What Are We Looking For?
A Millennial’s Guide to Millennial Engagement

By Leah Robbins

Exhale the demands of the week; inhale the sweet smells of Shabbos. Kavod’s Kabbalat Shabbat is starting, and you’re invited. We’re a lay-led, non-denominational community of young adults weaving Jewish ritual and social justice for an alternative Jewish future. By the time you arrive, much has been set into motion to strengthen your sense of belonging. Under our K’vutzah (cooperative) model of decentralizing Shabbat, we’ve each assumed a role to orchestrate the evening. There’s no faceless entity on high curating your experience. We embody our ethic of Arevut (communal responsibility) by sharing in its creation. I’m Rosh Set Up this week. I kibbitz (joke) with the Rosh Schlepper and Welcomers who’ve arrived early – an overlooked, yet potent opportunity for connection around shared tasks.

At Kavod, God is in the details. Logistics are holy. Every inch of space subtly articulates who we are. Our vegetarian tables (one kosher) are equipped with allergen lists. Our compostable cutlery is beautifully arranged. The concentric circles reinforce our non-hierarchical ethos and amplify our collective song. Two inviting smiles stand post at the door, waiting to take you across the proverbial threshold into a temporary universe. Our sacred drama is ready for curtain.

Our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) uses “generous authority” to facilitate our immersive experience, directing our intention outward and upward. The traditional liturgy roots my feet in the ground; our thunderous prayer has my heart in the clouds. Opposite much of my praying career, there are no drooping eyes, blank stares, or other tell tale signs of acute misery. Under the protection of the leader’s liturgical virtuosity and the sacred container they’ve constructed, we’re transported across time and space into relationship with the Divine, our ancestors, and each other. Hebrew familiarity remains a barrier, even with transliteration, but our trusted leader empowers us to silence the inner critic, divest from the cognitive, and own our journey. In this moment, we’re neither spectators nor consumers; we’re a kehillah (community).

I awaken from my trance and familiar smiles meet my gaze. Now it’s time for words of justice. At Kavod, we sanctify our work by rooting it in Torah. We relate the weekly portion to our principles and initiatives, or invite community partners to share their work. These moments publicly and explicitly reinforce our group identity, of which each of us is an integral part.

Announcements open with public gratitude for the local indigenous peoples who generously tend to this land upon which we are guests. We publicize various participation opportunities, whether it’s coordinating Kol Nidre with the Jewish Life and Ritual Team, fighting gentrification with the Housing Justice team, supporting immigrant detainees through court accompaniment, or coordinating radical care with Chesed. Shared leadership keeps us afloat, propels justice forward, and offers multiple entry points outside of ritual activity. The Accessibility Liaison invites folks to approach them with any inaccessible elements of the physical space, prayer, or atmosphere. This visibilizes ongoing solicitation of feedback for perpetual fine-tuning. This week’s Shabbat Hosts introduce themselves. It’s their sacred responsibility to locate new folks and connect them to old folks – ensure that they feel seen, their presence valued. This elevates their right to a positive experience, where one’s newness is named and honored. The crowd fizzles; a small group assembles in the corner for z’mirot (singing). Schmoozed out, bellies full, goodnight and good Shabbos.

I admit that my lifetime of Jewish experiences primed an intrinsic need to plant roots in Jewish community, while a more representative sample of my contemporaries likely points everywhere but. I also recognize that, upon first glance, what I’ve described here, may seem like a niche interest group earmarked for a certain demographic. I mean, if you can only drag your average tech-industry millennial to a Jewish happy hour kicking and screaming, how could you possibly get them within a hundred yards of Shabbat services? Of course, no Jewish space is a one-size-fits-all, but there’s replicable wisdom here.

Kavod mobilizes around a bold, sharp purpose whose primacy reveals itself in every gathering. This ultimately means we cannot be everything to everyone, and that’s okay. Our specificity is an asset, not a liability. We are by no means homogenous, but we aren’t amorphous either. With our values at the forefront, we meet the diverse needs of those with varying Jewish educational backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, subethnic groups, affinity for ritual, political activism, and everything in between. Some are professional community organizers, others are dipping their toes. Some are lifetime beneficiaries of Jewish communal institutions. Others might not have touched Jewish ritual with a ten foot pole were it not for Kavod’s unparalleled mastery for activating what I call the “elementally human.” Our practices attract the most disillusioned, marginalized, and ritually allergic. How? We don’t wait for disparate people to magically assemble into a group. We make the group. We make the meaning.

Thousands of dollars and untold hours of brain power are spent on the Jewish millennial psyche. Why are we so elusive? I don’t have all the answers, but my tenure as a young adult offers insights from hundreds of well intentioned, yet mediocre Jewish events. Whether it’s schmoozing, boozing, learning, or praying, one of few secret ingredients are staring us in the face. It’s neither novel nor revolutionary – it’s basic human intimacy. Glaringly obvious as that may seem, my history of forgettable Jewish gatherings suggests otherwise. The light emanating from Kavod, in addition to insights among leading social scientists, event planners, theologians, and Havurahniks of decades past indicate that we can satiate one’s Hunger for More through compelling Jewish life. No gimmicks, no prizes, no extravagant branding – just confidence in the inherent relevance of our tradition coupled with organic relationships and galvanizing values. I confess that, like many of my peers, I, too, enjoy merchandise, bright shiny things, and the latest technology, but I maintain that the most compelling technology is the ancient stuff: unadorned Jewish tradition, shared responsibility, clarity of purpose, and most importantly – room to belong.

Leah Robbins is a graduate student in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program and the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.