Making Jewish Life Engaging

charm city blog

By Rabbi Jessy Gross
Director, Charm City Tribe

Engagement professionals are often asked how to create environments that feel accessible to those less tapped into Jewish life, while at the same time not compromising the quality and depth of the Jewish content level.  While we want people to show up to our gatherings, many would agree that the purpose for our desire to turn people out in the first place is rooted in a commitment to provide a substantive experience that will positively affect one’s Jewish sense of self.

Truth be told, I often believe that when we think about our Jewish programming and events we are not thinking about how they will impact our constituents on what I call “the kishkes level.” The most impactful Jewish experiences I have had were in settings where the opportunity to learn was part of an immersive experience where Judaism and Jewish learning seeped out and were not presented in front of me.

Take camp for example.  Jewish summer camps are one of the most championed examples of success in affecting positive Jewish behaviors and attitudes. I spent 10 years at the URJ Camp Harlam, where I not only learned concepts, practices and ideas central to my Jewish identity but also experienced things in a community of shared values in which I could safely experiment and question as a young person.  I learned birkat hamazon (the prayer after meals) because we recited it three times a day.  I began to feel the rhythm of a Jewish week because of the experience, week after week, of six days of one routine leading into a seventh day dedicated to something different.  The experience seeped into me; at the same time, the learning around what it meant to be a Jew started to ooze out (in a good way).

There is a brief window of time (both along the lifecycle and the calendar year) when camp can be the driving force behind a person’s identity.  As part of our work to engage young adults in Baltimore, Charm City Tribe spends a lot of energy thinking about how to create immersive experiences for our participants to feel it in their kishkes.

The Shabbat dinner table is a primary example. Each time I host a Shabbat dinner in my home, I frame the evening with the same cavenah (intention): that my home should be a lab for Jewish experimentation.  No question is off the table.  In fact, questions are encouraged.  I know that people look around my dining room – at my Judaica and Jewish books – and see it as a launching point for a question like, “Why IS that candle braided? Can you tell me more about that short ceremony on Saturday night to end Shabbat?”  The questions bubble up from this tangible encounter with a ritual item or a ritual itself, and often give way to a Jewish teachable moment.

I believe the place where the most important Jewish learning happens is when those in a position to teach are able to create a framework of ideas and questions in which everyone can relate.  What IS the value of helping others or elevating one’s intention around eating? These are questions that all human beings might ask.  If we provide a framework that many can locate themselves in, then we have created an optimal environment in which we can introduce the specifics of Torah in ways that people can really gnaw on.

Jewish learning is really a journey in which one question leads to the next.  The debates and answers that come from our questioning, if we are in the sweet spot, are meaty enough to sink our teeth into but not so tough that we decide we are hungry for something else.  I love being a teacher of Torah and the Jewish people, because the textbook of our people and the textbook of our lives are the basic materials we use to educate.  The vastness of possibilities and areas in which we can enrich our lives through learning in this atmosphere is insatiable.  We just have to make sure we know how to properly wet our people’s appetites for something that, even if an acquired taste, is among the finest delicacies we’ve been given in this world.

Join us at our Community Seder and Hallal After Party on Tuesday, April 15. For information, contact ehbrown@jcc.org.

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