It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday night and Abby Newburger is standing at the head of the dinner table at Moishe House Northern Virginia in Arlington. Writing on an easel pad, she’s overseeing a freewheeling word association, soliciting from seven young adults at the table adjectives to describe the Washington area’s Jewish community.
“Educated.” “Detached.” “Jew-ish,” the pad reads.
Newburger, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s young leadership associate, then turns the conversation to the future. What should the region’s Jewish community look like in 5, 10, 20 years?
“Integrated.” “Inclusive.” “Seamless.”
So, how do we get there? Newburger asks. “What can we do as a community to make that community realistic?”
The May 17 forum discussion was part of what can be called a Federation listening tour, a follow-up to the recent demographic study of the area’s Jewish community that was commissioned and funded by the Morningstar Foundation.
The Federation is working to “identify the hopes, vision and aspirations of Greater Washington’s Jewish community through a strategic planning process,” according to a press release. The listening tour includes one-on-one conversations with community members, town halls, small forums like the one at Moishe House and an online survey.
Federation CEO Gil Preuss says the information his agency gathers will help it to set priorities for how it commits resources to the Jewish organizations that it funds, like area Moishe Houses, which received $25,500 in 2016, according to the Federation annual report.
“The Federation doesn’t deliver the services to the community,” Preuss says. “But when we work well, what we can do is increase the capacity of all those organizations to do what they do better. We can shape the ways in which all these organizations operate.”
In Arlington, the conversation largely centers on those in their 20s and 30s and what dictates how involved they are. The demographic study found the area’s Jewish millennials to be “relatively engaged” but are less likely to be “immersed” in Jewish life than other age groups. They also tend to avoid institutional Jewish life. According to the study, 83 percent of the region’s Jews between 22 and 39 without children are not synagogue members.
The seven attendees speculate why that might be.
“Some people turn away from the religious side because it was forced upon them when they were younger,” says Stacy Miller, the founder of NoVa Tribe, a Jewish young professional group in Northern Virginia.
To others, the lack of participation in institutional Jewish life is simply a sign of the times.
“It’s sort of a millennial thing with every religion,” says Ben Wacks, an educator at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.
“Churches and mosques are dealing with it, too.”
There’s agreement at the table that institutional Jewish life should feel welcoming to people who are curious but not active. Groups should target large employers in the area, Miller says, offering more programming in the region’s job centers.
Nostalgia, too, is an asset to be used, says Wacks.
“When I tell people I teach Hebrew school, they’re like, ‘That’s so cool!’” he says. “It brings memories back. And there’s something to be said for that. Even if they didn’t like it at the time, our generation likes that nostalgia. We think the ‘90s was the best decade.”
But there’s some frustration with the Federation itself.
“In terms of what D.C. has built, Federation’s a bit late to the game in the sense that they don’t have a strong young professional presence,” says Danielle Kaplan, a Moishe House resident. “There are all these organizations like Gather DC, whose intention is to fill in the gaps and areas that aren’t being served. So is Federation trying to provide similar or different experiences?”
Newburger points out that Federation has helped Gather DC and many of the other young professional organizations grow, but says she’s seeking a reset of sorts, pointing to organizational turnover as the main culprit in the past.
The Federation’s outreach is something of a reset itself, Preuss says. The agency wants participants to see the Federation listening and to feel like they’re being heard.
“Once the strategic planning is done, the idea is not to stop the sessions,” Preuss says. “It’s hard for organizations to get input from a broad constituency. But the framing for me is the process itself and how we’re seeking to learn and engage people.”