Go down this checklist and see if your worship community is facing the same challenges as the one in which I participate:

  1. You are growing so fast that finding appropriate spaces is a problem.
  2. 20 and 30-somethings are being drawn to your mix of innovative and accessible services and programs and spreading the word virally by social media and by word of mouth.
  3. Jews-by-choice, intermarried couples, LGBT and simply disaffected Jews are finding your community to be a warm, welcoming, inclusive home and discovering new joy and connection to Judaism.

Okay, I’ll stop there. I’m actually not this obnoxious and hubristic – I’m just trying to get your attention, knowing that Game of Thrones and your Facebook feed are stiff competition.

The facts remain though: across the Midwest, where I travel and encounter cities with waning Jewish populations, the next generation of Jews are disappearing, many flocking to the regional hub- Chicago. But even Chicago has yet to see some of the changes and innovation of the coasts.

The next generation of Jew is a hard sell –  a vast metropolis competes with music, theater, great restaurants, and culture. A synagogue must offer something that includes these young Jews– really, that all of us – can’t get anywhere else. It has to be compelling – intellectually, morally, spiritually, socially.  We must do better if we want to see a thriving Jewish community in a generation.

Enter Mishkan Chicago, a new and dynamic worship and learning community that is expanding so quickly that growth management is one of our greatest concerns. A little background first: Mishkan, an “offspring” of IKAR in Los Angeles, was founded in September, 2011 with Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann as our founding rabbi.  Lizzi, a graduate of the Ziegler School of the Conservative movement, brings an approach rooted in tradition but not afraid to bend, fold, stretch and experiment. This ethic is built into our vision of how our community grows. 

I want to share with you some of the guiding ideas behind what we’re doing, because rabbis and board presidents across the country are turning to us to ask how to engage the disengaged, specifically young adults, at this critical juncture in Jewish life in America when participation in the community is not a given. I hope this helps you envision the ways in which your community is succeeding at fulfilling your mission, or could do better.

Worship is joyous, dynamic, and leaves room for guided meditation, study, and informal conversation structured around learning.  There’s simply too much fun in the rest of the world for many people to choose to stand solemnly, listening to nusach sung on our behalf.  We use melodic tunes in which we can all engage, the kind that lead to foot stamping and hand-clapping.  If Miriam could shake timbrels, so can we. We balance skillful leadership to model engaged worship as we encourage everyone to participate fully (our whole “davening team” is comprised of people under 30, by the way).

Accessibility is a key value. There is a lot of incredibly creative and dynamic cultural content out there.  So we want to make Torah and all Jewish writing relevant, timely, and accessible – pshat, this ain’t.  And sometimes marketing matters: “Sex and the Talmud” is always going to outdraw “Nedarim 21a – What Can We Learn From It?” but more importantly, there are ways for both beginners and seasoned learners to come together to ask big questions about the issues that drive our lives. Do we make the resources to engage with Jewish text and liturgy accessible? It’s not only non-Jewish partners that need transliteration booklets these days —  half the Jews in the room rely on them as well. We must take the shame out of that and encourage people to do whatever they need to do to connect– to God, to prayer, to Jewish text. Whether that happens in English or Hebrew letters hardly seems to matter when you consider that for the vast majority of Judaism’s early development, it was an oral tradition.

Flexibility, mobility, transportability. While this is a luxury few existing synagogues can enjoy, we are not only not burdened with fixed building costs, but like the original Mishkan, we are portable and can go where the winds of demand take us– we don’t have a building.  We seek to combine some reliable locations, times and places along with the ability to hold a service, class or event where there is demand and opportunity.  But who’s to say a long-established congregation with a building can’t do the same? All it requires is planning events in other parts of the city where underserved Jews live or in new and unusual locations that simply give your existing worship a very different feel.

Radically inclusive. There are probably not many congregations that don’t consider themselves “warm, welcoming and inclusive.”  And to prove it, they put it right up on their website, maybe even in bright colors.  But do Jews of all stripes, interfaith couples, LGBT and others actually participate in meaningful numbers? It takes a lot of effort and a carefully cultivated culture to walk the walk. Who among the leadership actually fits into those sub-cultures and can reach out beyond the already-bought-in membership of the congregation to reach people who find themselves often on the fringes?  What do you do to physically welcome to the room or community?  Enfold yourself in that person’s tallit for a moment: since they stand at the door with a particular frame of reference or background, what would make them feel seen, accepted and a welcome part of the group?

