Rachel Gildiner - Director of Gather the Jews
While there are many opportunities that specifically target Jewish 20s and 30s in DC, those opportunities often reflect a narrow understanding of Judaism and the needs of Jewish 20s and 30s. As a result, many Jews do not engage with their Judaism during this critical stage of life. We need a serious paradigm shift. The goal of this retreat was to broaden the conversation about Jewish identity by exploring six alternative “paths” for engaging Jewishly that better meet the needs for belonging and meaning. Through text-studies, small-group discussions and other experiential education methodologies, participants discovered personally relevant ways to connect.
The itinerary for the retreat was centered around six alternative “paths” or ways of understanding and relating to Judaism. Each path was deeply rooted in Jewish wisdom, and participants explored each path with Jewish texts or Jewish practices. One of the paths was explicitly about “Jewish Wisdom,” and the other five were: history, culture, spirituality, ethics and community. After unpacking the challenges with the more conventional ways that Jews relate to each of these paths, we then opened up new possible ways for understanding them.
We first talked about how our history often focuses on our oppression, which is challenging for 21st century American Jews, most of whom have not experienced that level of oppression. Participants had a chavrutah and group discussion to explore more positive ways of relating to our history. We also discussed how “never again” has two very different meanings that are in tension with one another: for some Jews it means making sure oppression doesn’t happen to anyone else, while for others it means making sure oppression doesn’t happen again to us. Both of these themes exist in our ancient tradition as well as in modern ways of relating to the state of Israel.
For culture, we named the challenge of developing a deep cultural Jewish identity without cultural literacy and exclusively Jewish spaces. Participants then broke off into small groups to create and share pieces of authentic Jewish culture.
For spirituality, participants learned about alternative interpretations of God and engaged in two alternative spiritual practices led by Michelle Obama’s head speech writer Sarah Hurwitz: a love meditation, and hitbodedut.
For ethics, we pushed past the catch-all phrase “tikkun olam” and began to answer the question: what does Judaism have to say about what it means to be a good person?
For community, we talked about the role of peoplehood in Judaism and looked at texts that made the case for Judaism as, first and foremost, an ethnic group. Participants then broke into small groups to discuss what constitutes a connected, caring community.
Finally, for wisdom, we studied a few famous texts – from the Talmud to Maimonedes to chassidut – and analyzed them through the lens of “Jewish Wisdom.” What do these texts tell us about how to live a fuller life, how to be a better lover, how to disagree constructively, etc.? As opposed to “Ethics” which looks at Judaism only through the lens of interpersonal relationships, this approach sees Judaism as a tool for self-actualization.
The entire purpose of this retreat was to make this wisdom both accessible and directly applicable to participants’ lives. The working assumption of the retreat is that many Jewish 20s and 30s want to develop a deeper connection to their Judaism but don’t know what that would look like. Many current offerings for 20s and 30s focus on happy hours and finding a spouse, which might help Jews find a Jewish partner but doesn’t help them explore the deeper questions of what that identity means, or what raising a Jewish home would look like.
On a more practical level, this retreat made wisdom accessible through a few different methodological choices. First, all texts were offered only in English. This leveled the playing field in terms of people coming from diverse backgrounds. For similar reasons, participants were asked to focus only on the texts themselves and not on other pieces of knowledge they may have learned in the past. Participants were also given many opportunities, in small groups, in chavrutah, and alone, to process the material they were learning and integrate it into their own lives. We also used a variety of modalities – ex. verbal, visual, tactile – to allow participants with different learning styles to engage with the material. Many of the pedagogic choices drew on wisdom from YU’s Experiential Jewish Education Certificate Program.
Measuring success is extremely difficult in spiritual/educational work, and often the effects do not actualize for years. That said, there are a few ways we can say with confidence that the retreat was successful. First, all 25 participants said they would recommend this experience to a friend. Second, 92% of participants felt it was the perfect balance between time for content and time for being social. This was striking given that the curriculum was very ambitious, with a strong majority of the time dedicated to actual content. Similarly, a majority of participants “extremely” or “very much” enjoyed each of the 11 sessions involving Jewish content. Fourth, 19/25 participants said they were interested in engaging in a weekly Jewish learning group with other Jewish 20s and 30s in DC, an initiative that we started a few weeks ago. Finally, all 25 participants answered “Extremely” or “Very Much” to the prompt: “As a result of this retreat, I was challenged to think in a new way” while all 25 responded “Extremely,” “Very Much” or “Somewhat” to the prompts: “As a result of this retreat, I learned about myself,” “As a result of this retreat, I feel a deeper connection to Judaism,” and “As a result of this retreat, I have a better understanding of my Jewish identity.” We have extensive survey data from every participant about every aspect of the retreat, and we are happy to share that information if necessary.
I’ve learned that Jewish 20s and 30s are seeking wisdom, meaning and fulfillment. They are looking to be challenged by new and counter-cultural ideas, and they sense that Judaism is a resource for those ideas. I’ve learned that wisdom is constructed and not transferred. This means any space for engaging with Jewish wisdom must be collaborative and provide time and space for participants to integrate the content that is being discussed. I’ve learned that Jewish wisdom is an approach as much as it is actual content – it is lens through which we can engage with our tradition. I’ve learned that Jewish wisdom can be implemented personally, in relationships, and in community, but that implementation will look different in all three manifestations. I’ve learned that Jewish wisdom doesn’t need to be stuck into a social program (ex. a 2 minute dvar Torah at a happy hour or bagel brunch); rather, Jewish wisdom can be a primary way in which Jews engage with each other. I’ve learned that Jewish wisdom works best when facilitated by someone who is knowledgeable in both a wide array of Jewish texts and in the tensions between those texts. Finally, I’ve learned that it’s hard to define what constitutes exclusively Jewish wisdom, but that Jewish 20s and 30s seem less concerned that it’s “exclusively” Jewish and more that it’s “authentically” rooted in Judaism.
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