By Abigail Adams
It started in a bar. Dori Robinson, assistant director of UMASS Amherst Hillel, had spent the week sending out a flurry of invitations through e-mails and social networking sites to the first event of J-Grads, a pub night. Robinson, a recent transplant to the area, was spearheading the J-Grads initiative to create on-going programming at UMASS Hillel for graduate students, something that had only occurred on a sporadic basis.
“I thought there’s got to be a lot of young Jewish individuals in the Valley,” Robinson told the Jewish Ledger. “We just all need to be in the same place. So I decided to start programming with something really light-hearted. I find it’s pretty non-threatening to say let’s get together and have a drink and see if there’s a group here.”
At first, Dori Robinson and one other attendee sat alone in Northampton’s Tunnel Bar. “This will never work,” Robinson recalled her companion saying.
“I never anticipated it would be as big as it is now,” Dori Robinson told the Ledger. “It’s extraordinary what’s been done.”
Through J-Grads events and the celebration of Shabbat, individual networks of young professionals, area residents and graduate students began to coalesce. The individuals attracted to the newly forming community indicated a need to transform J-Grads from a UMASS group into something more inclusive. Ari Kobren, relocated from Silver Springs, MD to pursue a PhD in Computer Science at UMASS, and Noah Slovin, a Worcester native obtaining an M.S. at UMASS in Geosciences, were introduced at the Tunnel Bar and became instrumental in J-Grad’s metamorphosis into Emek Hachalutzim. “Young professionals didn’t necessarily want to go to UMASS events,” Kobren told the Jewish Ledger, “but people seemed to have a really good time during Shabbat at Noah’s house. Everybody wanted this community.”
Shabbat dinners quickly became a traditional activity for the forming Emek Hachalutzim. However, the celebration as a cohesive community was complicated by the level of observance of some members who will not drive on Shabbat. Slovin and Kobren, at the time Amherst residents, found themselves relying on the hospitality of Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Seltzer, former Hillel Director at Amherst and Smith College, to attend a Shabbat dinner in Northampton. That night, Rabbi Bromberg Seltzer recommended creating a Moishe House for the Pioneer Valley.
Moishe House is an international organization devoted to training and supporting young Jewish adults in the creation of peer communities. The model now boasts 59 Moishe Houses with over 65,000 attendees to events and Shabbat dinners a year.
“After the suggestion we started talking about it more intensely,” Noah Slovin told the Jewish Ledger. “Ari and I were both in a situation where each of us were finishing our lease. We thought it would be interesting if we could start this Jewish house. So we started doing programming and branding ourselves and reaching out to people.”
Dory Fox, a recent college graduate relocating from Chicago to Western MA for a position with the Yiddish Book Center, was one of the individuals that the newly named Emek Hachalutzim reached. While initially apprehensive about moving into a Moishe-style house, Ari Kobren and Noah Slovin’s enthusiasm was contagious. “I just got excited by it,” Fox explained. ”We had skyped and they had talked to me about their ideas. It seemed like something I really wanted to be a part of.”
In August 2013, Fox, Slovin and Kobren moved into what is now known as the Emek House in Northampton.
The Emek House shares a similar mission and organizing model with Moishe House, however, Fox, Slovin and Kobren decided not to officially register as one in an effort to be truly inclusive of the developing community. “Moishe House seems relatively intent on having events for 21-30 year olds,” Kobren explained. “But the people in the Emek community have a wide spread of ages and some people felt uncomfortable with that.”
The members of Emek Hachalutzim are as eclectic as the events and activities the organization sponsors. Emek members come from a spectrum of Jewish backgrounds and are at different phases of their life, education and career – all members, however, share the desire to be part of a Jewish community.
The incredible growth of the Emek community can be attributed not only to its inclusiveness but also to its decentralized organizing structure that creates programing based on the expressed interests and initiatives of its members. Events have included rock-climbing, holiday parties, political and literary discussion groups, concerts, Hebrew conversation nights and bar hopping.
Emek Hachalutzim continues to grow and transform as new members become involved and the community engages in discussions about its mission and its future. Shabbat dinners, however, continue to be a constant that brings the Emek community together. In October, Emek House hosted the largest Shabbat dinner to date, with more than 45 attendees and a potluck that accommodated all members – from those with a strict Kashrut observance to those with gluten allergies. “For me,” Dori Robinson said of her vision for Emek Hachalutzim, “I want a warm and welcoming young adult group that in a joyful way wants to explore Judaism and build community. And at the very least I want a fun chill place to go to for a potluck at the end of the week. Because at the end of the day you want community and really that’s what community is all about.”
Information on upcoming Emek Hachalutzim events can be found on facebook at facebook.com/pioneeremek.
See a story about Springfield’s NextGen in the February issue
of the Ledger.