Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Saving Carly

One of the key revelations of last week's heated Hoffman Lecture was that the huge gathering was far better behaved than the participants. Nonetheless, there were a few bad apples in the bunch, and that is very unfortunate. J-Street discussed some disturbing incidents in their blog and a column in Friday's Stamford Advocate also made reference to it.

As isolated as such incidents were, they are a stain on all of us, especially in light of the work we have been doing to encourage younger Jews to re-engage (which was one reason we brought J-Street here in the first place).

The day after the Hoffman Lecture, I happened to receive this e-mail, which had nothing to do directly with the lecture, and yet everything to do with it.

Rabbi Hammerman,
I just read an answer you wrote on to a woman asking you about being an agnostic Jew, and I was wondering if you could give me some advice as well. I am in my late twenties, newly moved to the city, and am looking for a community in Washington DC that I think synagogue can provide. The trouble is that I have never been a religious person, though I am a Jewish person. I went to a casual unaffiliated Hebrew school as a child but never had a bat mitzvah. I am not sure if I feel comfortable going to a synagogue. It is a strange idea for me. I would need to find a place that was extremely liberal in thinking and didn't force me to be spiritual in a certain way or expect me to already know or to learn many rituals, etc. that are based on worship and god. Honestly, I am even undecided on the Isreal/Palestine issue. It is something I truly struggle with. While I understand Isreal’s importance to the Jewish people, it would make me uncomfortable to have politics like that preached in the service as well.
Is there a type of synagogue for me, or do I fit in no where? If there is, do you have any advice for finding a place near where I live?

Thank you for your time and any help you can offer,
Carly (a pseudonym)

Notice that the two words she misspelled were “Isreal” and “god.” That about sums it up for a large percentage of Carly’s peers. They are excruciatingly uncomfortable with the synagogues of their parents – from which most of their parents also long ago fled. I would venture to guess that Carly’s folks disengaged from their community even before Bat Mitzvah time came along – but truthfully, it’s no less damaging to the Jewish future than the disconnection that so often takes place after Bar Mitzvah, or a few years later when the nest becomes empty. To compound the problem, Carly has little or no connection to the Jewish homeland – she can’t even spell it.

What are we to do with Carly and her generation? Write them off? For us not to be proactive in addressing Carly would be akin to leaving our own future out in the cold.

That is why we at TBE have developed a multi-pronged strategy to Save Carly – not at the expense of those who are older (or younger), but understanding that we have the potential of a lost generation on our hands, a generation that we produced. So here’s some of what we are doing for Carly and her peers:

- We are growing the community’s only professionally staffed Young Professionals Group – and it has been a great success.

- We’ve developed Shabbat services designed especially to excite all generations – including and especially Carly’s. We need your help – bring a friend (younger or older) to Kabbalat Shabbat, any Friday!

- With full use of the Internet – including my own work along with Ariela’s on and Facebook – in order to reach them where they are.

- Through high-profile events both in and outside the synagogue designed to appeal to that demographic (and others), like my upcoming program with NY Times Ethicist Randy Cohen in Manhattan on Dec. 7.

- With progressive, generous incentives to encourage membership for Young Professionals, realizing that this is not a generation of “joiners.” Several already have taken advantage of this.

- By intensifying our connection with our own young adults, the ones who grew up here – and by encouraging their families to remain affiliated and involved: it makes a difference (of course the families have to be willing to meet us half way).

- Simply by being friendly (and never judgmental) to all visitors, but with a special eye to the Carlys who happen to walk through our door.

The Hoffman lecture was a phenomenon that I’ve discussed elsewhere, but a key reason for our wanting to bring Jeremy Ben Ami here is that J-Street has been attracting lots of Carlys (read her letter again and you’ll see why); it is important for them to know that there are friendly portals open to them within the “established” Jewish community…and yes, even at a synagogue. We’ve already developed a solid reputation for inclusiveness, but high-exposure programs like this, along with our Friday night services that are growing by leaps and bounds, are what will help cement that reputation. Even the few bad eggs that taunted some of the young people following the Hoffman Lecture will not be able to change that, but they reminded us that our task will not be easy.

So whenever you see someone like Carly come through our door, looking a bit nervous and out of place, stretch out your hand and say hello. That’s our future you are talking to.

Tractate Avot states, “Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community.” Now more than ever, it is our sacred task not to let that happen to our kids.

And they are ALL our kids.

After I replied to Carly, giving her several suggestions, I heard back:

Rabbi Hammerman,
Thank you so much for writing me back. It means a lot to me that you would take time out to write such a thoughtful response to a stranger who lives states away. It is amazing, but just reading your response has made me feel more at home as a Jew and as myself. That you seem to care about me and how I am doing makes me feel like I belong.
I will look into the organizations you mentioned. You are very kind,

1 comment:

BZ said...

Why the focus on "Young Professionals"? How do you know that Carly is a "professional"?