Next Dor STL Seen as National Model to Engage Young Jewish Adults

When the St. Louis Next Dor delegates spoke at a Synagogue3000 Conference in New York City recently before 176 attendees representing 53 congregations across the country, everyone listened with rapt attention. The four 20-somethings representing St. Louis – David Elias, Aliza Haber, Ariel Lyons-Warren and Yoni Sarason – were the youngest group of presenters addressing one of the most important issues facing our Jewish community – how to engage young Jewish adults. And they posited a unique model.

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, CEO of S3000, said of the Next Dor STL contingent, “They not only provided a pilot project voice about what and how they’ve created a successful young Jewish adult engagement initiative, but also demonstrated to the mostly Boomer and Gen X crowd that young Jewish adults really do know what they want and how to go about creating sacred community on their terms.”

The S3000 event brought together Jewish organizers, rabbis, congregational leaders, federation representatives, experts in communal initiatives and others committed to community building for Jews in their 20s and 30s. The goal of the conference was to have a free-thinking and honest conversation about how to reach the next generation of Jews. And underlying that was to explore the relevance synagogues will play in the future of Jewish life. Next Dor, which is a national initiative for engaging young Jewish adults, is typically organized by rabbis that forge connections, build community and launch peer-driven initiatives – both in and around the congregations that host their endeavors.

But Next Dor STL takes a different approach.

Sarason, a founder and a current staff member, explained it this way. “We tap young local talent to reach post-college and pre-marriage Jewish adults (ages 21 to mid 30s). Most other Next Dor sites are ensconced with a synagogue; we are independent. Other sites use their funds to hire a professional while we use it to renovate the space – we have our own house near Central Reform Congregation with whom we have a special exchange. We also focus on non-traditional programming that doesn’t take place within the confines of an institutional setting such as a synagogue or Jewish organization.”

Rabbi Susan Talve of CRC, who accompanied the Next Dor STL delegates, explained the laissez-faire set up between Next Dor STL and her congregation. “Our hope was that Next Dor STL would provide a space for young adults to find meaningful relationships, conversations and experiences.” There were contingencies in setting it up, she noted. “There were core values we expected the young people to build on like embracing the LGBT community, Jews of color, open to interfaith relationships and Jews by choice. I hope also at this critical time in their lives, in an economy that is tough for many of them to find work, they know they can still be part of something bigger than themselves, find ways to help each other and serve the common good.”

Lyons-Warren, one of the initial founders and a current board member, pointed out that Next Dor STL is indeed a Jewish community space that serves the common good. Available to and welcoming for young Jewish adults, it’s non-denominational and independent of any one synagogue. “The most important goal is providing a safe comfortable place to be … the Jewish identity will follow. Our generation does not respond to the same types of outreach as our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.”

Next Dor STL has empowered young people to form their own community. “It’s about letting us have the reigns, the power and the resources rather than conforming to someone else’s concept. Young people are full of ideas, but they’re not necessarily listened to. Here our ideas have come to fruition without the typical roadblocks,” said Sarason.

Elias said he views Next Dor STL as a success “if there are a plethora of options out there for young, Jewish adults to explore. I want young people to realize that St. Louis has a lot to offer and I see Next Dor STL as a resource for young adults and a conduit to other organizations within the city.”

Haber calls Next Dor STL her lifeline to the Jewish community. “I moved back to St. Louis from Chicago, heard about Next Dor and went to a couple of events. I started to think, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ I went to more and this led to other involvements. I’m more involved in Jewish social life and living than ever. Now I’m a youth director for USY, I have new friends and networking opportunities that helped me find work. In fact, my whole life revolves around things I’ve done and people I’ve met at Next Dor.”

Since opening, hosting its first event a year ago on Nov. 10, 2009, more than 300 young adults have made 1,500 visits to St. Louis’ Next Dor, participating in more than 100 programs that include social action projects, educational events and social and recreational programs. This is the tip of the iceberg. Sarason wants to ignite more relationships with existing organizations which have had not as much success with young adults in the past. “For instance, we did an interfaith dialogue with ADL that was successful. We’re doing a movie series with them. In essence, we’re taking the programs out of the institutional setting and having conversations that allow young people to express themselves and do something meaningful.”

Next Dor STL’s model has put the St. Louis Jewish community on the map, said Sarason. “I’ve heard from people in Houston, Detroit, New York. We’ve had initial conversations and many have said, ‘Wow, I would like to visit St. Louis. It sounds like a great community.’”

Next Dor STL has received most of its funding from Synagogue 3000, followed by the Simon Family foundation, the Kranzberg Family and Staenberg Family Foundations, supporting organizations of Jewish Federation of St. Louis; Jewish Federation of St. Louis and private donors.

about: Jewish Federation of St. Louis is the Jewish community’s central philanthropic, planning and community building organization. Founded in 1901, it is one of the region’s oldest and largest nonprofit organizations. Federation’s Annual Community Campaign is the Jewish community’s major fundraising effort. Donations are distributed to a family of more than 50 agencies, programs and services in St. Louis and around the world – to ensure a thriving, vibrant and engaged Jewish community through innovative projects to engage both young families with children and young adults, support Jewish learning, educate and advocate for a strong Israel and a safe Jewish world and provide a safety net for vulnerable and isolated Jews with food, housing and health services. Jewish Federation is also the community’s central connection to worldwide Jewish communities and provides a direct link between St. Louis and Israel through the Partnership 2000 sister-city program in Yokneam-Megiddo.

This article originally appeared in JewishinStLouis; reprinted with permission.