinning for YAD itself, which held its first event three-and-a-half years ago.
“Our primary goal has always been to connect the members of our young Jewish community with one another,’ Borer said. “With so many of this age cohort busy with so many other things, we felt it very important to provide a ‘meeting’ place for our young adult community. The rest is up to them to connect in a way that is meaningful to them. The Federation is here to help in that process.”
Recent research indicates clearly that young Jewish adults are more interested in connecting to the Jewish world outside of the synagogue setting, a fact borne out by demographic shifts in communities across the country.
But they are interested in connecting, and that desire is the driving force behind YAD, says Mindy Hall, who has worked tirelessly to develop and expand the group. “So how do we nurture their Jewish side and help them grow and develop and discover how Judaism fits into their lives?”
The first task is to find them. Hall considers herself YAD’s “concierge,” charged with inviting people into the fold as well as helping them maintain contact through social media such as Facebook, Meet Up or the private site, www.jewishcentral.org. There are 130 people on YAD’s active Facebook page, and Hall has made contact with about 200 in all.
“I reach out through whatever medium I have,” she says, “either through happenstance, through life, through referrals, through emails I receive from people inquiring about Jewish activities. As soon as they show their face or their name, I call them. Sometimes people want to connect right away, others want to think about it.”
Those who are active in the group get together once a month at someone’s house for a Shabbat dinner, meet regularly for Happy Hours at a local bar or restaurant, and plan events that range from holiday parties to working together in a soup kitchen. Most participants are in their late twenties, though the age range extends to the early forties, and many are newcomers to the Greater Worcester area. It’s an eclectic group that reflects contemporary social dynamics, says Hall.
“We have Jews of different races, people who are interfaith, couples of the same sex, Jews by choice, or Jews who don’t know anything about their Judaism but are seeking some kind of connection.” The common core is that “people want to meet each other,” she says.
“Whether they are religious or not, there is a desire to connect to other Jewish people.”
Melissa Green, who is the co-chair of YAD’s Advisory Council, is an ideal example. She and her boyfriend, now fiancé, moved to the Worcester area a year-and-a-half ago from Tampa because he took a new job. In their mid-thirties, they are as yet childless young professionals. She is a wetlands scientist and project manager at BSC Group. “I didn’t know anyone,” she says, “and I had been involved a little with the YAD group in Tampa. I wanted to meet new people.”
She attended her first YAD event a year ago and, when she was asked to join the new YAD Council, found herself the co-chair at the very first meeting. “YAD brings some good relationships and friendships and helps me keep up with Jewish culture and tradition,” she says.
She and her fiancé hosted the YAD Hanukkah party. Although she stresses that the group is “not hugely religious,” she nonetheless finds that, because she does not belong to a synagogue, YAD offers “a way to get some sort of religion in my life.” Most important, “it’s a great social way to meet other Jewish people. I’m a big believer in the special connection among Jews.” YAD also participated in the Hanukkah party held at UMass Medical School by JewMass, a social group open to medical students and residents, which the group helped launch two years ago. It continues to sponsor some of their events.
“We’re in a good place,” says Green, who enjoys the mix of activities and hopes that new members will continue to expand the group. She would also like to see greater involvement with the local community, strengthening connections begun through tikkun olam.
For Federation, YAD is fulfilling a critical need. “We’re helping to build bridges to create a bigger community,” says Mindy Hall. “There was a nonexistent young adult community, dispersed; no one knew there were any Jews around. YAD is about creating bridges to each other, to Federation, and to building young leadership that can carry on the Jewish community.”
Harold N. Cotton Center
for Leadership Excellence
What Does It Mean to Be
an American Jew Today?
Workshop 1: What’s in Your Jewish Drawer?
Dec. 15: Breakfast, 10-10:30 a.m.; workshop, 10:30 a.m. to noon.
Interactive discussion of “The Five Year Engagement,” with Fern Chertok, Research Scientist, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.
Workshop 2: Issues of Modern Jewish Identity
Jan. 12: Breakfast, 10-10:30 a.m.; workshop, 10:30 a.m. to noon.
Panel discussion with local rabbis, including Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz (Congregation B’nai Shalom), Rabbi Steven Schwarzman (Congregation Beth Israel) and Rabbi Michael Schwarttz (Beth Tikvah Synagogue), each representing different denominations and points of view.
Workshop 3: Being Jewish in Today’s Complex
and Rapidly Changing World
Feb. 9: Breakfast, 10-10:30 a.m.; workshop, 10:30 a.m. to noon.
Speaker: Ezra Shanken, Director of Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists (ELP) at the UJA Federation of New York. Issues to discuss include: being Jewish in a non-Jewish work environment; Jewish values in everyday life; why do we continue family traditions; how do young adults fit into the Greater Worcester Jewish community or the global community?
All workshops will take place in the Senior Lounge at the Worcester JCC, 633 Salisbury St. For more information or to register, please contact Mindy Hall at email@example.com or call (508) 756-1543.