Curated Jewish Experiences Can Happen in Congregations Too

At the end of last week, Ha’aretz published an important article by Debra Nussbaum Cohen, highlighting a number of enterprising and innovative “customized” Jewish experiences that are popping up, largely in urban centers, as millennials seek to curate more of their own Jewish experiences. Examples such as pop-up festival gatherings, Shabbat picnics, and independent minyanim demonstrate that Jews continue to find ways to come together in the new spaces and contexts of their lives. Nussbaum Cohen highlights some of the best examples of what is out there, but I think her headline may cover over some of the deeper learning we can glean from the phenomena that she shares.

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I want to be clear — I don’t intend for this article to be a critique of these ‘pop-up’ experiences or a defense of the synagogue model. Either reading would do an injustice to what can be found in Jewish communities across the country. Rather, Nussbaum Cohen provides a clue to a broader analysis that we can apply to her observations from a 25-year-old Brooklyn resident that she interviewed: “The age group I’m part of is transient,” she says. “People are in New York for a year or three. Investing in a shul or community has more of a rooted quality that is absent from my age group. It’s not where people want to put their energy,” says Becky Havivi.

What I’m struck by is that, in an era where carving out Jewish time in the midst of the hectic assimilated lives we live should not be assumed, we see so many of these experiences being created by and for millennials. In an era where we might ask the question of whether Jewish identity, practice, and tradition would be able to compete in the marketplace of cultural and spiritual choices to be found, it is significant and important to see a growing number of examples of young people answering that question with a resounding “yes!”

But I think Havivi’s explanation offers a truth that goes beyond the response of Schusterman Foundation senior director, Seth Cohen when he says, “(t)his is the age of hyper-curation…” I agree with him that there is a shift in culture toward individuals within a community seeking to curate their Jewish experiences (as they do with so many other aspects of their lives). I see this shift within the congregational community in which I work, and it is a dynamic that I’m excited by and eager to respond to. But it is the fact that young adults in their 20s, and often in their mid- and late-30s too, are in a much more transient phase of life than a generation ago that makes the more rooted form of community represented by congregations a less appropriate vehicle for that age group to apply their creativity. That is nothing new. That foundations and start-up groups formed by young adults and innovating rabbis are doing a better job at responding to and meeting the needs of people in this extended phase of young adult life is new, and is something worth celebrating and continuing to support.

So let’s take a brief look at how “curated experiences” can also manifest, for those who are more rooted in a particular place and entering the next phase of life, within the more settled environment of the congregational community. I’ll share a few brief examples from my own congregation as illustrations, with some “old model”- “new model” comparisons that may be a bit blunt, but provide a means of understanding what has changed.

Old model of adult learning. The Rabbi decides what they’d like to teach in the Fall or the Spring. Perhaps they create a little brochure to promote their offerings. They see who shows up to learn with them.

New model of adult learning. We bring people who share a common interest or area of expertise together and co-create some kind of learning event, group, or series (to be determined by the members) that utilizes the interests and expertise of the members. We’re about to embark on this to see what might take shape around a group with Science, Technology, and Medical expertise as we look for the connections between Judaism and groundbreaking research in these areas. Or we use a hybrid model, like the Chai Mitzvah national program, where the Rabbi facilitates a monthly gathering, but is also a resource to the group members who are embarking upon independent study, community projects, and more as individuals and in small groups. Some of these lead to new ‘pop-up’ events for the benefit of the larger community. We are hosting a Jewish Genetics event because of the work of one such member, and another is exploring the possibility of forming a small business ethics group.

Old model of interfaith outreach. Run a series of classes/gatherings using a guidebook or curriculum created by a denominational movement to teach and guide interfaith families.

New model of interfaith outreach. When members of an interfaith household share that they would like to connect to other interfaith households, help them find some like-minded community members so that they can figure out what that might look like and what they would want it to do, and then provide the community resources to help them gather, advertise, and offer an opportunity to others. That’s the model for our new ‘Interfaith Family Connections’ that we are launching this month. What the “content” will be will emerge from the members of the group.

Old models of Shabbat and festival celebration: Clergy-led events that, once created, may remain the same for many years. If attendance seems to wane, leaders might tweak the model and try something new from time to time.

New models of Shabbat and festival celebration: Get together with members of a variety of cohorts within a congregation, with particular awareness to when people may have been considered part of one cohort when, in fact, they don’t all belong together and have different needs. At my congregation, we’ve spent the last few years re-shaping our monthly Family Shabbat, with break-out experiences for our youngest members during the evening; a re-boot that was co-designed with the parents of the families we wanted to better serve. We similarly re-designed some of our High Holy Day options for a more ‘curated’ approach to meeting the needs of households with and without children, providing five different options of Festival service. We’ve applied similar modes of thinking to re-shape some festivals. We’re also creating more opportunities for members to actively contribute to the content of a worship service.

I know that there are many congregations who are no longer working with the old models, or who have shifted their approach to meet the needs of today’s members. The larger point is that the kind of conversations, experiments, and innovations that characterize the new offerings for millennials that are free from older institutional cultures and established congregational spaces are taking place in many of those congregational spaces too. And, wherever you are in life, and wherever you go to find these opportunities, being more involved in curating your own Jewish experience is a good thing.

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