The Porch: It’s Southern, It’s Open, and It’s Jewish

By Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

When I was ordained a cantor in 2011, I never imagined that leading a congregation’s young adult group would fall within my professional portfolio. I’d never taken the much-lauded community organizing class and I didn’t think informal education was my thing. (In retrospect, it would have been great to have developed community organizing and informal education skills in advance.) As a part-time assistant cantor in Charlotte, NC, I expected to teach b’nai mitzvah kids and adult ed, lead services, and attend lots of meetings – all of which I do.

Even a year after moving to Charlotte, however, I didn’t have many local friends, and I missed the ones I’d left behind in New York. Looking to enrich my life, I asked to take on our young adult group and our Tot Shabbat group. Despite regular attendance at events, neither group was creating meaningful community among members and before long, I was experimenting with doing just that.

At the same time, the URJ invited synagogues to join its Communities of Practice (CoP) initiative, bringing together lay and professional leaders from Reform congregations across North America for 18 months of shared learning, networking, and experimenting, all with a specific focus. I was thrilled when our congregation applied and was selected to participate in the Families with Young Children cohort, knowing that I could apply whatever skills and ideas I learned to our young adult population as well.

Our CoP kicked off in January 2013 and my lay partner and I traveled to Chicago for the event, an invaluable experience that provided me with three main takeaways:

  • Don’t be afraid to completely break down what is and start from scratch. Both Rabbi Benay Lappe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs stressed that if that’s the right thing to do, just do it. Do it with all your will, and do not be afraid.
  • We must know the lives of those we serve. To truly help them, we need to be aware and extremely mindful of their needs.
  • It’s never about how many people show up, but rather about how much the people who show up take away.

With the Chicago takeaways fresh in my mind, we convened as many thoughtful, interesting people as we could find – singles, families with kids, those who are deeply committed to Jewish life, and those who swore they’d never join a synagogue. One by one, we asked them to come help build the Jewish world they want to see. Through those first conversations, our dedicated lay leadership team was born, and The Porch, Temple Beth El’s Young Adults and Young Families Community, followed.

Seeking to create an open, accessible community devoted to promoting connections among young singles, young couples, and young families, we carefully constructed “hybrid” events – picnics, bowling, and late afternoon Shabbat activities that conclude with Havdalah – that appeal equally to 20-something singles and 30-something parents with young kids. After all, who isn’t up for an opportunity to relax with a beer and hang-out with friends? We also offer events for specific cohorts within the community: happy hour, Tot Shabbat, and Torah study, among others. In all our community building efforts, we rely on social media and personal outreach to foster relationships, build trust, and encourage participation.

In March 2014, we launched Shabbat Supper Club, the epitome of The Porch and, I believe, what the synagogue of the future can be.

the_porch2Using social media, email, and personal asks, we convened groups of people – singles, couples, and families with young children – willing to have Shabbat dinner together once a month. Members of each group take turns planning and hosting dinners – mostly in homes, but sometimes in restaurants or parks. Regardless of the setting, all the events are beautiful because they build Jewish lives, Jewish observance, and Jewish community in an ongoing way (and explicitly give people permission to skip services). In fact, Shabbat Supper Club members often ask how they can incorporate more Judaism into their time together. Although I don’t attend the dinners, as the groups’ members connect to each other and to Judaism, I work to maintain their connections to the synagogue. Building on the Shabbat Supper Club’s initial success, this year we will expand it to families with school-aged children.

Thanks to our participation in a URJ Community of Practice cohort, which inspired the Shabbat Supper Club and all of The Porch initiatives, not only are we strengthened by the engaged community we’re building, but we’re empowered to figure out what it means to be a synagogue that nurtures ongoing relationships outside the walls of the building. I am deeply moved by what The Porch has become and eager to watch its continued growth and success.

We aren’t done yet. Big things are coming, and I can’t wait!

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas is the associate cantor at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC.

cross-posted at Blogs