The Future of Twin Cities' Jewry: Leora's Take

This article is the full text of a speech I gave at Temple of Aaron on 9/21/13 as part of their Vision Series on the Future of Twin Cities Jewry.
Ten months ago I became a mom. For a million different reasons it is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me, and the greatest thing I’ve ever done, except for joining my life under the Chuppah with my husband Michael.
But my daughter Lisa’s birth also radically changed the kind of Judaism I was looking for, and the demographic box I fit in here in our Jewish community and nationally. I’m no longer one part of: young couple (she, 30, he, 40 – both raised Jewish – who would love to hang out at a Jewish happy hour after work, catch a Jewish humor fest top-billing late night comic, or rock out to Matisyahu’s reggae tunes at First Ave. Mix 1 part Young Leadership, 2 parts Next Gen networking crowd, and ½ a Shabbat dinner with synagogue and drink up.
Not anymore.
If my Jewish is going to happen outside of the house, it has to happen before my baby turns into a pumpkin at 8pm. And I’d love to have you over for Shabbat dinner once she goes to sleep but I’m too damn tired to host the kind of Shabbat dinner get-togethers I did in my 20s, with 30 people crammed into my apartment, eating potluck kugel and salmon on my bed because we ran out of chairs.
And I’m the least of your challenges.
I married Jewish.
I belong to a synagogue, 3 in fact, for the moment, since we couldn’t make up our minds when we moved to Hopkins.
We’re sending our daughter to daycare at a synagogue where they’re giving her tiny tastes of Judaism without her even knowing it, singing Jewish songs before she even knows the meaning of circle time.
We belong to the local JCC even though I can’t remember the last time I dragged my tush over there to work out.
And we give to Federation, and passionately care about Israel.
These are the flashpoints. The demographic markers that the statisticians use to say how Jewish we are. And what kind of Jews we are. In the Twin Cities.
And the statistics are daunting.
As of 2004, the most recent year for data from both sides of the River, there were almost 50,000 Jews in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs. Not bad, right?
But of those who are married Jews under the age of 35, 51% were married to non-Jews, and only about 1/3 said they were extremely or very emotionally attached to Israel.
Less than 1/3 of the Jews under 35 gave to their local Jewish Federation.
And across all ages, almost ½ of the Jews in the Twin Cities never go to synagogue, or only attend on High Holidays and other special occasions like Bar Mitzvahs. Only ¼ are members of the JCC. And 17% always or usually have a Christmas tree in their home.
In order to have a strong Twin Cities Jewish community in 20, 30, 40 years from now, we have to reach out to each one of those Jews and their families, if they have one, and every one is different. That’s the challenge and the fun of it.

