Local Jewish Organizations Engage Young Jews Through Social Causes

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Madeline Suggs (Photo by Marc Shapiro)
Madeline Suggs (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Under the direction of Madeline Suggs, the Baltimore Jewish Council has revamped its programming in recent years to appeal to more millennials.

Suggs, 26, director of public affairs at the BJC, said she spent the past summer meeting with young up-and-upcoming leaders in the community simply asking how the BJC could better engage them.


What she said she found was that they wanted more action-orientated programming as opposed to dialogues, which had long been a staple at the BJC.

Since August, Suggs said, the BJC has put on more than 20 such events, consisting of intimate gatherings of 10 to 20 people at interfaith dinners and happy hours, to foster a greater sense of civic engagement.

“If you’re new at your job and young, you’re not going to leave during the lunch hour,” Suggs said. “As these people get to know one another and become more comfortable, they’ll talk about more difficult topics like Israel and the boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] movement. You can’t expect strangers to sit down with each other and talk about these difficult things right away, so we’re making it easier for them to build this foundation of trust.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Molly Amster graduated from high school in Montgomery County and today lives in Baltimore City. She has been the Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice since September 2014.

Amster and JUFJ endeavor to galvanize young people in relation to their Jewish values through campaigning to help “win local racial and social justice issues.”

JUFJ typically holds monthly campaign meetings that update participants on the work the group is involved in. Amster’s Baltimore chapter focuses on rent reform and police accountability.

From time to time, they’ll also host Shabbat dinners, book clubs, educational events and film screenings with the intent of fostering “meaningful action to bring about change,” Amster said.

Amster has found that one-to-one meetings are key to successful a organization. This is all about finding out what the specific participant wants out of his or her engagement with the JUFJ.

Molly Amster (File photo)
Molly Amster (File photo)

Many young Jews are “not finding a home in other Jewish settings they’ve encountered: synagogues or other institutions,” Amster said. “They don’t find people there they connect with, don’t find what’s happening there to be fulfilling.”

These young Jews, Amster has found, “are still in a position of feeling very Jewish — it’s part of their identity, [and] JUFJ provides people with a community that is similarly dedicated toward working for peace.”

Before he became a mashgiach in Columbus, Ohio, Ron Reitman, 40, spent a handful of years on and off in Baltimore between 2006 to 2011, deeply ingrained in various Jewish community events and organizations that allowed him to “be with my people serving a greater good,” he said.

Lamenting that “Columbus to me seems a little sleepy,” he fondly recalled how Baltimore “is a bit more exciting, a little more dynamic” in comparison to the more “stable” Midwestern town in which he now resides.

It was during his time in Baltimore that, as with Amster’s observation, he was able to find more enjoyment being connected to Judaism through working for causes important to him.

In addition to his time in the young leadership program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which helped him to become more involved in the community, he was a regular at the Downtown Chabad’s series of young professional Shabbats hosted by Rabbi Levi Druk and his wife, Chani.

“I found my involvement with Chabad very enriching for my soul … and also my stomach,” Reitman said, chuckling. “Chani Druk made the best challah. I always enjoyed learning and singing with Rabbi Druk. It just felt welcoming there.”

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