“I wish there had been more ritual at the beginning of Shabbat dinner,” their feedback resounded. After the Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston helped lay-leaders host an LGBTQ+ Shabbat Dinner, we surveyed participants to understand how we might work together to offer explicitly welcoming experiences to the queer Jewish community. Feedback was unanimous. In addition to the gratitude for this intentional welcome and creation of a queer Jewish space, attendees collectively wanted MORE depth of ritual and conversation.
“I loved the Mussar text and conversation in services; I’d love more of that in the future,” another voice offered. This time it was “Shabbat in the Bridge,” a Shabbat experience in a Harvard Square church. Sixty-five folks in the Jewish orbit (primarily millennials), registered in advance, paid for their own dinner and participated wholeheartedly. Once again, the feedback was unanimous: a genuine “thank you for coming to our side of the river in Boston!” and: we want MORE – more depth, more Shabbat, more conversation and connection.
Two messages abound: thank you and we want more. As loneliness becomes a public health crisis, the young adults we meet want more learning and ritual and they want to pursue their sacred Jewish purpose in relationship with others.
Serving Jewish young adults is to strike a tricky balance. Some have not stepped foot in a synagogue in years. Many grew up in Hebrew school environments that often failed them. Others are self-identified Hebrew school dropouts who ended their formal Jewish learning post-Bar Mitzvah, but still see their Jewish identity wrapped up equally with other identities they cherish. Often, we fall into our own trap of treading lightly… too lightly. Let’s get them in the door. Let’s organize around free food or drinks at a bar. But actually-they want more and they are starving for it.
I am in agreement with all four propositions in Rabbi Sid’s essay. The future of Judaism and the work of the Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston is one that pursues and co-creates this “moreness” – pursuing sacred purpose through communal learning, ritual and justice. Deep wisdom and true justice work are the means to shaping the future of Judaism. Jewish ‘lite’ does not appeal to many millennials in Greater Boston, who we call “emergent seekers.” Emergent seekers are intrigued by Torah, by Mussar, by depth. It is not just the convenience of Shabbat on their T line. They’ve chosen to spend Friday night in an explicitly Jewish setting because they want more depth of conversation, connection and community.
In addition to connecting to the rich tradition of Torah study and scholarship at Temple Israel’s Center for Adult Jewish Learning, the Riverway Project is building a learning experience to create a space where life and text meet. “The Bridge: Deep Wisdom for Troubled Waters,” intends to deepen Jewish spiritual resilience through conversation and community building, weaving the wisdom of ancient Jewish texts with poetry, music, spiritual writing, and media from universal sources. When Lena Dunham meets Nechama Leibowitz meets Anne Lamott, participants will truly experience transformational and reflective moments that help them face troubling times and transitions, and to deepen their search in times of stability and strength.
In this dysfunctional moment in our political culture and our planet’s future (proposition 2), emergent seekers meet me for coffee and share concern for the world as it is and their hopes for the world as it should be. The Riverway Project’s commitment to pursue tzedek is rooted in Temple Israel’s historic commitment to tikkun olam. We don’t just do justice work with other millennials. We are working in intergenerational teams in the congregation to pursue immigrant, racial & economic justice and other issues that threaten our society.
Amid an urgent need for synagogue transformation (proposition 4), there is tremendous excitement and interest in emergent spiritual communities and faith leaders in their first 3-5 years of growth. However, Riverway is nearing its (still youthful) 18th year of life and we frequently face institutional ageism. Our rootedness in an historic synagogue is often seen by funding and incubator organizations as a barrier to innovation and renewal. While we know that many Jewish legacy institutions are losing market share, it is entirely possible for an institution with a clear vision and strong leadership to innovate from within. Temple Israel and its Riverway Project are evidence of this possibility.
Riverway serves as both point of entry and sacred space for deepening Jewish experience. It is aimed at someone attracted to learn about forgiveness around the High Holidays who then has a welcoming place (if they choose) to go to celebrate the holidays. It is aimed at someone who comes in grieving the loss of a parent and then has a supportive place to say Kaddish. It is aimed at the passionate activist’s desire to study Judaism’s prophetic voice and then desires an outlet for that expression within an ongoing community. It is aimed at an interfaith couple navigating how they want to build a Jewish home who then have a genuine relationship with a rabbi who officiates and welcomes them into a community in which to raise their child.
Riverway has been able to attract Jews living on the margins of institutional Jewish life, by intention or accident. We have attracted Jews who felt disenfranchised from a tradition that feels archaic or irrelevant, too tribal, insular or distinctive; we have attracted Jews who felt that ‘belonging’ to a Jewish institution was either too financially inaccessible or an unproven values proposition; and we have attracted Jews who would identify as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ favoring Soul Cycle and Brene Brown over synagogues. The Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston and “the Bridge” are unapologetic relatives of synagogue life, seeking to fulfill their very names – to be at the center where all streams come together and to serve as a bridge, a connector, a link, at the crossroads that reaches Jewish emergent seekers, their friends and partners of all faiths who are on the fringes of our Jewish community’s institutional life, bringing them in for more.
Rabbi Jen Gubitz serves Temple Israel of Boston with responsibility for their Riverway Project. She is a proud product of Indiana University’s Borns Jewish Studies Program, URJ Goldman Union Camp (GUCI) and the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She loves earl grey tea, folk music, puns, and improv comedy’s mandate to always say “YES”.