By Rabbi Aaron Miller
Washington Hebrew Congregation has been passionate about young Jewish professionals for decades, and 2239, our community for Jews between the ages of 22 and 39, was one of the first of its kind. 2239’s flagship Shabbat initiative, Metro Minyan, began one Friday night in 2011 with twelve Reform Jews crammed into a one-bedroom metro-accessible apartment, and now three years later, 180-250+ young Jewish professionals come together for each Metro Minyan to create one of the largest and most energetic Shabbat communities in the country.
Metro Minyan is successful because it is much more than a Shabbat service – it has evolved into a Shabbat experience. Metro Minyan begins with Shot of Torah, where people grab a drink (hence the “shot”) and gather for a spirited conversation about the week’s Torah portion. It continues with a fully participatory Shabbat service, followed by Shabbat blessings, dinner, and an off-site after party. On a macro-level, none of these things are new. Metro Minyan’s success comes down to the details and a way of collective thinking that has inspired each of them. Some of the things that make Metro Minyan work are specific to DC, but there are many ways Washington Hebrew approaches young professionals programming that can apply almost anywhere.
- Prioritize your newcomers – It is easy for someone new to come to a Jewish event, leave, and have no opportunity to feel like he/she connected. At Metro Minyan, we’re aggressive with our newcomers. We ask any willing newcomer to read out loud at Shot of Torah. During the service, we ask our newcomers to stand up and introduce themselves. At dinner, instead of leaving our newcomers to fend for themselves in a sea of 250 people, we ask that any interested newcomers stay by their seats at the end of the service so that our lay leaders can meet them, walk with them from the service to the dinner, and actually sit with them at reserved newcomers’ tables. “Welcoming” at Metro Minyan means more than saying “Shabbat Shalom.” It is about encouraging newcomers, many of whom might be giving Judaism a first try in years, to feel like they already belong.
- Collaborate (instead of compete) – There are a number of fantastic 20’s and 30’s organizations in DC that share 2239’s mission of deepening Jewish identity for young professionals. We have found that the more avenues young professionals have into Judaism, the more likely they are to attend a 2239 event. To help make this happen, 2239 helps to make sure that the 20’s and 30’s organizations in DC work well together. We care about each other’s success, respect each other’s calendars, and some of our best events are collaborations between organizations. On Purim, for example, 2239 partners with five other large 20’s and 30’s organizations to host a huge community wide Purim Bash. This past November, 2239 partnered with 6th and I to host a joint Shabbat initiative which drew 450 people. Collaboration can make your community members more Jewishly involved while dramatically expanding your reach.
- Find the right venue – While Washington Hebrew has two campuses, its Metro Minyan meets in off-site locations directly along DC’s main metro lines (hence “Metro” Minyan) to make it easy for young professionals without cars to join. Find a place where young professionals already are, and they are much more likely to join you.
- Study Torah together – Most Jews have not studied anything Jewish since their bar/bat mitzvahs, and a pre-Shabbat Torah study could be an opportunity to expose young Jewish adults to the world of adult Jewish learning. Instead of an oneg or happy hour, Metro Minyan begins with Shot of Torah, a clergy-led conversation (with drinks) about the Torah portion to launch the evening. Young Jewish professionals are looking for depth and meaning in a Jewish experience, and if they can find this with you, they will come back and bring their friends.
- Give sermons, but not lectures (this one is for rabbis) – Try to find a TED talk where the speaker stands behind a podium and reads a 10 minute speech. It doesn’t exist. Stylistically, the sermons that really work at Metro Minyan are informal, bordering on conversational. If people connect to the sermon and then talk about it over Shabbat dinner, then we have added to the Shabbat experience in a way that only rabbis can.
- Give people tools to celebrate Shabbat on their own – There is a world of difference between eating dinner on a Friday night and celebrating Shabbat. At Metro Minyan, before people start eating, we model what Shabbat could look like at home. At every table, we have participants light Shabbat candles, sing Kiddush, and join in motzi together. Each Metro Minyan ends with a community-wide Birchat HaMazon so rousing it would make any summer camp dining hall jealous. We believe that if we give young professionals the right tools and sense of authenticity to celebrate Shabbat, they will be able to celebrate on their own for the rest of their lives.
- Make the food interesting – When Millennials go out for dinner, they don’t order baked chicken and kugel, and so at Metro Minyan, we try keep the menu lively. While the challah is always from the best bakery in the area, we work with well-known Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Central American restaurants to provide a delicious rotating menu throughout the year. Get people excited about what you’re serving for dinner, and they’ll look forward to it every time.
- Plan the after party – Shabbat does not have to end with Birchat HaMazon. Instead of participants going their separate ways once Metro Minyan is over, 2239 partners with a nearby bar for a post-Metro Minyan happy hour to give people a real chance to stay connected with everyone they just met. Young professionals want to meet each other, and they will love if you can make it a little easier.
- Build Jewish identity between events – Many young Jewish professionals are interested in more than just discovering Shabbat. In addition to dozens of events throughout the year, 2239 launched an initiative called 12 Jewish Questions, where young professional gather to tackle core questions of Jewish identity. 12 Jewish Questions goes hand in hand with NextPage, where 2239 selects one excellent Jewish identity-building book each quarter and makes copies available for participants to impulse buy for $5 at every event. Shabbat is not enough to build a sense of adult Jewish identity. We want people reading, thinking, and talking about their Judaism throughout the year.
- Make it affordable, but not free – 2239 leverages its funding to make Metro Minyan better – not cheaper. Through the support of Washington Hebrew, Slingshot, the Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, and the Bernstein Family Foundation, 2239 has funding to make a limited version of Metro Minyan free. Instead, however, we have decided to charge an affordable ticket price and use the income from ticket sales to improve our food, music, venues, logistics management, and all the other details that make Metro Minyan work. We charge people what we think they can pay, and we strive to make the quality of the event worth every shekel.
There are many excellent 20’s and 30’s organizations around the country, and I think we have found a model that works for the young professionals community in Washington, DC. For Washington Hebrew’s 2239, however, “works” does not mean that a lot of people choose to spend their Friday nights with us. At Metro Minyan, we want the people who join us to feel more Jewish when they leave, and so a successful event is one that deepens a sense of Jewish identity. We believe that the Jewish future hinges on forward-thinking congregations and rabbis instilling a sense of Jewish authenticity so rich and enduring that no matter who our young adults choose to spend their lives with, the future they will create will be Jewish. Judaism has so much to offer this underserved young professionals community, and they are thirsting for it. By investing in a high-quality Shabbat experience, Washington Hebrew’s 2239 is showing young professionals what their own Judaism could be.
Rabbi Aaron Miller is Associate Rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation. He leads efforts to engage young Jewish professionals through the 2239 and Couples Club auxiliaries and works closely with the Congregation’s post-b’nei mitzvah program.