When I tell people I run a project called Gather the Jews, they usually have very strong feelings about the name. About half of the people love it, and when they see me at Jewish events exclaim, “Rachel, you’ve ‘gathered’ the Jews!” The second reaction is not so fun. After telling her the name of the project, a friend’s mom said, “You know, we were gathered once before, and it didn’t end so well for us.”
So why did GTJ choose such a controversial name? Founded just before Purim in 2010, our name comes from the Megillat Esther. In Chapter 4, Verse 16, Esther tells Mordechai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Shushan, and fast for me.” When Esther uttered these words, the Jewish nation was in trouble, under siege from its enemies who wished to annihilate our people. The Jews of Shushan gathered, and Esther convinced the king to save us.
According to the recent Pew study, the Jewish people are still in danger. There are still those in the world who wish us harm, but the Pew study speaks of a different kind of danger: the danger of assimilation. But is this true? Or did Pew ask the wrong questions?
As the director of Gather the Jews, an organization that seeks to bridge the gap between Jews in their 20s and 30s and the D.C. Jewish community, I ask a lot of questions. What makes young Jews want to connect to the community? How do they explore their Jewish identity? What about Judaism inspires them?
The answers to these questions are different for every single Jew, and that is where the Pew study erred. The questions the Pew study asked focused on Jews connecting to Judaism through religious observance, which is only one way that Jews define themselves. When I ask Jews in their 20s and 30s how they relate to Judaism, I hear about a diverse and multifaceted Judaism. I hear about tikkun olam projects. I hear about Shabbat dinners with friends. I hear about trips to Israel. I hear about Jewish happy hours. I hear about a thriving D.C. Jewish community.
And that is the lens that Gather the Jews chooses to view Judaism through. We have become the number one resource for young Jews in D.C. and a clearinghouse for Jewish young professional events with the goal that individuals will connect to Judaism on their own terms.
Judaism values questions. Now we need to be asking the right questions.
Rachel Giattino is the director of Gather the Jews in Washington, D.C.