By Liam Hoare
When I spoke to Benny Fischer, President of the European Union of Jewish Students, back in April, he told me European Jewish communities must focus more on programming and investment for students and young adults. “Communities stop investing in members aged 18 to 35,” he said. “They do not see the urgency in investing in this particular group of people and it’s reflected in the inclusion of young people in community politics and work” which he described as ‘shocking.’ Young adults are “the exact age group where you have to invest,” for it is out of this cohort that the next generation of community leaders will emerge.
Indeed, but perhaps on this, the Jewish community of Latvia is ahead of the curve – and might provide an instructive example to other communities across Europe. Last month, I met Inna Lapidus-Kinbere, who has been running the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Riga for two years. She moved to Latvia from Estonia after she completed her Master’s degree and having met and then married someone from the Latvian Jewish community, with whom she now has two children. Energetic and highly engaged, her phone more or less didn’t stop ringing throughout our entire meeting.
The JDC supported JCC – headquartered inside the Jewish community’s main building in Riga, which was once a theater (although many activities take place outside the walls of the JCC) – provides programming for Jews from the age of three until sixty-five, broken down into demographic bands, with each band appointed their own coordinator who runs programming with the aid of volunteers. During the year, events largely take place in Riga, or Latvia in general, but from time-to-time the communities of the Baltics put on regional programming, including summer camps (about which I have previously written).
Young adults are “very important for us because we believe that they are the future of the community. They’re still young, and maybe, many of them are still trying to find a Jewish spouse, so we try to foster their interests. It’s one of the programs that’s grown to become very successful,” Lapidus-Kinbere said.
When we talk about young adults, it’s important first of all to differentiate their needs from those of students. Their concerns during their university years – for which there is a great deal of competition – wander outside the walls of the JCC and all over the city; what they’re looking for are affordable parties or social events in decent enough venues in order to spend with their friends (and drink, dare I say). Beyond the fact that their friends might very well be Jewish, these events do not per se have any Jewish content and therefore (unless it’s a holiday, for example) do not need to take place within a framework provided by the community, the JCC, or any other Jewish organization (though it might be nice if they did).
“Young adults are an interesting group,” Lapidus-Kinbere explained. “They’re not students anymore – they’re financially stable, most are single, independent, but want to meet together in a Jewish atmosphere.” What they seek are professional events with interesting or alternative content. As such, they often have a higher participation fee, on the one hand because they can afford it and on the other because there is a demand for quality – characteristics that further differentiate their events from those provided for students.
Deya Gurevich, who is the coordinator of the Beseder Club which puts on programming for young adults within the structure of the JCC, told me more about examples of events (which usually occur about once or twice a month) provided by and for young adults, taking place largely outside the JCC. Recently, they have included a traditional Japanese tea ceremony – where the participants learnt all they could about tea itself – and a sushi masterclass. Within the JCC, there has been a salsa workshop, and for Passover, they held a Seder themed around (of all things) Indiana Jones. Their events attract around thirty-five people each time, so it’s about creating a balance between numbers and a familial or friendly atmosphere.
A newer program, which to some degree highlights an unfortunate reality of being Jewish today in some (but not all) parts of Europe, is called Safe and Jewish. The events run once a month and are in some way active and focus on security and personal safety, including Krav Maga, the theory of knife fighting, paintball, target practice with firearms, and so on – “a mixture of physical and theoretical,” Lapidus-Kinbere said. It’s a new approach both to Jewish programming in the community but also the issue of personal security.
On the professional side of things, there is the Baltic Jewish Network, “an initiative of local young professionals who identified the need for connecting professionals and entrepreneurs of Jewish origin from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a common platform where they can exchange ideas and build partnerships.” It works not dissimilarly to Junction, a project funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Schusterman Foundation, and YESOD that organizes gatherings of young Jewish professionals in Europe, with a view to encouraging professional and personal development and exploration, education and exchange of ideas and expertise, and cultural discussion and celebration.
That this issue of creating programming for and engaging Jewish young adults has arisen now in Latvia ought not to be a surprise, perhaps. After all, those who are young adults in the community now and also those, born in the 1980s for the most part, who benefitted first from the fall of communism and the reemergence of an open Jewish life, not just in Latvia because across the Baltic region – and indeed, the rest of eastern Europe. That they are demanding – and beginning to get – creative, informative, high-quality Jewish programming today is because that is the very stuff they were raised on. It is what they have come to except, in many ways.
“My father worked in the Soviet police force. He was a communist and everyone knew that in his passport, it was written that he was Jewish, but in our family” being Jewish “wasn’t something connected with religion,” Elina Anshina told me. Along with Raisa Nazarova, she coordinates the Mishpoha Shelanu program for young families in the community – another aspect of programming for young adults. While other Jewish families celebrated holidays and marked Shabbat in their own ways, “we were a Soviet family without religion.” Anshina’s Jewish life, in a sense, began at the age of twelve, through the Chabad school in Riga and their network of summer camps, before becoming involved with the official Jewish community through the Alef program for young people, working as a madrich.
Nazarova was seven when she first went to a Chabad summer camp, going there for two years “after which it wasn’t really very interesting for me.” Thereafter, she came to the Jewish community with her grandfather, where he played games at the welfare center, and seeing an advertisement for a Seder for children, she asked if she could join in. At the age of nine, this became the spark for greater involvement in the community, first through programming for children that took place on Saturdays, then later events for teenagers, students, and now working on the Mishpoha Shelanu program. “We are here from childhood,” she said – and now those who were once children are shaping the community as young adults.