A Playbook for Legacy Institutions That Want to Stay Relevant

Soul Food Friday; courtesy Riverway Project via Jewish Boston.com

By Rabbi Jen Gubitz

[The following article, updated since its initial appearance in eJP, is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: http://www.cliforum.org/blog/.]

It’s Shabbat morning in October 2018. On the other side of the river from our synagogue, Temple Israel of Boston, we’re gathered for Shabbat brunch in a Cambridge co-working space to explore the question: What is a soul? The group of young adults have wandered through wisdom drawn from Shabbat morning liturgy (Elohai Neshama), Mumford & Sons (Awake My Soul), and modern experiences (SoulCycle or “That’s soul crushing!”). Some participants ask about the soul of animals, some about the souls of the departed, some just listen to the conversation and nosh on the bagels. These curious young adults are what I’ve been calling “emergent seekers.”

At morning’s end, our phones begin buzzing and the news of the tragic shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh devastates us. Together, we share our grief and fear. This could have been a one-time gathering, but it becomes much more. Many join us at Temple Israel of Boston throughout the week for soul-lifting vigils of commemoration. And, we now know, after eighteen years since this project’s founding, many will come back even after that.


This “project” is an emergent community named “the Riverway Project,” a concerted outreach effort to young adults throughout Boston and Cambridge rooted intentionally, unapologetically, and proudly within a legacy institution, Temple Israel of Boston. There are many examples of how we have successfully engaged and empowered Jewish young adults over the past few years. Here is one:  

High Holy Days 2019: Our annual “High Holy Day Prep: Havdalah & Selichot Edition,” drew an array of emergent seekers to prepare for the High Holy Days as we explored classic themes of the Holy Days with a modern twist and joined the broader congregation for a candlelit Selichot service. A few weeks later (in partnership with Honeymoon Israel and MIT’s Graduate Hillel) more seekers gathered on a rainy night by the Charles River for the ritual of Tashlich. And still weeks later, more gathered in the kitchen to prepare from scratch our Farm to Sukkah Celebration with our partners Beantown Jewish Gardens, followed by lively discussion about the “Rules for Impermanence,” featuring elephants and camels from Tractate Sukkot.

For some, Riverway Cafe, Tashlich on the Charles, or our Farm to Sukkah Celebration was their only High Holy Day experience, but still many more joined us in a room overflowing with more than 600 young adults gathered to observe Erev Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre through contemplative music, accessible liturgy and sermons on ever-relevant issues like being Jewish in a world that is decidedly not and confronting our mortality.

These are just some examples of the success – both anecdotal and measurable – of a legacy institution, a historic Reform Temple, whose investment in future generations through emergent ways of gathering is yielding dividends.

The ongoing success of the Riverway Project runs counter to much that we have been told about the millennials’ lack of connection to institutionalized faith and religion. “Everyone knows” that they don’t pursue Judaism in legacy institutional spaces; that they are “spiritual, but not religious”; that they pursue spiritual fitness on yoga mats; and find well-being in the pages of Harry Potter. And yet, nourished by trays of Thai food, Trader Joe’s cookies, and boxed wine, the Riverway Project attendees now inundate Temple Israel of Boston, at least 1600 people crossing our doorstep this past year. We are deluged with requests for coffee dates with the rabbi – including 25 students choosing Judaism through conversion – and for conversation, connection and community rooted in Jewish wisdom that makes some sense of being a human in today’s world.

What is particularly incredible about the Riverway Project is not so much the project itself as it is the vision behind it. Temple Israel is committed to investing in the Jewish future by sustaining a clergy/staffing model that supports outreach to young Bostonian adults, even if they move to the suburbs or another city, which many of them do. Were we to send a bill to all the institutions of Jewish life where Riverway folks land, we would be rich! Instead we prosper in this investment in the Jewish future within and beyond Temple Israel’s walls. As we look for ways to sustain the Riverway Project, we also turn to Riverway participants themselves for support, whether volunteer or financial. And they do support us.

To those who say millennials are ungrateful or unwilling to attend, much less register in advance or pay money for meaningful Jewish experiences, we offer plenty of stories to the contrary – with heartening testimonials like the following:

“I wish there had been more ritual at the beginning of Shabbat dinner,” they said, over and over again. After the Riverway Project helped lay-leaders host an LGBTQ+ Shabbat Dinner, we surveyed participants and received unanimous feedback. 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 Musar text and conversation in services; I’d love more of that in the future,” another voice offered. This time, for “Riverway Shabbat, Cambridge Edition,” a Shabbat experience in a Harvard Square Church, 65 emergent seekers registered in advance, paid for their own dinner and participated wholeheartedly. Their feedback too 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.

There is so much to celebrate. As we build conversation, connection, and community, whether we host in a church, a cafe, or at Temple Israel itself, the young people of Riverway show up. When we started asking for registration and suggested contributions, they registered and they gave. (OK fine… we’re still working on registering more than two hours in advance. But thank you VENMO!) When we wanted to expand our relational reach and grow our leadership, we had a robust group of volunteers step forward, willing to be trained how to host their peers. When one of our regulars has to deal with the loss of a parent, they come here to say Kaddish. When they struggle with all the challenges of the human condition, they feel comfortable entering the doors of the Temple to seek Jewish wisdom or solace. And when they move to the suburbs or to another city, their comfort here leads them to search for congregations that offer some of the hands-on and relational forms of Judaism that they so much enjoyed at Riverway.

From our eighteen years of doing Riverway, we know that the people we reach stay connected to synagogue life beyond their Riverway years. When a legacy institution creates pathways for emergent seekers to build their own community and engage with all that Judaism has to offer, we witness the result. They reach back and become part of the Jewish community.

Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz serves Temple Israel of Boston as the director of the Riverway Project, whose mission is to connect 20s and 30s to Judaism and each other through Temple Israel. Ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2012, she was an HUC-JIR Tisch Rabbinical Fellow and is a graduate of Indiana University’s Borns Jewish Studies Program. Rabbi Gubitz grew up as a song leader and educator at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana.