When 2020 Vision is Blurred: a Young Adult Peer Leadership Model for Uncertain Times
By Rabbi Jen Gubitz
“So, what’s the plan for next year?” they asked. When we gathered over Zoom for a Shabbat dinner to celebrate the past year of the Riverway Project’s Leadership Team (RLT), it was early June. And although we were more settled into the pandemic’s disruption of our lives and well into planning for the High Holy Days, “that,” I responded to them, “is a great question.” As is the case in my work as the Rabbi and Director of the Riverway Project, a 20s/30s outreach project of Temple Israel of Boston, I’m familiar – comfortable even – with transitions and transience. In Boston, like many major cities, people are always coming and going: moving in, moving out, or moving on to new stages and places in life. It’s disappointing to say goodbye to the people I adore, but the transience often compels a transformation in the way I do my work. It propels me to respond nimbly to the needs, ideas, and energy of the community through relationship, research, and resourcefulness. But as a rabbi who sometimes gets to have a personal life, my own COVID-postponed wedding date had just passed us by, and I didn’t have an answer for them. “Let me meet with each of you to reflect on the year and to figure out what things could look like in the future,” I offered, hoping to buy myself some time to ponder: What does it mean to develop young adult lay leadership in our (virtual) Jewish world?
A few weeks later: “I just can’t see the future right now,” she shared. Pausing to reflect, her comment entered my heart so deeply and I noticed myself repeating it for weeks – to my colleagues, classmates, and even to myself. She was one young adult among the many who articulated this truth, this fear, and this uncertainty to me. In the loneliness, isolation, and upending of Covid-19, we humans – who generally love what is predictable and well planned – don’t know what next week will bring. And next year, whether in Jerusalem or in person, may as well be a decade away. So much for 2020 vision, right?
Holding her comment close to heart while meeting one-by-one with our leaders, I realized that this year would offer an opportunity to try something different. With many of our young adults living back with their families of origin, with return dates unknown and the broad uncertainty of our world, I had the growing sense that most folks would not commit to a yearlong experience of any sort. Despite committing to a life partner over the summer, my own desire to commit to most other things right now is limited to the hours necessary for a Netflix binge. My wise colleague and chevruta co-conspirator Emily Rogal, Riverway’s network weaver, had observed that many Jewish institutions, like the Hartman Institute, Pardes or Yeshivat Maharat, shifted quickly to offer sabbatical or gap-year options to serve this Covid-19 moment. With that in mind, “What if we did a squad?” Emily suggested.
For the Riverway Project, a squad is a short term, cohort based, intensive learning experience that trains and supports young adults in creating Jewish experiences for their peers. When we launched Seder Squad in 2019 to support peer-led Seders, in six short weeks, our squad dove deeply into the wisdom of the Haggadah, designed ritual items (etched glass Seder or Matzah plates), learned new Seder recipes, and created their own Haggadot (thank you, Haggadot.com). When young adults reached out for a place to spend Passover that year, Riverway’s newest leaders hosted their peers at 12 seders around town that reached 160 people with styles ranging from traditional formats to one focused on lacto-fermentation led by a leader of Sephardi heritage. The Seders were creative and awesome, but the best part about the squad model – no surprises – was the immersive cohort experience itself. And by opening up applications for this opportunity, young adults who we didn’t know well made themselves known to us – tapping themselves as someone who wanted to lead and subsequently building a pipeline for lay leadership.
So we tried it again for Shabbat Squad in Winter 2019/2020. This time, we soaked in the power of Shabbat, learned to make challah, and considered meaningful Shabbat rituals to bring into our lives. All winter long, when someone reached out to ask, “How can I get involved or connected to the Riverway community?” a peer leader welcomed them to a home-hosted, thoughtfully crafted Shabbat dinner nearly every Shabbat for ten weeks.
Holding the question “What’s the plan for next year?” alongside the statement “I just can’t see the future” illuminated our Squad model, designed for other purposes, as the solution for the in-between. Solidly designed with relationships at the core, rooted in Jewish wisdom, and inviting creativity, the squad model was a tested and trusted way to navigate the liminal moment in which we find ourselves. Leading from within my own peer group, uncertain of the future myself, the plan is not for next year, but for the next two months. Our High Holy Day Leadership Squad will bring together a cohort of young adults who commit to themselves and each other to dig deeply into the themes of the High Holy Days, participate ritually in our Open Door High Holy Day services, serve as UsherZ (Usher + Zoom), develop and lead our Sukkot experiences, and build whatever else emerges from their creativity and connections to one another. But what it will really do is help us (and yes, help me) enter together into the new shana, this New Year of 5781,to build and create amid shi’nu’im, these times of tremendous changes, reminding us all to continue to plant seeds and build relationships even amid a future so uncertain we may never get to see the fruits.
Shana Tovah U’metuka, As you taste a new fruit this Rosh Hashanah, may you delight in sweetnesses not yet known to you.
Rabbi Jen Gubitz is the Director of the Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston.