Bringing It Home: Thriving Jewish Education as a Social and Familial Experience

Photo credit: OneTable via Facebook

By Dani Kohanzadeh

[This is the final of a four-part series from the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson School of JTS, in partnership with OneTable, a national nonprofit whose mission is to empower people age 21-39ish who don’t have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice, to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. JTS and its alumni who work at OneTable are taking a “deep dive” into what it means to approach Jewish education through the lens of thriving: learners engaging with Judaism in order to live more meaningful and flourishing lives. We examine the challenges organizations may have in applying this approach, and how we can address and overcome these challenges, together.]

This past summer I went back to my childhood sleep away camp for a 48-hour drop-in visit. I felt a lump in my throat and my usual dose of nostalgia as I adapted to the schedule, the salad bar, the infirmary line. The immersive experience of camp was transformative for me, for my Jewish identity, in part because of the relationships I developed with fellow campers, staff, and the physical space of camp. Now, as a 20-something Jewish professional living in Los Angeles, I wonder, can non-immersive Jewish learning, when curated with the same thoughtful investment into the nature of people and the ways we relate, as my Jewish camp experience was, be as transformative?

I wonder this at a time when young people today are searching for community; as feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression continue to increase we seek partnership and meaning. I also wonder this at a time when the 2013 Pew study of American Jews inform us that multitudes of Jews are losing their connection to their faith, causing dwindling synagogue attendance, which elicits concern about the viability of the Jewish future.

I wonder this at a time when deep-dive studies of millennials – the generation seemingly “responsible” for this rift between religious identity and practice – found that we are disinclined to engage in institutional communal involvement; rather, we seek spirituality.

Within this rises an opportunity: how might we make the most of relational Judaism when young people today are seeking spirituality rather then merely community and faith. I am recalling those last few days at the end of the camp summer when my friends and I would focus on distilling the magic of camp, the feelings, experiences, and friendships, and the holiness that rises from this magic – relationships, love, and belonging – and find a way to bring that sense of kodesh (holiness) into our everyday lives.

One attempt that has revealed itself to be much-maligned is the happy hour at a bar, gatherings of Jews that while maybe social, feels to many of my peers superficial. Let us instead consider Jewish organizations that inspire young adults to encounter Jewish practice at a social gathering and bring it in the home (rather than at the bar). Young adults living in Moishe Houses around the world host Jewish celebrations for their peers in their residences. Rabbis and their partners live in Base Hillel homes, inviting young adults to participate, and emulate the values of keeping a faith-based home. OneTable, for which I’ve been the Los Angeles Hub Manager for a year now, gives participants the tools to create Shabbat dinner experiences in their own spaces and connects them with others looking to take part. Similarly, At the Well provides resources for Jewish women to gather at home, in intimate monthly circles to learn about the Jewish calendar and the monthly practice of Rosh Chodesh.

The success of Jewish camp is its ability to pull its campers so deep into Jewish context that Jewish behaviors and rituals turn into personal habits. While it does help that campers are immersed in the environment for weeks, it is also clear that one does not need to leave their regular lives for a month – or even leave their own home – to find this milieu, to capture this magic. These organizations noted above, and the simultaneously social and spiritual experiences they’re empowering, create that Jewish context directly in the lives and homes of our communities.

In fact, I would argue that these experiences have greater potential for impact because they start from the core of the person and because those who curate them believe in the potential of, and deeply know, their audience. What we are then striving for – and what sociological and behavioral researchers such as Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston name “spirituality and community in combination” – isn’t our best camp selves, but actually the spirituality and social meaning we find in gathering with other people who share our values and give us a sense of belonging and strengthen our belief. In a very real sense, we can actualize our best selves right at home.

Dani Kohanzadeh is the Los Angeles Hub Manager for OneTable. She is a graduate of the Albert A. LIST College at JTS.