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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Boston Judaism's young adult revival.

Last Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine featured a great story about a group of Jewish young adults who revived the city's oldest synagogue, the Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill. (I first noted this story last December, when the New York Times covered it.) Doug Most's article is a great read, and obviously anyone concerned about the revitalization of aging religious communities will find a lot of value in it. (It also provides a brief introduction to the Jewish history of Boston.) The thesis:

A younger, increasingly active Jewish community has emerged in the last decade to restore Boston's oldest standing synagogue, rejuvenate its biggest one, and help to reshape a religious landscape in the city. Why now? Because for the first time in a long time, the younger generation of Jews has a clear vision that its parents' generation supports: education.

Much of the article is focused on how a group of young adults stumbled upon a museum that had been, until 1985, the Vilna Shul, an Orthodox synagogue, and then gathered a community of Jewish young adults to worship there in a contemporary but tradition-sensitive way. Their efforts have been supported by Jewish philanthropists, who see such work as part of a larger initiative to encourage Jewish education.

But the article also describes the way the city's largest synagogue has also made young adults central to its community-building efforts:

[A]t Temple Israel, one in five members is now under 35, thanks largely to [34-year-old Jeremy] Morrison's Riverway Project and events like Soul Food Fridays and Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays.

And what's happening in Boston is happening elsewhere. "Younger singles and married couples are establishing their own congregations," says Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He says there are at least six new youth-led congregations around New York, and that Jews in Los Angeles and Chicago are doing the same. As with new Christian movements, he says, services are less somber. "People are talking about spirituality much more," he says, "and one way to express that is through music."

At Temple Israel, Morrison plays the guitar and leads very musical services through the Riverway Project. But it wasn't music, he says, that first brought in his younger members.

"In the spring of 2001, I had house meetings with nonmembers. I asked, 'What are your perceptions of your synagogue?' By and large, they were seen as negative," he says. He describes the feedback: "'You were not allowed to think critically. Synagogues were like country clubs — they were interested in our money.'" Even so, he says, people wanted to talk. Within a few months, he was leading Friday night Shabbat services in homes around Boston and signing up new members younger than 35 at Temple Israel for an introductory fee of $36 for the first year. (Dues rise, but the rabbi says he works with young members' budgets.) In 2001, Temple Israel had about 50 members under 35 without children. Now, it has more than 200. The Riverway Project not only has an e-mail list of 1,000, it also brought in $6,000 in membership fees the first year and $80,000 so far this year. And Temple Israel is using a similar approach to reach out to empty nesters.

Very inspiring!

("Boston's Jewish Renaissance," Doug Most, Boston Globe Magazine 11.6.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 10 November 2005 at 10:12 PM

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