Shalom. Last time I reported on item four on my retirement list of things to do, which is tending to my little shul in Warrenton. This time it’s a project alluded to in item six, the creation of the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project. I only alluded to it because it didn’t have a name or much else at the time of that column.
I hang around with Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, who coincidentally grew up in Beth El. We brainstorm about little things, like the Jewish future. He is very creative. If you were looking for a path to help rebuild the American Jewish community, where would you look? We think it’s through strengthening the middle – look how much trouble we are in as we struggle to find common ground here in the United States and look at Great Britain after Brexit. Our Conservative movement is that middle. We thought that if we could engage young people and young families, the grass roots, in dynamic ways, with our “brand” of Judaism, we could do some good and maybe inspire other communities to follow suit.
Our first creation was the Ramah Day Camp, aimed at young families. With help from local Ramah families and leadership from the mother ship, Camp Ramah of New England, we launched a pilot program in the summer of 2014. One week, forty kids, at Ohr Kodesh. Last summer a four week program with 100 kids at a great retreat facility in Germantown. This summer (beginning Monday) a six week program with more than 160 kids registered, on the same site, which we are rapidly outgrowing. This is only the fourth Ramah day camp in the whole country, and like the others it offers a unique combination of camping and Conservative Jewish learning and living to young families in the area. One building block, about which more will be said in future columns.
Creation number two is the millennial engagement project. You may have heard that millennials present many challenges for organized religion (not just ours but that is our focus.) The millennial generation—young professionals between graduating college and starting a family—has thrived on the boundlessness that our technological revolution provides. Untethered to particular spaces and traditional affiliations, millennial Jews are increasingly opting out of things like synagogue membership. But when they have families will they join up with the community in the ways we are used to seeing? There is much concern about that. We know that they do seek substantive Jewish engagement that reminds them of their time spent in youth groups, camps, college Hillels, and other informal Jewish settings. Does that guarantee communal participation down the road? What to do with them now? One idea is to engage them now in non traditional ways and hope to build on that.
As Jacob and I were pondering all this, we met Rami Schwartzer, who directed the day camp last summer and was finishing rabbinic school with a special emphasis on an entrepreneurial rabbinate. He too had been thinking about millennials, is one himself, and wanted to try his hand at engaging them. And he is extraordinarily talented. So…we convinced Rami to follow his ordination by moving to our community and directing the camp as well as launching an effort to reach millennials living in lower Montgomery County. (Two half-time positions for now, with seasonable work load adjustments.) There are extensive millennial outreach efforts in the District – think Sixth & I, and Adas Israel, not much else. We looked at the growth of apartment and condo living in Bethesda Rockville and Silver Spring and saw fertile territory. Once camp is done in early August, Rami will begin to focus much of his time on engagement. His efforts will partly mirror those of Chabad, as he and his wife Adina ( a social worker and great person also) will have a welcoming home where millennials are invited for Shabbat and holiday dinners and study sessions and cultural events. Different from Chabad, Rami will also be “out there” in coffee shops and apartment buildings and public spaces, meeting millennials and building community and leadership cadres from the one to one contacts. This is not a quick fix for Jewish life in America – it’s much more about planting seeds. Rami has the skills and personality to make it work.
I will spare you all the efforts needed to create JMEP – first fundraising that includes twelve conservative shuls, Ramah, the Jewish Federation, United Synagogue and The Rabbinical Assembly as well as a number of philanthropists. We created a Maryland corporation, have a Board and By Laws and an EIN and bank accounts, and have about completed the paperwork to achieve 501(c)(3) status. I personally have been stretched in many new ways to help make this happen, and it’s been both fun and rewarding.
You will hear more as the project gets off the ground, and do feel free to ask me for more information about it or how you can support it. The millennial project, and the camp, represent an important effort to rebuild our movement and give new vitality at the center grass roots of American Jewry. I feel fortunate to do my little share to help make it happen. And there you have item six of how I am spending my (?well earned?) retirement.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph