January 22, 2019

Cultivating Next Gen communities

It started with a cup of coffee.

About two years ago, Effie Braun and her husband, Nate, sat down with Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino to discuss an idea — VBSnextGen.

The rabbi’s idea was to create a community within VBS for couples under 40 — dating, engaged or married — who were entering a period in their lives where active participation and membership with a synagogue would soon become a serious option. For Effie Braun, 27, the prospect of joining a relatively small, tight-knit community within VBS’ large congregation of 1,500 member families was a big draw.

“I wanted to meet people that were more stable, not people going to clubs until 5 in the morning,” she said. 

Farkas, a 30-something rabbi in his sixth year at the synagogue, wanted to focus VBS’ young adult outreach on couples like the Brauns because, as he put it, “When you think you found a partner in life who you are pretty serious about, your life begins to become more stable. 

“It’s at that moment that you are open to more stable types of institutions, like synagogues,” he concluded.

While it’s no secret that synagogues implement young adult programs in part to increase the number of paying members down the line, VBS and many other local congregations aren’t interested in simply adding names to a membership list — they expect young adult participants to meaningfully contribute to programming and to pursue growth in their own religious lives.

Like many local synagogues, VBS has tiered pricing, with reduced membership fees for younger congregants. Its significantly discounted fee for VBSnextGen members is $250 for married couples, $125 for unmarried couples. But like a growing number of local synagogues’ young adult programs, VBSnextGen also is laser focused on creating Jews who, in Farkas’ words, are “producers of Judaism, and not just consumers of Judaism.”

When couples first join VBS, Farkas’ first “ask” is for them to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by another young couple. VBSnextGen members host about three Shabbat dinners per month. The goal is not only to build a social and religious community, but, as Farkas said, “to take those training wheels off and start practicing Kiddush,” to the point where the first-time Shabbat dinner guests will eventually become hosts who can “train” new members on the to-do list of Shabbat dinner. 

“That is the turning point,” he said.

At IKAR, a nine-year-old independent congregation located in the Westside JCC, the turning point comes at the moment of sign-up, when new members have to make a “membership brit” (covenant) — a commitment to Torah learning, a commitment to helping grow the IKAR community and a commitment to tzedakah, charitable work. 

Each commitment has several options. Someone, for example, can attend one prayer service a week (Torah), welcome people on Shabbat (community growth) and serve meals in homeless shelters (tzedakah). Like VBS, IKAR has a reduced fee for younger members in addition to its expectation that members will actively grow in their Jewish involvement.

“We want to lower the barriers of entry but raise the bar for participation,” said Melissa Balaban, IKAR’s executive director. “When you come, we are going to ask stuff of you. And we are going to make you think, and we are going to challenge you.”

Caroline Engel, a 24-year-old who moved to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania in February, joined IKAR when she arrived. Engel, who sometimes reads Torah on Shabbat for the congregation and volunteers at social events, said that IKAR “challenges you to be involved and to give your spare time to help build that very strong community.”

About two miles away is Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue with 675 member families that has, over the last two years, created a “young professionals” minyan, the crux of which is a weekly Shabbat morning service and a monthly Shabbat dinner that consistently draws more than 100 people. 

Daniel Schwartz, 28, who helped create the young professionals group with four other young adults shortly after he moved to Los Angeles, said that the impetus behind the minyan was twofold — bring more young Jews into the door and get as many as possible regularly involved in what Schwartz says is a close-knit young adult community.

“It can be going to events, it can be coming to minyan, it can be taking a leadership role in some of the volunteer events. Our expectation is just for people to be more involved,” Schwartz said.  

That involvement can even be something as simple as being a greeter at Shabbat dinners and chatting with new guests to make them feel welcome.

Nikki Fig, 22, a recent college graduate, attended her first Beth Jacob young professionals Shabbat dinner in March, about six months after moving to Los Angeles. 

Until that dinner, she said, breaking into the young adult Jewish scene was a grind. Now, Fig attends as many dinners as she can, participates in Shabbat morning services nearly on a weekly basis, and said that she met her closest group of friends in Los Angeles through Beth Jacob’s young professionals scene. 

She hopes to eventually become what every synagogue hopes its young adult programs produce — a new member. 

“They are showing me why I want to be Jewish, and ultimately that will translate,” Fig said. “When I do have a more stable position, of course I will become a member and hopefully give back.”