Come for the Party … Stay for the Judaism

JHeritage hosted its Purim party downtown at PowerPlant Live!. (Leba D. Photography)

You’re jury-rigging the final acorn to a long piece of misshapen tree bark.

As you put down the glue gun used to complete the makeshift menorah, you’re bumped by a young brown-haired girl bundled up for the winter despite the fact the dimly-lit brewery is jam-packed with other 20-somethings and 30-somethings like yourself.

Then again, it is still rather refreshingly crisp in here (what with the frigid weather outside and all the beer cans perfectly stacked around the sides of the room).

The young woman apologizes, smiling and squeezing your shoulder thoughtfully before making her way through the crowd that surrounds you both toward a nearby activity table, where she fits a large cardboard dreidel upon her head.

The group around you laughs, and you join in the merriment.

But … it’s time to hush down, as the  relayed “Shh!” and “Quiet!” make their way around the room of 250 people as though this were a nostalgic game of “Telephone.”

The DJ on the other side of the room has stopped playing Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” the candle lighting far to your right commences, and while trying to figure out which of the four versions of Sandler’s lovingly comic ode to the festival of lights had just been cut short, it dawns on you: This isn’t just a party. This is  Judaism.

The time is approximately 9 p.m. The place: Union Craft Brewing. It’s the fifth  of Chanukah’s “eight crazy nights,” as Sandler would put it, and you’re one of many enjoying another successful Chanukah BrewHaHa presented by Baltimore’s own Jewish outreach organization, Charm City Tribe.

CCT is one of many entities working to attract or reconnect area Jews in their 20s and 30s to their heritage.

In this face-paced, digitally connected postmodern era, groups such as CCT are producing all manner of specialty events revolving around good food, good drinks and good music as a vibrant alternative to the kind of traditional synagogue services that have left some young Jews seeking connection elsewhere.

Adam Yosim, 29, a television reporter for Fox45, proudly stands holding one portion of the prayer written on a large white poster board above his head.

He wears a hip-hop inspired “Chanukah sweater” and a flat-brimmed hat trendily tilted just so.

He is not alone, as a handful of other young Jews hold prayer portions above their heads. Some, shorter than the formidable Yosim, stand on chairs to ensure they’re well seen throughout the crowd.

Finding Oneself in the Community

A North Carolina native who has traveled around the country as a television reporter in different news markets, Yosim has discovered that the quickest, easiest way to meet new people and get ingratiated in the city — on both a  professional and personal level — is to reach out to area Jewish community members.

“Everywhere you go, there’s a Jewish community,” Yosim, who’s lived in Baltimore for two years and resides in Mount Vernon, said. “That’s been a big part of everywhere I’ve moved, getting immersed in that community.”

CCT was one of the first such groups Yosim reached out to when he came to Baltimore, and after meeting with director Rabbi Jessy Gross within the first few weeks in town, he began going to events regularly.

Beyond such outings being Yosim’s primary means of connecting with his Judaism, there’s a significant socializing element involved.

Last June, Yosim met his fiancée at CCT’s Schmooze and Brews, a monthly happy hour the group hosts every month for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

Atlanta-born Perrin Shapiro, 24, similarly found her beshert through a local young Jewish outreach event after moving to Baltimore following her graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I moved to Little Italy, and the first week here, my roommates hadn’t moved in yet, and I didn’t know anyone,” Shapiro recounted. “My mom sent me a link to the [Downtown] Chabad, which was literally the next block over, and that’s where I met [my boyfriend].”

More than two years later, Shapiro is still dating 27-year-old Jared Hurwich. The two have moved in together in Canton as of Jan. 1. This after her first encounter with one of the monthly Downtown Chabad young professional Shabbats, each with a different theme.

Motifs for food and decorations range from “Harry Potter” to a Brazilian night and a “men in the kitchen” night, when the guys in the group help out Chani Druk, wife of Rabbi Levi Druk, in the kitchen. There’s also been a black tie Shabbat  produced as a kind of “winter formal.”

Raised Jewish and having attended Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Shapiro revealed that she wasn’t nearly as involved in Jewish activities or culture in college as she is today through the Chabad.

“In college,” Shapiro said with a knowing laugh, “I had a lot going on!”

Two young Downtown Chabad regulars bless the Four Kinds while their friends enjoy a lunch in the University of Maryland, Baltimore Sukkah. (Chabad of Downtown)
Two young Downtown Chabad regulars bless the Four Kinds while their friends enjoy a lunch in the University of Maryland, Baltimore Sukkah. (Chabad of Downtown)

Shapiro said what draws her to the young professional Shabbats and other events through the Downtown Chabad is a mixture of everything offered: the tasty grub and the fact that Druk and his wife are close enough in age to her that they have become friends in addition to spiritual guides … and also the “group of kids” Shapiro has become so close to.

