Meeting Rachel Gildiner Where She Is

The practitioner of Relational Judaism prepares to move from Gather to Hillel

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Photo courtesy of Rachel Gildiner

Last fall, Gather DC, an organization that brings together Jews in their 20s and 30s, got caught in the social media controversy du jour when it announced an “intentional Yom Kippur lunch meetup.”

One Twitter user took umbrage this way: “In a shocking mockery of Jewish practice, @gather_DC is promoting a meal for Jewish young adults during Yom Kippur – a day of fasting – to ‘honor the act of intentional eating on this special day.’”

Whether out of surliness or laziness, such criticism missed the point, says Rachel Gildiner, CEO of Gather, Inc., the national umbrella for Gather DC.

Gather DC’s rabbi, Ilana Zietman, had met with an increasing number of young adults who told her about their disordered eating or mental health issues stemming from the pandemic. Some couldn’t fast on Yom Kippur for health reasons. Why not bring them together as a Jewish community rather than let them suffer and seethe alone?

“We didn’t want to keep this in the shadows,” Gildiner says. “We wanted to create a Jewish experience for those experiencing those issues to be together.”

In an interview last week, Gildiner called the Yom Kippur event “a really beautiful thing that we did,” the product of the organization’s close listening to its constituency and responding to its needs. Gather, she says, was doing its job.

The critics, she says, “weren’t really listening. We were compelled to use what we heard to create a Jewish moment for that group of people.”

That approach took the name a decade ago of “relational Judaism” or “relational engagement.” Gildiner is one of its most successful practitioners and happy evangelists.Gather DC, which Gildiner was hired to lead in 2014, and which is expanding nationally as Gather Inc., is a growing experiment in the approach of meeting people where they are and symbolized by the open invitation to grab a cup of coffee.

At 40, the mother of three and member of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Gildiner is at a bend in the road herself. She’s a month away from leaving Gather and returning to Hillel International, where she began her career. As if to mark the transition, last week she received the inaugural Phyllis G. Margolius Impossible Dream Award from the philanthropic Margolius family, highlighting Gildiner’s successes in building Jewish community.

If “meeting people where they are” sounds like an unsatisfyingly squishy definition for relational Judaism, Gildiner has a much clearer description.

“My vision for relational engagement is three things,” she says. “It is a field of work, it is a methodology and it is a way of being in the world.

“It’s not just about institutions and individuals. It’s actually about the gaps in between. If ou listen to individuals and follow their user experience of Jewish life, then it will help us strengthen the institutions that already exist, the potential projects and institutions that have yet to exist, and the individuals that we’re trying to connect to Jewish life more broadly.”

Come gather young people

The organization Gildiner has been associated with for nearly a decade began as the informal, cheekily named Gather the Jews, a local internet bulletin board for millennials who wanted to build and be built as a Jewish community in Washington. Ownership changes led to a more formally run Gather DC.

In 2013, Jewish education innovator Ron Wolfson published his book “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community.” In a 2018 essay in eJewishPhilanthropy, Wolfson told a story about the problem the relational approach was trying to solve.

A longtime synagogue member turned in her resignation after faithfully attending programs for 20 years. When the rabbi asked her why she was leaving, she said, “I came to everything, and I never met anybody.”

“That is such a common experience,” Gildiner says. “We’ve been told, ‘I showed up at an event of 150 people and I never felt more alone.’

“It’s hard to hear that,” she says. “Especially when we spend all this time creating all these amazing programs. For an organization, it’s, ‘We had over 300 people come. That’s a huge success.’ The Jewish community does amazing things. And who is it in the service of?”

Gildiner says she was quoted in Wolfson’s book. She was working at Hillel International on a project that was “applying this peer-engagement approach to campuses. And I was quoted saying something unsophisticated like, “The goal can’t be to get more butts in seats.”

Rachel Gildiner receives the Phyllis G. Margolius Impossible Dream Award from Phil Margolius on April 20, 2023. Photo by Michael Bennett Kress Photography

‘Focusing on 100 people’

“Maybe my sentiments over the past 8½ years have changed,” she says. “I don’t want to dismiss the importance of numbers. I think the challenge is that the pendulum has shifted so far that we were only focused on numbers, and we were losing sight of the other parts of that.

“One of the challenges of Jewish community is that we focus on too few people, and we think that Jewish community is these 100 people because they’re the 100 people that show up. When really there are thousands of people in the greater D.C. Jewish community who we are not serving, because we’re only focused on that 100. And so I do think that scale and numbers matter. But the way to get that isn’t by creating a factory of programs. We have to do both and not just focus on the numbers.”

On the morning we spoke, Gildiner looked ahead to that evening when she would receive the Impossible Dream Award, ushering her into the symbolic sisterhood of the late philanthropist Phyllis G. Margolius. The honor was accompanied by $18,000, the amount chosen for its symbolism, 18 meaning “chai” or “life” in Jewish parlance.

At the mention of the award, Gildiner breaks into a wide smile, and it was a few moments before she found her words.

It is … overwhelming in the greatest possible way,” she says. “It feels very cosmic that it’s happening at this moment when I’m about to transition jobs. I’m excited, really excited.”

In returning to Hillel International in June, she is not coming full circle. Not exactly. She is filling a new position — chief engagement officer — and will oversee the team of people running Hillel’s student projects.

She doesn’t use the word “tightrope,” but she does describe practicing the art of both meeting young people where they are and meeting the donors where they are. And it’s not always the same place.

Her steady rise as a Jewish professional, punctuated by last week’s award, has lent her clout — clout to weather the criticism of a “meet to eat on Yom Kippur” event for Jews who aren’t allowed to fast — and to make personal choices that reflect her individuality.

In a recent interview for the Gather DC community, Gildiner spoke about a mantra she has, “I am Rachel, full of love,” and a heart-shaped tattoo.

“I chose to get the tattoo when I was 38,” she tells WJW. “And as I get older, I’m entering my 40s now, I just feel more empowered to embrace an authentic way of living. I don’t actually have an opinion on tattoos, but I do think it’s an example of when you own who
you are.” ■

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See also: Big Risk, Big Reward

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