Twin Cities Jewish Future

I started in 2009 because I don’t think there’s one answer as to how to do this. TCJewfolk is a website designed to offer a million different tastes of what it means to be Jewish with the hope that one or two or three will stick, and help each reader become a bit more Jewish. There are articles about everything going on in the Twin Cities’ Jewish community from happy hours to arts events, plus Jewish commentary on Israel and local politics, personal stories about what it means to be Jewish, Jewish recipes, and more. And it’s all geared at people my age.
The site was never intended to say there is one way to be Jewish. In fact, we’d be just as happy if you read an article about working out at the JCC, and joined the J, or if you read an article about Yom Kippur, and went to synagogue, or if you did neither, and just sat down for a beer with your friends and talked about the article about Israel you just read on TC Jewfolk. It’s all about creating Jewish moments.
There are so many other moments in our lives. Too many work moments. Not enough sleep moments. Most days we rush our eating moments, not savoring and not being thankful. We have the trying to exercise and be healthy moments. And the more kids in your house, the fewer relaxing or take time to yourself moments.
So how do we fit Jewish moments in there?
Well we have to make it easier for people to be Jewish. And that means being creative. And more welcoming.
We need to get rid of the Twin Cities – East – West Jewish barriers that don’t make sense, but uphold those that do.
I’m not going to say that we need one of each Jewish agency for which we have two, but there needs to be a strategic evaluation of whether we’re really using our resources effectively when we have two Jewish social service agencies, two Federations, two JCCs, two Talmud Torahs, etc, etc., and whether there needs to be the kind of competition between the two sides of the river that really doesn’t make sense to my generation. The JCC’s new reciprocity system is a great step in the right direction.
But the complicating factor, is that there are certain things where local and convenience are essential. Where the Jewish activity has to be down the block, with a small group of people that start to feel like my community, my kehilah.
As a mom of an infant, I’ll go to Sukkot and Shavuot and Simchat Torah, and you name the Jewish holiday, if it’s easy for me to attend, and I don’t have to drive more than 15 minutes with a fussy baby, or pay more than $10 a head.
In the last five years, as TCJewfolk has grown from a one-woman blog to a multi-author online community and 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a 10-member community board, our Jewish community’s offerings to those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, has also grown and changed. And thank goodness for that.
I remember telling a former marketing director at one of Jewish institutions in town (which will remain nameless) that the Jewish institution needed to get on Facebook so it could connect with my demographic, and the guy laughed at me. He said it was a waste of time to be on Facebook – that my generation wasn’t going to join anyway. I’m happy to say he’s no longer working there, and that that Jewish institution and so many others in the Twin Cites are thinking creatively about how to reach young people – they’re on Facebook, blogging on TC Jewfolk about their events, they’re hosting concerts under the stars, and young family barbecues.
And all those events have to continue and more have to be created, but we have to go beyond that.
We need to bring the synagogues to the people.
Because when it comes down to it, some people say that the JCC is the town hall of a Jewish community, and it is, in a way. But the town hall needs a heart, and the synagogues in a community should be the beating hearts of that Jewish community. The synagogue is what takes us from baby namings and Sukkah decorating with chewed up crayons to coming of age ceremonies and Jewish weddings.
The synagogue traditionally has been our home when someone dies, and when we need a helping hand because we can’t make ends meet. It’s been the fabric that wrapped us together, that helped us find meaning and hope in the best and worst of times as Jews, and personally.
And no other Jewish institution can replace that.
So no matter how many awesome happy hours we have going on in the Twin Cities, or top billing Jewish musicians, or even Twin Cities combined Purim parties that sell out weeks before the event because the buzz is so great, the Future of Twin Cities Jewry will not be stronger and greater unless we can help young Jews find homes in their local synagogues.
I’m thrilled to say that our synagogues are taking great steps in this direction.
By organizing more events than ever for people in their 20s and 30s – both families and individuals.
By turning the membership dues system on its head and letting young people pay what they can, say $36 a year, until they feel enough a part of the community that they decide they can squeeze into making greater and greater membership contributions.
By creating mini chavurot, mini communities within the synagogue, where people can get together to exercise together, or study together, or volunteer at a soup kitchen together.
And by hiring so many young rabbis so we can see ourselves in our spiritual leaders and thus see ourselves as a valid part of this community.
But we need to do more, and think bigger.
As a friend of mine recently said, “I want to feel more supported in being Jewish.”
What if our rabbis co-hosted Shabbat dinners at our apartments and homes? The synagogues would help pay for the wine, the meal would be potluck, and the Rabbi would come by to lead prayers, and join in the meal?
What if our synagogues found out who was new in town, and paired them up with synagogue members of their same age and type (i.e. young parents, young professionals, etc), so that the existing member could invite the newbie to events and holidays? Sometimes it just comes down to being asked, and knowing you’ll have at least one friend there to motivate a person to try something new.
Are we reaching out to young people who are sick and homebound to connect them to Judaism in a way that is accessible  for them?
Are we reaching out to interfaith families to see what information we could be providing them that would help them feel comfortable and welcomed in Judaism?
Are our synagogues – and other Jewish institutions – even asking people in their 20s-40s what they want?
Now I realize that St. Paul Jewish Federation conducted a Listening Campaign to see what we in the Jewish community wanted, and I assume we’ll see those responses at some point, but they’ll only be the results from one side of the river, and there were probably a lot of people like me who just couldn’t find the time to attend one of the Listening Sessions.
So why not create virtual suggestion box where people can submit their ideas for the kind of Judaism they even want, or the questions they have about what it means to be Jewish today?
I pledge that TC Jewfolk will be your partner in that effort. Let us be that online space for openness and questioning.
Email your questions and comments to [email protected] and we’ll share them anonymously and solicit answers to them where we can.
TCJewfolk is not affiliated with any Jewish organization or ideology – it’s a safe space for people who may not be plugged in yet to the JCC, or a synagogue, or even to the Jewish happy hour crowd.
I challenge our Jewish institutions and organizations to use TCJewfolk even more than you already are. To write articles about what it means to be Jewish. To start conversations online about the importance of the synagogue and of Federation. To debate Jewish ideas. To engage. To connect. To support each other.
And to those of you who have the resources to strengthen our Jewish community with your dollars, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to TCJewfolk. We’re kicking off a campaign to raise $30,000 before December 31 so that we can build more Jewish moments and engage more young members of our Jewish community, and we need your help to do that.
I see a strong future for our Twin Cities Jewish community because we’re not just one voice. Because we’re 50,000 Jews and 100,000 opinions. So don’t let this conversation end here, with my talk. I’m going to post this speech on TC Jewfolk tomorrow morning, and I hope you’ll join the conversation in the comments. See you online.