“I feel like I really lucked out with this group,” Shapiro said. “I like being involved in the Baltimore Jewish community.”

Shapiro’s boyfriend Hurwich agrees that “it’s not a big sacrifice” for him to make time attending events through the Downtown Chabad.

A local delivery station manager for  online retailer, the Montclair, N.J.-born Hurwich was an infrequent  visitor to the Chabad when he first moved to town three-and-a-half years ago after college in Philadelphia.

Hurwich went on to say that although he has remained “on the same page” as his Conservative upbringing, he doesn’t “go to shul as much as I did when I was younger; I do go to more Jewish events now than I did when I was younger.”

It’s a way for Hurwich to remain connected to his Jewish heritage while also seeing some friends and having fun. Hardly a Friday night sacrifice.

“We won’t go to things just because ‘it’s important to go,’” 28-year-old educator Michal Wetzler, who arrived in Baltimore this past September from Israel as a shlichah at Pearlstone, said. “No, we want to go to things because they’re interesting.”

Celebrants enjoy the Pearlstone Center’s Havdallah bonfires. (Mira Menyuk)
Celebrants enjoy the Pearlstone Center’s
Havdallah bonfires. (Mira Menyuk)

For Wetzler “interesting” definitely means a strong connection to Judaism and to other Jews in the community … but also “talking about stars and stuff,” or — as part of Pearlstone’s regular Havdalah events — evening bonfires and BYOB live-music jams.

As an Israeli, Wetzler sees such events as less specialty “attractions,” as she put it, and more traditional evening fare. Bonfires and spending time out in the open at night playing music, marveling over the cosmos has less to do with finding a space to connect with other Jews — since this is less of an issue in Israel, of course — and more about enjoying oneself.

For Wetzler, it’s fairly simple: These evening outdoor Havdalah events are less a get-together and Jewish observance and just simply a different kind of means to connecting to the Jewish culture overall.

Though Wetzler confesses she may be at something of a disadvantage since she’s only been in Baltimore a short time,  she does feel that there continues to be a need for more opportunities offered to young Jews who crave a less “formulaic” approach to connecting than, say, routine synagogue visits.

“Right now, going to services on a Friday night for two hours and having to stand up and sit down and stand up and sit down is kind of on the backburner for me,” Yosim said. “It’s more appealing for me to go to dinner for Shabbat at somebody’s house.

“I’d rather do stuff with people my age,” he continued. “And you don’t see a lot [of people around my age] going to temple every week.”

Indeed, according to a startling October 2013 Pew survey, the number of people who refer to their religion as “Jewish” has declined by nearly 50 percent since the late 1950s.

Pikesville resident Nicole Talor, 26, is president of JNFuture and on the board of FIDF, both fundraising and advocacy groups supporting Israel. She worries that lower numbers of young people associating with their Jewish background may have something to do with the rising anti-Semitism on college campuses and support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

“Even if you’re a proud Jew, you’re feeling like you’re being silenced,” Talor said. “As a young Jew, I think it’s important to surround yourself with other members of the community, and that’s pretty easy to find in Baltimore.”

Filling a Room with Light

Mickey Rubin, 29, is a senior regional  director of the decade-old global nonprofit Moishe House. He believes there’s a simpler reason more than a third of millennials are “unaffiliated” on a religious level, as noted in a May 2015 Pew survey, particularly when it comes to Jews.

“Religion is not really something that’s very hip and cool anymore,” Rubin said.

He still believes “younger Jews in general are looking for something bigger than themselves to connect with.

“I think that young Jews and millennials in general are all about creating something new and fresh and innovative, and Moishe House is about that,” continued Rubin, who oversees the Baltimore chapter of Moishe House which was founded  in 2010.

The challenge becomes finding a way for these Jews, who are looking for a connection (or reconnection) to something larger, to do so on their own (contemporary, individualistic) terms away from that routine that some ostensibly find banal and not worth their time anymore, especially being as busy as they are in their 20s and 30s.

“They don’t like to be told what to do,” Rubin said. “We have to think about  Judaism a little differently: not necessarily about being told what to do but being able to express yourself in a spiritual, social and communal way.”

Moishe House grants resources to young Jewish residents who host various events that, in turn, draw in other young Jews. Events range from Shabbat dinners to social causes. (Moishe House)
Moishe House grants resources to young Jewish residents who host various events that, in turn, draw in other young Jews. Events range from Shabbat dinners to social causes. (Moishe House)

Moishe House is a unique organization in that supervisors such as Rubin, who refers to himself as a “fairy godmother” of the small dormitory-esque houses he oversees, grant resources (namely in the form of funding) to young Jews who create their own programming that draws in other young Jews to their houses via hosting Shabbat dinners and similar activities.

