Big risk, big reward

Rachel Gildiner and Rabbi Aaron Potek of Gather the Jews: “In the future, Jews are going to be connecting through networks, not organizations,” Gildiner says. Photo by David Holzel
Rachel Gildiner and Rabbi Aaron Potek of Gather the Jews: “In the future, Jews are going to be connecting through networks, not organizations,” Gildiner says.
Photo by David Holzel

Is the group best known for its Jewish girls and guys of the week ready for a rabbi?

Gather the Jews, a networking group for Jews in their 20s and 30s, is about to find out.  The group, which began in 2010 as an online portal of events, jobs and housing, has hired Rabbi Aaron Potek as its community educator.

“We’re intrigued by the idea of a rabbi without walls,” said director Rachel Gildiner. “We believe learning is a great vehicle for connection. We want to create communities around learning and not vice versa. It’s an experiment.”

Potek’s job is loosely defined. Since he began work in July, he’s been on the lookout for Jewish millennials — happy hours offer the richest harvest — talking about Jewish identity and connecting Jews to one another.

Potek, 29, said he’s operating on a modified Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon principle to reach uninvolved Jews through involved ones. It’s the opposite of the more common program-leads-to-participation approach.

Gildiner said that the group is trying to figure out “how are we going to meet the Jew who is three removed from our inner circle, rather than having a program and hoping people show up. In the future, Jews are going to be connecting through networks, not organizations. If we’re going to reach people, it’s through networks.”

The way they see it, the number of people who show up or the number of dollars collected are not the metrics that count.

“I want to get away from numbers and tangible things,” Potek said. “It misses a whole part of being Jewish. I’d rather deal with psychological change, spiritual change.”

But will spiritual change pay for the space they rent in a co-work suite near Dupont Circle? The common area there is arranged Starbucks-like, with couches and long communal tables where the mostly millennial crowd works away on laptops and fills cups from the free coffee bar or the large tanks of flavored water.

The Gather the Jews office is down several hallways from there, in a warren of small private offices. The group is in the second year of a three-year grant from the Morningstar Foundation, Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s United Jewish Endowment Fund.

“The funders are fully invested in this experiment,” Gildiner said. “They understand that the metrics of what we’re trying to do will look different.”

A Minnesota native, Potek is an engineer-turned-rabbi who was ordained at the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y. Before coming to Washington, he was the Hillel rabbi at Northwestern University.

Like an engineer, “I’m analytical, linear,” he said. “Engineers are problem-solvers, and as a rabbi I’m trying to solve the problem of what is Judaism today.”

Gildiner calls Potek “an amazing community-builder, teacher and questioner/agitator.”

“I am not interested in denominational labels,” Potek continued. “It detracts from the question of what is Judaism. I know few [millennials] who fit into just one of the denominational boxes.”

One number the two are taking seriously is the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans finding that 93 percent of respondents said they are proud to be Jewish.

“Jews today are very proud and very uninvolved,” Gildiner said. “There’s potential there.”

Potek said his rabbinic decorum wouldn’t prevent him from crowning the Jewish girl and guy of the year. “I do improv. I’m not opposed to silliness.”

It turns out that he won’t have the opportunity. Gather the Jews has tweaked the format to honor people for what they do. Expect tributes to a Jewish community-builder, a Jewish coder, a Jewish techie, Gildiner said.

The trick for Potek in creating what Gildiner called “micro-communities” may be to show up where you don’t expect him. Like in the atrium of National Portrait Gallery at lunchtime on Yom Kippur.

“I’m convening an open discussion and lunch for Jews who have to work on Yom Kippur, so they can tap into something Jewish,” Potek said. Brown bag optional.

“It’s potentially big risk, big reward,” added Gildiner. “If you have to be at work, why should you have to miss the opportunity to engage with this day and do something audacious?”

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