Building Jewish Relationships in Downtown Baltimore

Jessy_Gross-2By Rabbi Jessy Gross
Charm City Tribe

It’s nearly 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  While most folks prepare to wrap up their day, I find myself smack in the middle my schedule as I jump into my car to go from a coffee date in Hampden to happy hour in Fells Point. I have just met with a a community member to discuss the upcoming Shabbat dinner we are planning for this coming Friday night.

The menu is Mexican-themed. That’s despite the fact that our goal for this Shabbat is to celebrate the leadership and memory of the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and consider the civil rights work still to be addressed in our society.  We agree that we will ask each participant to bring something with them to contribute to our gathering: a song, an excerpt from a speech given by the great MLK or a piece of Jewish text that helps us understand what our tradition says about the pursuing justice in the world.  As I work my way down the 83 corridor, I take mental note of my responsibilities to follow up for MLK Shabbat.

I meet Elisheva, from the Bnei Israel young adult group, at Max’s Taphouse. We’re going to discuss a partnership for a downtown service day for young adults, as well as the upcoming Israel celebration on April 16.  As we talk, the bartender interrupts us to introduce himself. He recognizes me – the rabbi that put Max’s Taphouse on the cover of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

He tells us how excited the owners were and how I “am not what [he] expected” when he spoke to me on the phone recently.  I smile and say, “Thanks, that’s my goal.” Elisheva and I return to our discussion, leaving the bar with even more ideas on what we might do together.

I head home to finish preparing dinner for a young couple I met a month earlier.  He grew up attending Jewish day schools in Baltimore and married a lovely non-Jewish woman from Connecticut. Now, they seek to plant themselves in the Jewish community in a way that is meaningful, while also meeting the needs they have identified as a couple.

Halfway through dinner an out-of-town friend, the owner of a grass-fed kosher meat company in New York, arrives at my house and the four of us sit together and share stories. We talk a bit about our differences and our similarities in regards to Jewish identity, music interests and current happenings.

It is easy to feel the turbulence of a job that keeps me moving to different corners of the city in which each discussion has the potential to give birth to a new idea, project or Jewish journey.  And yet, each of these encounters is grounded in the same effort: that my work is to engage, excite and explore possibilities for individual Jewish journeys and strengthen Jewish community among young adults.

I see these days as the days of sowing seeds that we want to grow into seedlings in the months to come.  During the first six months of my work as Director of Charm City Tribe, I’ve begun to engage Jewish young adults living downtown in conversations that will foster community. I see the months to come as the time to start figuring out the common threads of these one-on-one discussions as we start to lay groundwork for community building.

Sometimes, it is hard to navigate the data and the trends which suggest a “lost generation” among those in their twenties and thirties.  Many feel they lack core knowledge and a connection that most would agree is a prerequisite for Jewish engagement.

But the best part of my job is inviting these conversations and finding ways to bring people together to further explore and experiment with their relationship to Jewish tradition.  In many cases, I am excited to discover that most people are not apathetic about their Jewish heritage. They just have not found the right combination to unlock the connections they feel and the forums in which to share and grow with others.

When I report to supervisors, funders and other colleagues in the field I gladly report that the spirit and soul of the young Jewish people is rich. Our task is to work together to find meaningful ways for people to exercise and learn more about who they might be as Jews and to discover an identity that will be meaningful and sustainable in the lives we, as young Jewish adults, are living in Baltimore in 2013.

As the rabbis teach us, the work is great and the day is short but there is so much to be done. I imagine a year from now we will see the bubbling up of chevrei (friendly groups) among young Jewish adults in downtown Baltimore who are getting together and building social relationships, while exploring their Jewish identity. Not only will their lives be enriched, but they will strengthen our generation of Jews so that we can continue our link in the chain of our ancient tradition in ways that are meaningful and appropriate in our time.


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Filed under Jewish Learning, Young Adults

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