Creating a Millennial Access Point in Dallas

singerpic2By Abigail Pickus

When Dallas’s oldest and largest Conservative synagogue, Shearith Israel, hired David Singer to be their new Associate Rabbi, they had only one small request: figure out a way to engage young adults, build community and create Jewish life that is interesting, meaningful and relevant.

“The idea was to do something dramatically different and bolder and set the stage nationally for how a congregation can go beyond itself to engage Millennials,” said the 32-year-old Singer.

But how to get started? And what, exactly, should they build?

Like all good Millennials, Singer crowdsourced his challenge. Emailing around 50 people he told them, “I don’t know what this is, but I know what its values are: open, timely and timeless.” A week later, close to 100 people crowded into a living room to think through what this new venture would look like. And mere two days after that, in August 2012, Makom – as it is known – was created.

A Jewish engagement program targeting Millennials in Dallas, Makom aims to “take the synagogue outside the synagogue, free it outside the walls of the building, and bring it to the streets,” according to Singer.

It its short life, Makom has proven to be a huge success, having engaged over 1,500 young adults in everything from Shabbat and holiday celebrations to Jewish learning. Slingshot singled them out in their 2014-15 guide as a “dynamic young community…[that] breathes fresh energy into Jewish life in Dallas, enhancing the Jewish identities and spiritual growth of all those who participate.”

The ‘First Friday’ of the month kabbalat Shabbat service and dinner, for example, draws hundreds of participants. Held in a loft in downtown Dallas, the hands-on philosophy behind the community is reflected in a very literal way since participants can actually decorate the walls before Shabbat (it’s covered in white board). The dinners are known to last for hours, with guests lingering until the wee hours of the night, according to Singer.

Makom also offers one-time events and study sessions at bars and pubs across the city, as well as a year-long fellowship funded by the Covenant Foundation to “grapple heavily with [Jewish] texts and to wrestle with big ideas and think critically about what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century,” according to Singer.

Whether they’re single, married or have kids, participants are overwhelmingly “unaffiliated,” as the official parlance goes, meaning they are not members of a synagogue and are typically removed from organized Jewish life, according to Singer. “For many of my peers, Judaism exists as something behind a piece of glass in a museum. It’s pretty to look at, but not something my peers feel they can touch or play with or engage with,” he said.

Makom, he counters, changes this.

“We are trying to create access points for every Jew affiliated or not affiliated to become owners of our tradition and masters of our text. I think Judaism that isn’t seriously grappled with or manipulated like a piece of clay is a missed opportunity,” he said.

Interestingly, for the Jewish organizations convinced that reaching Next Gens means providing everything gratis, Singer said that except for the free Shabbat dinners, which they feel strongly should be open to everyone without payment, their programmatic budget is 40% participant funded. “This is a strong statement that challenges the presumption that young adults won’t pay for Jewish community and a testament to participants’ empowerment and ownership in what we’re doing,” he said.

Another notable fact is that while Makom is decidedly not a synagogue or anything that can be labeled and defined (there are no membership fees, for example) – it has become an important source of leadership development for Shearith Israel, with many of its young participants now serving on the synagogue’s board of directors, according to Singer.

“Makom is only able to function because of its leadership team of dedicated volunteers, some of whom had only minimal leadership experience before they became active in Makom. Our interest is in helping connect them to Jewish life across the board, including further study or Israel or a synagogue – any way that our participants can get involved in Jewish life is important to us,” said Singer.

Singer co-founded Makom with Danielle Rugoff, now his wife, who is its Chief Engagement Officer. A former Director of the Dallas Office of AIPAC, she now works as a strategic consultant.

Growing up in San Diego, Singer was very connected to Jewish life and to his family’s Reform congregation. There he was active in NFTY (Reform Jewish Teens) and attended Beth Israel Day School. His late mother served as the Director of Development for the San Diego Hillel, and his father was very involved in both the Jewish Federation and Hillel. “My parents instilled in me from very early on the importance of Jewish involvement and leadership,” he said.

After studying history at the University of California, Berkeley, Singer decided to go to Rabbinic school, spending three years at Hebrew Union College in New York before transferring to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, from which he was ordained in 2012. He then moved to Dallas and began working for Congregation Shearith Israel.

The fact that Makom is making such an impact is a big deal, considering Dallas’s Jewish population. (Estimated between 50-60,000).

“This isn’t Los Angeles or New York or Chicago,” said Singer. “Many of my colleagues are doing great work engaging the unengaged in some of the larger centers, but I don’t think most of us thought this was possible in Dallas since we don’t have a critical mass like other places. But I think Makom is proving this wrong by opening up other possibilities.”

“We feel very excited with our success and also humbled,” continued Singer. “We have a big responsibility with what we’re doing to help continue it, build it, and allow others to learn from our successes and struggles.”

“Creating a Millennial Access Point in Dallas” is part of an on-going series on young Jewish adults – both entrepreneurs and communal professionals – making a difference in their world, and ours.