“Come with spirit. Leave with soul.” This is the tagline of The Well-Atlanta, a once-a-month musical Shabbat service for young professionals. About 90 people come each month. We just celebrated the third birthday of the project in January. The goal at the outset was to create a gathering of people who wanted something a little different for their Friday night prayer experience. In 2013 I started a new job as the Music Educator at The Temple, a prominent Reform congregation in midtown Atlanta. The assistant Rabbi, David Spinrad, started working there at the same time. We began to talk with each other about creating a unique Shabbat service, developing a place where we could explore tough ideas and foster deep learning.
There is an allure to the Friday night service. It is part of the reason why so many successful minyanim thrive on erev Shabbat. We start services at 8:30 with a pre-oneg at 8:00. The Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy lends itself to musical exploration. The psalms and poems are intrinsically musical in their cadence and language. This lays the foundation for an attractive musical prayer experience. The tunes that I composed for The Well service have become tunes the community has grown to love. When we ask our community members why they keep coming back they say two things: It’s because of the music and the people. The music envelopes the service. It is how the rabbi and I create the arc (the high and low points of energy within the service) and connects people to each other, to tradition and to their own neshama. This speaks to the kedusha proposition from Rabbi Schwarz’s essay.
To speak to another proposition, the one of kehilla, I find that we have had success in building this unique community. There are two main factors that have led to this. First, we operate solely by word of mouth. The only marketing we do is to create a Facebook event and send out one email a month. The majority of our kehilla found out about The Well through a friend who brought them.
Second, we initiated a Roshim (leaders) program where we have a few of our community members who volunteer to be the ultimate shmoozers during our pre-oneg. Their job is to introduce themselves and try and connect interesting people and newcomers. The Roshim are also in charge of organizing some auxiliary programming such as StoryWell, at which community members tell personal stories based on a specific theme working with a professional storyteller to craft a 5-minute presentation. We hold the event at a speakeasy downtown. These are among our successes in the realm of kehilla.
As for chochma, we are on a positive path to deeper engagement in learning. We delve into the meaning behind the lines of liturgy and learn from midrashic and mishnaic sources. Rabbi Spinrad does an intentional job of including these unique sources in his drashot to talk about what is on his mind, teaching the kehilla and moving our collective thought forward.
We have struggled a bit with finding success in advancing tzedek. The Well is housed within a strong and vibrant Reform Temple that provides well established programs for social justice action in Atlanta. We have tried to attach our young professional group to some of these established programs only to find that nobody shows up. I think that our struggles here speak to a larger problem of apathy amongst millennials. It seems that it is much harder to put on gloves and dig deep, than to sit on Facebook and stroke the collective ego in an echo chamber about opinions on social justice movements. I say this not to discount the very active protest movements currently happening or the many wonderful millennial volunteers creating real change. I speak only from the lens of Jewish-sponsored tzedek projects.
One facet to The Well that is outside of the realm of the four propositions is that we have a relatively large contingent of non-Jewish community members. This includes members of the black community who are spiritual seekers, interfaith couples, non-Jewish friends of community members, and frequent visits from students at the Candler School of Theology (based at Emory University). I believe that part of the reason they like to come is that we present a form of Jewish practice that doesn’t feel forced and is open with no barrier to entry.
There is a down-side to the approach of organizations that will do anything to bring under-engaged Jews into the door. Some have called it “Booty Call” Judaism. An example of Booty Call Judaism is a program where heavy drinks and food are provided, it’s free to attend, and for three hours there is a rented bar with a loud DJ. The intention is to get young adult Jews to mingle. This style of program is offered frequently by various large Jewish organizations as well as some smaller millennial engagement initiatives that don’t think beyond the “Booty Call”. The one night stand. The quick and easy. We have quite intentionally avoided this approach to Jewish engagement.
I agree with Rabbi Schwarz’s approach. What has lasting impact is a community that cultivates a love of learning, engagement with sacred texts and the encouragement of a Jewish practice that creates a sense of ownership for young Jews. It is a relationship of love that is nurtured over time, not a one night stand. This relationship of love is what we hope to foster at The Well-Atlanta.
Sammy Rosenbaum is a musician, songwriter, and spiritual educator from Atlanta, GA and is the co-founder of The Well – ATL, a once-a-month musical Shabbat gathering for young professionals. He travels to Jewish communities around the world performing his music, sharing innovative prayer experiences, and working to engage his peers in a deeper connection to their Judaism.