Lamented as the least-engaged age group in Jewish life, 20- and 30-somethings are notorious for our dismally low rates of synagogue membership and, more broadly, of any form of religious involvement. Mobile to a fault, we are constantly on the move in search of higher education, better jobs, and potential romantic partners. According to the New York Times, a third of 20-somethings change residence every year. So, how do we create meaningful Jewish community amid all this flux?
The Talmud (Bava Bavtra 8a) dictates that when people move to a new town, they are obligated to contribute to the maintenance of the city after one year — or sooner if they buy a home and indicate their intention to stay. In this text and others, Jewish tradition bases community responsibility on longevity. So how should Jews define community membership in highly mobile populations? And what can we learn from these communities that may be helpful to everyone else?
Part of the international Moishe House network, Moishe House Boston: Kavod Jewish Social Justice House is a community of more than 300 young adult Jews. It centers on a physical house where four “resident organizers” live, and it serves a population that stays in town, on average, for only two years.
We have found that the key to creating our community is an emphasis on participation and ownership — covenantal relationship — at every level. Each person is invited — and expected — to contribute actively to the running of the community. For example, at our biweekly Shabbat services and potluck meals, people volunteer to cook, lead services, and greet new members; each person is also asked to devote ten minutes to cleaning up. Like the quorum necessary to make a minyan, people in our community know that they count.
How have we gotten to a place where people feel that they count and understand the responsibilities that counting brings?
A few years ago, the community’s leadership began to explore the idea of instituting a membership structure. Commonplace in synagogues, membership is almost anathema among our peers. Most programs that target young adults aim to be as easy to plug into as possible. “Please come and consume our programs!” they seem to say. In these venues, the mere act of showing up is considered contribution enough.
Our community decided to take a different approach. We started by asking: “Who wants to be noticed when they’re missing?” Membership, then, grew out of a person’s desire to say “Hineini: I am here; I want to be counted.” And, since 2008, when we reconfigured what it meant to belong to the community, participants have claimed a deeper sense of ownership. Membership in the organization means not only a contribution of financial resources, but also an investment of energy. While the latter is not formally required, members’ input, creativity, and time are recognized to be the fuel on which the organization runs.
We retooled and made transparent our internal structure. We made clear the road to leadership and how to engage the entire community in big decisions. Members not only develop and lead our events and program teams, but they also elect and serve on a community board that steers our work. We hold occasional house meetings as well as an annual membership meeting and community retreat. Members are now pivotal to making the big decisions that were formerly determined by an unelected ad-hoc group of founders/leaders. Though this effort is still very much a work in progress, the fruits of its success are already apparent.
This year, a group of relatively new members, guided by Rabbi Toba Spitzer and our board, led our community in a process of re-evaluating our dues structure. After three months of learning, grappling, and decision-making, we voted unanimously to institute a new dues structure similar to that of the rabbi’s synagogue, Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, Mass. Cash-strapped graduate students, nonprofit professionals, lawyers, and rabbis all made contributions according to their capacity; the spirit reflected the offerings of the heart the Israelites made to the mishkan. The organization’s annual budget is approximately $60,000. Primary costs include rent for the apartment space (which also serves as a rent subsidy and as the way housemate organizers are compensated), monthly programming (primarily food), and an annual community retreat.
Of course, these values and practices don’t work for everyone. While some newcomers are thrilled at the ease with which they can plug in, others are less enthusiastic and feel overwhelmed when asked to help plan events for a community they have only tentatively joined. Fortunately, our peers in Boston have an array of options, many of which require less volunteer leadership commitment than ours.
Focusing on covenantal engagement and ownership takes time and energy — especially the effort to identify and cultivate leaders. But the result is a community where almost everyone does the work. Members have the support and investment they need in order to take the lead, and people know they count.email print