CSI: Coffee. Study. Interpret. – A Model for Young Adult Jewish Learning

By Daniel S. Horwitz

Just over a year ago, we at The Well set out to explore what it might look like to build a robust monthly learning platform in Metro Detroit, tailored to the needs and interests of young adults, with a focus on engaging with traditional texts (inspired by the traditional Beit Midrash partner style learning model). We billed our series as CSI: Coffee. Study. Interpret. – where we’d investigate (think a la the CSI television program) traditional texts and explore their relevance in our contemporary lives.

With Ignition support from The Covenant Foundation (to whom we are incredibly grateful), we set a goal of building momentum during the course of the year such that we could hopefully welcome a crowd of 50 young adults to our gatherings (in a community with only ~5,000 young Jewish adults) by the time we reached our 12th monthly gathering.

To our surprise, our first gathering had 50 attendees! No joke. This year, we averaged more than 55 attendees at each of the 12 gatherings, with a core group of 15-20 regulars (who often invited friends we wouldn’t have otherwise reached), as the series was selected as a semi-finalist for the inaugural Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom.

This strong show of interest was particularly intriguing given that the year was very much one focused on experimentation. We gathered at various types of establishments (including at coffee/tea shops, a museum, a dance studio and a local Jewish Day School), in various geographic locations in Southeastern Michigan (Ann Arbor, Detroit, Royal Oak, West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills), and we explored a wide range of topics (some justice-centric, some cultural, and some in the news).

Not only did young adults turn out to engage in substantive learning on relevant topics (and even demonstrate a willingness to pay to do so!), but many Xers, Boomers and Traditionalists also joined our millennial attendees along the way (my teacher Rabbi Sid Schwarz would certainly not be surprised given his own experiences documented in Finding a Spiritual Home), creating an unexpected (and beautiful!) opportunity for intergenerational learning.

So what about our approach to Jewish learning seems to resonate with unaffiliated millennials (and adults in general)?

Content-wise, our “secret sauce” is a constant focus on framing Jewish wisdom in relationship with broader human wisdom, speaking to the universalist outlook of today’s Jewish millennials while simultaneously cultivating an appreciation for their own tradition. Our text packets often contain secular content, including poetry, newspaper article clippings, rap lyrics, philosophy and more, intermingled with traditional Jewish sources.

By regularly focusing on (secular) topics recently in the news, we attract people wanting to engage in meaningful conversations about the world around them. Admittedly, this continues to pose one of our greatest challenges: how best to appropriately plan ahead while being nimble enough to address pressing issues that may arise.

By utilizing small group breakout discussions, we align our efforts with the relevant academic literature, which along with anecdotal experience makes clear that millennials prefer to learn/engage via participatory conversation as opposed to lengthy lectures.

Welcoming quality guest speakers who make themselves available for Q&A is also a key way we have drawn participants. For example, we welcomed the chief of staff to the State Senator from Flint to learn about the water crisis, the federal judge who wrote the District Court opinion case that ultimately led to the Obergefell v. Hodges gay marriage ruling, a top-5 finisher on the Hell’s Kitchen reality television show, a nationally known “Love Doctor,” and more.

Finally, we pay intense attention to helping participants find contemporary relevance in the texts they are examining. For example, at a gathering focusing on humanity’s relationship with the animal world (where we welcomed the CEO of the Detroit Zoo who spoke about Harambe the Gorilla and the changing nature of zoos), we examined the story of Eliezer seeking out a partner for Isaac at the well (Gen. 24:17-20), as he decides that the right woman for his master’s son will be the one who draws water not only for him, but for his camels as well. At the foot of the text, the discussion questions posed was: “Is kindness to animals something you look(ed) for in a partner? Why or why not?” The Torah text serves as a meaningful jump-off point for broader conversation about life and priorities – and is thus inherently relevant to a millennial generation striving to figure out its place and purpose in the world.

Structurally, our most successful (and thus most often utilized) model looks like this:

  • We schedule the program from 7-9pm. Snacks and coffee are provided (no alcohol is served!)
  • We give about 15 minutes for attendees to schmooze and connect with one another
  • We have a 5-15 minute set induction / opening speaker, to open peoples’ hearts
  • For 45-60 minutes, we create space for text breakout discussions in small groups (the text packets we design for each session contains guiding questions, as in the Eliezer example shared above), to open peoples’ minds. I personally (along with any guest educators who may be presenting at a particular gathering) work the room, sitting in with the various groups, answering clarifying questions, etc.
  • We then welcome a subject-matter expert to speak for 15-20 minutes, followed by Q&A for 15-20 minutes
  • We conclude with an “And now what?” charge, so that those gathered have action steps they can pursue as they depart

This has been a game-changing project for our organization, as it has allowed us to build a reputation in the community as the place to go for serious, relevant learning, that isn’t afraid to tackle challenging topics. The series has allowed us to achieve our goal of delivering meaningful Jewish content and creating inclusive Jewish spaces for those on the margins of the community, who wouldn’t necessarily have attended a “Jewish learning” program, but were interested in a particular subject matter or hearing one of the exceptional guest speakers we were able to line up (due to The Covenant Foundation’s investment). In addition to forming a volunteer “CSI Brain Trust” comprised of 8 young adults that helps to come up, plan and execute our gatherings each month, we now regularly have young adults coming to us to share ideas for topics that they want to see addressed using this model. We’ve also been able to plug a number of attendees into leadership roles in other areas of our organization by virtue of the relationships and trust we’ve built through this series. We are proud that our participant-driven model has received quality local press coverage (see, e.g., articles here and here), and to know that our offerings are indeed impacting our target audience (see, e.g., this blog post).

The text packets we designed for each gathering are available on our website in case you’d like to have a look and/or find a way to use them in your community. I’m also of course happy to answer questions, and would love nothing more than to see this model used successfully elsewhere!

Towards a future filled with accessible and relevant Jewish learning for all!

Daniel S. Horwitz, named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Forward, is the founding director and rabbi of The Well, an inclusive Jewish community building, education and spirituality outreach initiative of the Lori Talsky Zekelman Fund at Temple Israel of Metropolitan Detroit, geared to the needs of young adults and those who haven’t connected with traditional institutions. For more information, visit meetyouatthewell.org

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