“I think what makes it work,” Rubin said, “is giving them the resources to create what they want to create and giving them easy access. It’s a very 21st-century and millennial way of thinking about it.”

Personal trainer David BenMoshe found that when he first came to Baltimore from Mt. Airy, Md., “everyone being so welcoming” inspired him to be able to give back through his engagement in the Jewish community here. He refers to this as a “blessing.”

Having converted to Judaism in 2010, BenMoshe became a member of B’nai  Israel — out of which is run a youth outreach program called BIYA (B’nai Israel Youth Association) — in 2012.

With the assistance of Rubin, who is also involved in BIYA, BenMoshe hosted his first young professional night for Shabbat in mid-December.

The evening’s agenda involved BenMoshe’s leading a short, guided meditation and yoga practice before Shabbat services were read by B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Etan Mintz (who also took part in the yoga, BenMoshe giggled in recounting). For dinner, there was schnitzel, eggplant salad, sesame salad and couscous.

“The schnitzel was delicious,” BenMoshe said.

As with Wetzler, BenMoshe doesn’t see the aspects of his evening or others like  it as a dilution of or distraction from  the Jewish engagement, but rather an  inextricable component of what it means to observe one’s Judaism.

“Putting these other life experiences in actually enhances the experience,” BenMoshe said. “Anything that builds community is a huge part of being Jewish.”

Chai Life is a program provided by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation)
Chai Life is a program provided by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation)

Reisterstown resident Marcie Lehnhoff, 28, is an HR specialist with a social policy research firm who found, somewhat  dismayingly, that she had become disconnected from her own Jewish experience.

Observing modern Orthodox Judaism as a lifelong member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Lehnhoff grew up in what was more or less a Reform home; the somewhat confusing juxtaposition is part of what she believes resulted in this disconnect later in life.

Once she hit high school and college, she discovered that “services weren’t fun,” noticing along with Yosim that “there weren’t really people there my age.”

Today, she delights in more synagogues and other Jewish institutions offering more for high school kids and teenagers to engage with, “but I think when I was growing up, there was a gap,” she said. Even Birthright turned out to be a means for her to feel more connected to Israel and issues revolving around the Jewish state as opposed to a direct spiritual  connection.

Getting older, Lehnhoff began missing “the religious aspect” of Jewish culture. She found her way back after an event of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, where she heard about JHeritage, a locally founded nonprofit that helps support various causes and hosts social events.

“It was a lot of fun, a way to meet people around my age with the same kind of background,” Lehnhoff said. “I reconnected with the people in my community. It was great because the more events I went to, the more people I was meeting.”

Through her connection to JHeritage and participation in its events — including one of her favorites, the Purim party that took place at Power Plant Live! last year — Lehnhoff has strengthened her connection to Judaism and been led to a group of like-minded friends who she said are the closest she has now.

“I would say that my daily circle of friends now are more JHeritage people than not,” Lehnhoff said. “I think this is Judaism: having a strong community, having fun. That’s what makes Judaism great.”

JHeritage rabbi, director and co-founder Ariel Fishman, 30, has noticed that “for some people, Judaism fell off after bar and bat mitzvahs.”

Once b’nai mitzvahs are no longer in Hebrew school and go into high school and later college, where other activities, study, work and socializing take over much of their time, that “sacrifice” of  attending regular services becomes too large for many to make.

“We don’t want your Jewish tradition to end at 12 or 13,” Fishman said. “For most people, they haven’t found a right balance between spirituality and fun, exciting events as well.

“When you can take the deeper meanings of Jewish tradition and show that it’s about kindness and love and community, you can really light up the whole room,” Fishman said. “You just need to provide this in an accessible format.”

Once again, Charm City Tribe’s BrewHaHa took place at Union Craft Brewing in Hampden. (Marc Shapiro)
Once again, Charm City Tribe’s BrewHaHa took place at Union Craft Brewing. (Marc Shapiro)

This accessible format and room of light is quite literally what CCT’s Chanukah BrewHaHa is all about.

If these events are, in the end, continuing to build, maintain and strengthen the  Baltimore Jewish community — itself an integral aspect of Judaism — then Gross clearly succeeds in helping to better establish her own definition of “community”: a network of people connected together through, yes, a party of all things.

“This is a connection in a way that makes sense to me; it’s something that  I want to do,” said David Alima, 37, co-owner of The Charmery who regularly serves ice cream at BrewHaHa.

“It’s hard to say people getting together to drink beer, eat ice cream and listen to good music will make the world better. But whenever people get together like that, there will be good energy in there.”

Read about how Jewish activist organizations are engaging young people by visiting

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