Learning From (and Expanding) Do-It-Yourself Judaism for Young Adults

Washington DC Shabbat Feb 2013
Washington DC Shabbat Feb 2013

by Emily Comisar

The idea of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Judaism is not new, but it’s enjoying some time in the spotlight these days, particularly as a method for engaging young adults in Jewish life. Bill Robinson’s article “From Service (Back) to Leadership: The Future of Communal Agencies?” that appeared in eJewish Philanthropy last month gives a nod to this notion, and as a young Jewish adult myself, I can definitively say that DIY Judaism resonates deeply with me, particularly as I think of my own most meaningful Jewish experiences.

But as someone who is tasked with creating engagement opportunities for Birthright Israel alumni, I’m also compelled to think of DIY Judaism on a professional level. In fact, DIY methodology informs almost all of the programs I run. Why? The assumption (and my personal belief) is that when young Jews are empowered to create their own Jewish experiences–without any pre-ordained rules about how they carry out rituals or Jewish practices–and are equipped with the right tools and knowledge to learn about what they’re doing in the process, they will feel more compelled to take ownership of their Jewish identities. By being in the driver’s seat, they’re also able to make the decision about who they “do Jewish” with, organically creating communities of peers and friends to share in the experience.

These notions are the basis for a program I run that offers returnees from the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips resources and some funding so that they can host Shabbat meals in their own homes for their own friends and peer groups.

What I’ve found is that some Birthright Israel alumni really take the idea and run with it, framing their Shabbat experiences around shared interests and occasions that are relevant to their friends. What is most intriguing about this phenomenon is that it indicates an opportunity for integration of Jewish activity into everyday life. One of the challenges of working with Birthright Israel trip returnees is that, while ten days can be life-changing in many ways, they do not change your apartment, your pre-existing social circles, your job, or your family. By giving these participants the ability and the resources to do Shabbat their own way, we have been able to open a door for them to bring Shabbat into the life that they already lead.

But these days, I’m wondering about all of the Birthright Israel alumni out there that aren’t taking advantage of this opportunity. For those Birthrighters who are familiar with Shabbat – the concept, the ritual, and the meaning of the day of rest – the prospect of hosting a Friday night or Saturday afternoon meal is probably not so intimidating. But for those who have never celebrated or observed Shabbat before, except on their Birthright Israel trip, it might be perceived as an obscure practice that involves a series of rituals carried out with particular methodology in an unfamiliar language.

For some insight, I looked at another one of our programs that provides resources and a small grant for Birthrighters who host Passover seders for their friends. In the last two years of running this program, I’ve been blown away by its popularity. A seder comes with hours worth of preparation topped off with hours worth of ritual (that you’re supposed to get through even before you eat), and yet, our available seder grants get snapped up within days.

The key, I believe, is familiarity. Passover, like Hanukkah, is one of those few Jewish holidays that has become omnipresent – in grocery stores, on TV shows, and in some classrooms. It’s one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays, and our data bear this out. Among those who take advantage of the seder program, 80% have previously attended a seder. But a different statistic reveals that we’re helping to move the needle: Only half of these Passover hosts have ever previously hosted a seder themselves.

This means that we’ve motivated and empowered at least half our our Passover grantees to grow from being participants in a Jewish experience to becoming owners and organizers of that experience, all by giving them the resources to do it themselves. And by doing it themselves, they learn a great deal in the process about the ritual, how they connect to it, and what they can do to improve the experience in the future.

With that in mind, the question becomes: What other content can we use to leverage the DIY model? What other familiar Jewish experiences can we help Jewish young adults take ownership of? And furthermore, what familiar secular experiences do young adults enjoy to which we can bring some Jewish context?

This year, I’m going to be testing the appeal of book clubs, providing Birthrighters with the tools and resources to organize reading groups around Jewish or Israeli literature, and bringing that conversation into their normal everyday lives. Some other ideas that might fit this model include cooking clubs, hiking groups, or community service meetups. Based on what you see young adults already doing in your community, what else would you add to this list? We’re looking forward to testing these ideas and more as we develop projects that empower Birthright Israel trip returnees to deepen their Jewish identities and develop active voices in the Jewish community.

Emily Comisar is the Manager of National Projects at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.