Adam Bender, a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota, is Temple of Aaron’s new engagement director. We talked to him this week about his ties to the Twin Cities Jewish community and what his new job will entail in this week’s Who The Folk?!
Where did you grow up, and what brought you to Minneapolis?
I grew up in Chicago, or Buffalo Grove, north suburbs. The U brought me here; I went to school at the U. I graduated like 17 or 18 days ago. Still kind of fresh.
You’re currently the new engagement director at Temple of Aaron. How did you get that position, and do you think your major translates over to the position at all?
I majored in finance, so I don’t think the major has much of a translation. Obviously I can use it with budgeting or whatever, but when I went to the U, I knew I wanted to get involved in the Jewish community outside of campus so I contacted different synagogues and Josh Fineblum, my current boss, got ahold of me and said ‘Hey, Temple of Aaron we’re looking for an advisor. We’d love to have you on board.’ I came in, we had a conversation, and I’ve been working with them ever since. The last two years I was their youth advisor, working with the USY, with the Kadima, teaching in their religious school on Sundays and, you know, I’ve grown accustomed to that community so that definitely played a role.
What types of Jewish connections did you have at the University of Minnesota?
So I was only at the U for two years. I transferred in. I did a gap year in Israel, then I went back to Chicago and did a year of community college, so I only did two years at the U. I was very involved in Hillel. I was an Israel intern my first year. I was an engagement intern last year. I was involved in AEPi. So I was involved in all of those things, as well as working at Temple of Aaron.
Was there a big Jewish population where you lived in Chicago?
Yeah, huge. I was very active in my synagogue, very active in USY both at my synagogue and in the region.
How do you think the Jewish community here, compares to the one there?
Here it’s definitely smaller, but I think it’s closer. I think there’s something to say about having a smaller community. I mean, Chicago is one of the three biggest Jewish communities in the entire country, so coming here gave me a little more perspective. You have to try a little harder to keep kosher. You have to find your niches, but I definitely think there’s a lot of character in the Twin Cities Jewish community. I’ve come to appreciate the Minneapolis/St. Paul divide.
What does the position of an engagement director involve?
I mean in a broad sense my job is to engage people into the synagogue. I kind of have a say with all ages from birth through really twenties and thirties. So I have my hands in a lot. On Saturdays I’m working with the Shabbat school, working with the younger kids, making sure they get that Shabbat education at a younger age. On Sundays, I’m going to be teaching a leadership class with the high schoolers. Every Wednesday and throughout the year, we do programming for really all ages. And then I work with the college kesher program which is a college outreach program. Making sure that the congregants who are in college are staying involved in the synagogue, making sure people like me, people like the rabbi, are keeping them in mind while they’re off at school. And then I’m also working with their TAXY group. Temple of Aaron X and Y generation is TAXY, and we put on programming for people in their twenties and thirties to put it in the simplest terms. Anybody post-college, you know, stuff like that. Just to know that Temple of Aaron is there for them.
There have been a few synagogues around the area recently that have hired engagement directors. Do you think this is a trend, and why do you think it’s important that synagogues have one?
I think the trend has been that it’s usually not a position that people stay in for a long term, unless they’re taking on more responsibilities around the synagogue. It’s something you want to keep fresh and keep new faces in the door. And it’s important just to make sure that there is that person reaching out to people. You know, the rabbi or the cantor educator have so much on their plate, you need that friendly face, that person to work with the youth, to work with those people in their twenties and thirties, just to kind of keep things fresh.
Is there a specific age group that you feel like you connect with most?
I love working with high schoolers. I was very active when I was in high school. I find it easy to relate to. I know what they’re going through. It’s just that age group that I feel I can help out the most. It’s a great age to work with.
Do you find that once kids start in B’resheet or Kadima, that they tend to stay involved throughout high school, or is it hard to keep kids engaged and coming back?
It depends. It really goes from kid to kid. I mean some people get involved in B’resheet or Kadima and they really love it. They really grow attached to it. They grow and build relationships. That’s a lot of what the job is. It’s building relationships. If they feel comfortable in the synagogue with the people that they have built these bonds with, then they’re going to stick through it. If we’ve failed to engage them, or if they’re not feeling it, then it’s kind of tough.
What will your biggest challenge be as the new engagement director?
The biggest challenge for my position, which is the same as any congregation, is really continuity. Making sure that we are set to go with the kids and the programming we need year in and year out, and continuing that leadership. I mean, a lot of what my job is, is continuing the next generation of Jewish leaders and making sure each class of Jewish leaders gets the attention and get the leadership knowledge that they need to go out into the world. We have them for this time while they’re younger, and then they go off to college and you hope that they take what they’ve learned with us at Temple of Aaron and pursue Jewish lives outside of it.
Favorite Jewish food?
My favorite Jewish food, that’s a tough one. I love bagels and lox. Matzah ball soup is a good one. There’s no favorite, there’s just a variety.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
Love Passover. Just everything it stands for. The seder is one of my favorite events of the year. I just can’t get enough of it.Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!