Collaboration, cooperation, partnership. Another key finding in this experiment came from the very center of the established Jewish community.  Jewish engagement is not a zero-sum game in which an already small pie gets smaller when one group succeeds. On the contrary, far-seeing lay and professional leadership realize that engagement begets engagement and what is good for one is good for many, regardless of where they’re davening or paying membership dues.  In that spirit, Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, celebrating his 30th year on the pulpit in a congregation that is 134 years old, introduced Rabbi Heydemann to possible supporters within his own congregant base.  His synagogue offered space, fiscal sponsorship, funding, emotional support and encouragement – all critical to Mishkan’s successful launch.  Just eighteen months later, Mishkan has developed its own base of Builders and supporters, and has other spaces across Chicago we hold services and events in. We happily still hold services monthly at Anshe Emet, bringing throngs of people into the building who would not otherwise be there, and also recommend  Anshe Emet’s religious school when asked about child education options in the community.  Because Rabbi Siegel and Anshe Emet were unafraid to midwife another davening community, they have strengthened themselves and the Chicago Jewish community as a result. They have set an example that other synagogues across America are beginning to notice and emulate.

Intentional, 1:1 engagement with young adults in their spaces of comfort.  In an individualistic age, we cannot expect that just because we have a nice poster and a cool event happening across town, that anyone will make the shlep unless they have personal investment to do so. That personal investment is relationship, and we make it possible for our clergy and leadership to engage in 1:1 meetings as a major component of their job descriptions.  Our rabbi meets with a steady stream of young adults each month to counsel, teach, connect and gather market data to help us do a better job fulfilling our mission. And she doesn’t only meet with members (because we don’t have any), rather, with every young adult who expresses interest. For many, it is the first time since their b’nai mitzvah they are talking to a rabbi– a major step in taking responsibility for their adult Jewish lives.

Financial accessibility and sustainability. We removed financial and emotional barriers to entry (like membership), while being unafraid to ask financial contributions of everyone, and more of those with more capacity.  But one thing we’re realizing is that to engage the post-Birthright crowd, we must engage some of the same strategies that make that incredible program, and others like it, possible. That is, our generation (the Wexner Heritage generation) needs to put our money where we want to see impact in order to ensure the next generation of Jewish life. If you are concerned about your kids or grandkids finding meaningful Jewish expression in their young, urban lives, if you’re wondering how, with their non-Jewish spouse or partner, they may connect to Jewish community, Mishkan is answering these questions with resounding success, and is setting the bar for communities around the country to emulate.  While I would never urge you to remove support from your current synagogue, look around the service and building and see if the young and disaffected are being drawn in the door.  If not, please also invest in the kinds of programs and communities that are making it work.

I give more than my “fair share” in both time and treasure. It’s my donation to creating the next generation of Jews and seeding dynamic Jewish leadership who are learning a new approach to Jewish community building here that they will take with them in their lives as synagogue and community leaders of the future. I also encourage you to contact me next time you are coming through Chicago so I can fix up a visit. If you are a Graduate Fellowship Alumni interested in learning more about how we do what we do, also please feel free.

Not all of this is for everybody.  And we’ve certainly sustained some criticism that what we’re doing fractures, rather than builds, Jewish community. But existing congregations will not solve our challenges by just doing more of the same, only with greater intensity and better marketing.  And those of us who do care and are doing the work, won’t expand the circle by shaking our fists at all those who just don’t get it, as if there’s something wrong with them. On the contrary, our work-in-progress shows, painfully so, that there are a lot of folks out there who once stood at Sinai, and now stand apart, sometimes because they deeply imbibed the enthusiasm, joy and dynamism they got at camp growing up or on an Israel trip, and now see that it’s scarcely to be found on the established Jewish scene, and so they give up looking to recover it. 

In my perception, we have to try all sorts of things to make The Mountain once again a place that Jewish seekers seek, strive and gather around, arms linked, eyes raised in hope and anticipation. 

Brian Abrahams is the Midwest Regional Director for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  He credits his participation in the Wexner program (Chicago Pro -99) with his return as a Jewish communal professional after a seven year absence.  He has also serves as a lay leader  on the Board of the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, and is a founding board member of Mishkan Chicago. He can be reached at abr.brian@gmail.com