November 19, 2019

Keeping Jewish young adults engaged in Judaism

Heading off to college is usually seen as an exciting, colorful rite of passage. But, as rabbis at several local synagogues have observed, those steps toward adult independence often come with uncertainty and a need for an additional support system beyond Mom and Dad.

That, they believe, is where they can help by keeping Jewish young adults connected with their pre-college communities. Aside from the tried-and-true methods of doing this — holiday-themed care packages, regularly distributed dvar Torah messages and programs between semesters for college-age students — the ways clergy and staffers reach out to them has evolved with the advances of technology. Some rabbis also contend that the reasons young adults should stay connected are evolving.

“I would frame [this] less about how we are as a congregation reaching out to kids who have gone away to college, and instead ask ourselves how we are preparing them to develop their own Jewish way of life,” said Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes. 

“While there is merit to keeping in touch with students, what we’re really doing reflects that when kids go away to college, they are forging their own lives. We [need to] think about how we can help young adults gain the tools to forge meaningful Jewish lives during and after college.”  

Schuldenfrei fondly recalls how he received care packages for the High Holy Days from his home synagogue and thinking how wonderful it was to receive a piece of home and a reminder of childhood. (At Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, they don’t even wait for students to leave home; they hold a special send-off program for graduating seniors, presenting each with a mezuzah to take with them.)

However, it is most important to him that a shul considers how it can guide young congregants into a fulfilling Jewish life no matter where they land after college, Schuldenfrei said.

“We as an individual institution and a part of the greater Jewish community have to look at how we are helping young adults create mature and vibrant Jewish lives,” he explained. “We held a seminar this past spring for high school students and their parents led by one of the more prominent Hillel directors in the country. He spoke about Jewish life on campus and what to expect. One of the most meaningful moments, however, was not the program itself but after the program. There was a line of students who had questions and wanted to talk to this rabbi. The line showed that they cared about the future of Israel and about leading a Jewish life.” 

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Senior Rabbi Laura Geller stresses that before college-age congregants go off to school, she and her fellow clergy collect their addresses so that they can send them holiday care packages. However, the most important element of their outreach is keeping in touch with individual students, even via email.

“[Rather than] send out a mass email to all of them, I am in personal correspondence with many of our students, as are my colleagues Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and Cantor Yonah Kliger,” she said. “The relationships that started prior to the students leaving for college continue to be developed through their connections with us. Out of these relationships come deepened relationships. This is something that matters to us, especially if students end up moving back to L.A. after graduation.”

Geller added that the Reform temple recently hired Assistant Rabbi Sarah Bassin, who is reaching out to young professionals in their 20s and 30s. The synagogue also has several Facebook pages, as well as personalized efforts to reach out to students returning home for major Jewish holidays and inviting them to participate in the services. Although the choir is only open to local students, Geller said many members are students from USC and UCLA.

“We hope people will recognize that a synagogue community is a community, whether it is a face-to-face community or a virtual community, and what makes it special is that it is intergenerational,” she said. “As supportive as Mom and Dad may be, it is sometimes important to talk to somebody outside of family. You would be surprised at the number of young people who stay in touch because of that.”

The new outreach program at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino has been in the hands of Ami Monson, director of youth engagement, for a few months. However, he’s applying a wealth of experience, including stints with Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel and as an adviser with United Synagogue Youth (USY). He projects the new program at the Conservative shul will be in full swing in time for Chanukah.

“My plan is to take a list of [young adults] who recently entered college or university, or went back to school, and send them notes keeping them up to date on what’s happening at VBS and [our local chapter of] USY,” Monson said. “Thanks to social media, including Facebook, we have instant gratification with our students, whether we’re wishing them a happy birthday or happy holy days. However, there’s something pure and old school about sending a note in the mail, or sending alumni of our shul or school a gift to let them know they are remembered.

“Once I build relationships, I plan to work with some of the college students and college graduates in the area who are now in the workplace, and have them come back to talk about their college experience to our USY board in a mentoring manner or in our Teen Tuesday program.”

Monson said person-to-person contact for students attending traditional sleep-away schools not only offers them a welcome taste of home and a knowledge that somebody cares about them, but shows they are part of a greater community and helps them maintain a connection to their home Jewish communities in particular. 

Sinai Temple in Westwood has a program called College Connection that, like many other programs, starts when students or their parents submit their email and information on what university or college they are attending. From there, Rabbi Nicole Guzik explained, Rabbi Jason Fruithandler (“our young professional outreach rabbi”) prepares dvar Torahs as well as special token gifts on holidays and special occasions to get the moral lessons of those messages across. For example, on Purim, he’ll send a mask with a dvar Torah that refers to the courage needed for one to unmask a new side of one’s character or personality.

Guzik also said Rabbi David Wolpe puts a message out on his Facebook page every day, whether it relates to Shabbat, a major Jewish holiday or a current event, so young adults who grew up in the Conservative congregation will still feel connected to him. Guzik, too, sends out a weekly dvar Torah via email and Facebook and finds she gets 50 to 100 replies on Facebook — 10 to 20 times more than she gets via standard email.

“If it weren’t for social media, we would have almost no connection with our younger members,” Guzik said. “I have learned all about this through Matt Baram, our Millennial director, who has taught me at 33 that if I am not connected to the students and teenagers through Facebook, there is almost no way to connect. As we speak, I am preparing High Holy Days participation forms right now and getting through to the kids on Facebook Messenger, and they respond immediately. “

At Temple Beth Am (TBA) in Pico-Robertson, Youth Director Alana Levitt said the Conservative synagogue tries to make itself financially accessible to college students. Student membership to TBA is $200 and includes High Holy Days tickets. The temple offers a reduced introductory rate for young adults post-college, as well as opportunities to lead services and work in Shabbat Yeladim children’s programming for work study or compensation. 

This shul also stages monthly Shabbat gatherings and dinners for college- and post-college-age adults led by Josh Warshawsky, artist-in-residence. Young Adults @ Beth Am, meanwhile, has yearlong programming that includes the popular series “House of Jews & Israeli Brews” with beer tastings, food, music performances and more. 

Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple, said the Reform synagogue’s programming is designed to help teen congregants and students mature into observant adults. It has several goals: creating strong bonds before teens go off to college, so there’s a desire on their part to stay involved; creating engaging opportunities to continue their involvement as they return during school breaks; and removing financial barriers that prevent 20-somethings from staying connected.

“To transition this committed group of Los Angeles-area teens to the next level of involvement as college students and beyond, Wise Temple extends to this group ‘Young Membership,’ all the way up to age 29, that invites them to continue temple membership for just $140 for a single person — or less if they need a break,” he said. 

“This attention to easy transitions from one age-appropriate group to the next creates a lifelong commitment to the temple and Judaism, intertwining the learning, social interaction and meaning that so many youth are searching for today. The message the temple sends out is overwhelmingly that they welcome them to stay involved at every age through adulthood.”