Engaging Young Downtown Jews

Charm City
By Rabbi Jessy Gross
Director, Charm City Tribe

It is 6:30 on a Friday evening. Smells of matzo ball soup and freshly baked challah fill the house, while slowly Shabbat dinner guests begin to trickle in. Quinoa, roasted root vegetables, homemade olive tapenade and lentils are added to the food spread.  There’s chatter in the air as folks introduce themselves and begin to get acquainted.

When there is critical mass we begin by way of welcome. I welcome newcomers and “repeat attenders.” As I always do, I explain that I hope to use my home as a “lab for Jewish experimentation,” and invite them to participate fully in that process.

I briefly explain the purpose of the rituals to welcome Shabbat – namely that they are a series of steps we take to move from the busy, fast-paced rush of the six days prior into the seventh day – a day where Jewish tradition invites, even commands us – to mark wholly different than the previous six. I welcome them into a time in which sharing the company of one another, enjoying delicious food and simply being present in community and conversation becomes the priority. I invite guests to share something they are happy to let go of from the week prior and one thing they are looking forward to in the week to come. We light candles, bless wine, break bread and settle into Shabbat.

What links most Charm City Tribe events together are the operating values that drive our efforts to build and strengthen community among 20- and 30-year-old Jews living in downtown Baltimore. I often begin a program by explaining the various levels participants might access to understand what is taking place.

For example, when lighting Shabbat candles, making Kiddush and saying motzi over challah, I invite those who are familiar with the prayers to join me, and those who are less familiar to see each ritual as moving further away from the business of the week and deeper into a place that invites rejuvenating rest.

Multiple points of entry are crucial to engagement work. The basic structure of Charm City Tribe in its first year was to focus on three tiers of programming.  Participants would have the opportunity to tap into the rhythm of the Jewish calendar with events popping up around the Jewish holiday cycle.

We made Hannukah candles in December, hamentaschen in February and cheesecake in anticipation for Shavuot. During these workshops, participants had a chance to learn about the holiday and engage with certain themes presented by the holiday.

Another way to plug into Charm City Tribe is through Shabbat experiences. Every month I host a Shabbat potluck dinner in my home. While there are new people each time there are also those who come back month after month.

As we move into next year I believe we will soon see more dinners happening – in other people’s homes. As well, I hope to have a monthly Shabbat afternoon gathering that ends with a Havdallah poetry slam and music jam session. Plans for that are already underway.

Perhaps the most important goal is still to come – to give birth to micro communities of 20 and 30 year olds engaged in some type of ongoing communal experience. One group of young couples may decide to get together monthly for Shabbat dinner. Another may decide to get together before six Jewish holidays next year for a cooking class that teaches about the upcoming holiday through the lens of food.  Another group may come together to study the mitzvah of bikur cholim – visiting the sick – while still another group may decide to get together for an Israeli film club. The earliest inklings of these groups are just now starting to form, and I look forward with excitement to moving into year two.

While we have had great successes this first year it is important to note that we are really just beginning. It is not difficult to bring people out for a happy hour to celebrate Sukkot or a service project on Good Deeds Day. It is more challenging to try to address the many challenges that arise when trying to engage people in ongoing, meaningful ways.

The good news is – there is a lot of incredible energy and tremendous creativity among the 20 and 30 year olds living downtown, and I can’t wait to see what year two of Charm City Tribe brings to light.


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Filed under Families, Jewish Learning, Women, Young Adults

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