By Rabbi Jen Gubitz
It’s Shabbat morning, October 27. 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’ve 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.
Rewind to late August 2018. Most young adults in Boston were surprised to discover that Rosh Hashanah came “early” this year. Over sushi in Brookline, “Riverway Cafe: High Holy ‘Prep’ Shop” drew an array of emergent seekers to prepare for the High Holy Days. Led by our Riverway Project educator and rabbinical student, Ryan, we explored Musar character traits and High Holy Day liturgy, to consider “On what three things does your world stand?” A few weeks later (in partnership with Honeymoon Israel and Hebrew College’s Eser Program) forty-eight of these seekers gathered by the Charles River to explore “renewal” through the study and ritual of Tashlich. For some, Riverway Cafe or Tashlich on the Charles was their only High Holy Day experience, but many joined us days later in a room overflowing with nearly 600 young adults gathered to observe Kol Nidre through contemplative music, accessible liturgy and a sermon on the ever-relevant millennial issue of “ghosting.”
These are just two 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 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 Joes cookies, and boxed wine, the Riverway Project attendees now inundate Temple Israel of Boston, at least 1400 people crossing our doorstep this past year. We are deluged with requests for coffee dates with the Rabbi – including 25 (and rising) students choosing Judaism through conversion (so far, just this year alone) – 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’s commitment to investing in the Jewish future by sustaining a clergy/staffing model that supports our 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 lessons 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 Mussar text and conversation in services; I’d love more of that in the future,” another voice offered. This time, for “Shabbat in the Bridge,” a Shabbat experience in a Harvard Square church, sixty-five 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 2 hours in advance. But thank you VENMO!) When we wanted to expand our relational reach, the leadership team began a small groups initiative. When they must 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 another city, their comfort here leads them to search for a similar synagogue home there. 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.
Rabbi Jen Gubitz is the Director of the Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston.