Young D.C. Jews get ‘Shabbat experience’


Combining football and conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy as a way of teaching the story of Tamar, Judah and Onan may seem like a stretch. But attentive expressions and nods filled the rows of seats at the most recent Metro Minyan Shabbat for young professionals when Rabbi Aaron Miller described the connections that made explaining events by using conspiracy theories a universal human trait, connecting the ancient story with modern times.

With more than 150 people listening attentively and many eagerly calling out when Miller asked about any happy events in the last month or for newcomers to the event to introduce themselves, the humble origins of the event are hard to see.

“It started with 12 people in my apartment,” Miller said.

Miller is a rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation but for Metro Minyan, the locations are picked based on ease of access to the Metro, in this case at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Washington. He first started the Metro Minyans as a way to reach out to young professional Jews in the city who would have difficulty getting to his or other Reform synagogues but wanted to connect to a Jewish community.

“There was shockingly little for Reform young professionals in the area,” Miller said.

Those modest, intimate early services have seen dramatic changes.

“It’s been a success beyond our wildest dreams,” Miller said.

The increasing numbers moved the event from Miller’s apartment to larger and larger venues, culminating in the current spot at the UCC.

“It’s grown significantly in two years,” said Valerie Hillman, the coordinator for WHC’s young professionals group 2239, which runs several social and charitable events along with Metro Minyan.

Hillman, who was hired for the position in April, said that she’s used e-newsletters and social media to spread the word about Metro Minyan but that a lot of good publicity has come just from word of mouth, bringing a regular dose of new attendees, along with a strong core of regulars who come every month.

“There about 20 new people a month,” Hillman said.

At this point, interested attendees are stretching the space limits of the service location, something that has happened previously as well, but Hillman sees this as a positive sign.

“Outgrowing venues is a very exciting problem to have,” she said.

“I’ve never been to one of these before,” said Jen, who, in her early 20s, said she hasn’t really seen much of Jewish life in the area for people her age. “It’s really impressive, I like it,” she said.

Some of the attendees had come early for Torah study over drinks called a “Shot of Torah” and most would stay after the service for a buffet dinner and conversation with friends and newcomers. This month was Thai food from nearby Paragon Thai, which Miller declared as one of his favorites. The dinner included a table set aside for new people along with a sprinkling of people involved with 2239 to help make everyone comfortable.

“I see it not as a Shabbat service but as a Shabbat experience,” Miller said.

“It’s a lot more fun than I thought it could be,” Jen said. “I really liked the ‘Shot of Torah’ thing before the service.”

Some people come just for the Torah study or just the service but most take part in at least two of the three aspects of the evening, Miller said. What matters to him is that they find their own way of being part of the community.

“Each experience ideally leads toward the next,” he said. “We want to cover everything Shabbat could be.”

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