This post continues our Chanukah series exploring the idea that: “Jews stand for light in the darkness, and every Jew can rekindle the flame of another.” We are pleased to feature a range of respondents discussing how this concept “illuminates” their perspectives and work. Visit here to read the introduction to this series – and share your favorite educational practice that lights Jewish “sparks” in the next generation!
By: Dana Levinson
As the Assistant Director of Reshet Ramah, the new national alumni and community engagement initiative of the National Ramah Commission, I spent most of the summer at several of our camps, learning about the individual camp communities and understanding more about what our alumni were looking for in terms of meaningful Jewish engagement. It was over a spaghetti dinner at the August Ramah California young alumni reunion in Ojai, California that a spark was ignited.
“There is so much going on in Los Angeles for young alumni, but absolutely nothing in the Bay Area,” one girl commented. I saw other heads nodding in agreement. “Is there something Reshet Ramah can do in the San Francisco area?”
“Absolutely! Is there something specific you’d be interested in doing?” I asked.
“Shabbat would be great,” another girl said. “Shabbat is kind of the best expression of the Ramah experience, and I think it would really bring together a lot of people in a meaningful way.” Others around the table soon began to chime in: “I want to help!” “Can I be involved?” Then and there I knew we were onto something: an opportunity for real and meaningful Jewish and communal engagement that came from the participants themselves.
Over the following weeks, a team of eight Ramah young alumni from three different camps met with me bi-monthly via google hangout to develop and facilitate the Ramah Young Alumni Shabbat in the Bay Area.
After several months of meetings, planning, and honest discussion, on Friday, November 15 at Gauntlet Gallery in the up-and-coming Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco, we welcomed 60 young professionals between the ages of 22 and 40 to the first Young Alumni Shabbat table. This included Ramah alumni from five different camps and several “Ramah friends,” either roommates, significant others, or Jewish young adults looking for ways to connect with Judaism on a spiritual and social level. As we opened with a happy, campy version of Shalom Aleichem to usher in Shabbat, my eyes met with the other lay committee members as we took in the scene: 60 young people on a Friday night choosing to celebrate Shabbat with friends new and old, chanting the Kiddush, sharing in the festive meal together – creating a community. Evidently there was a need for Jewish communal life in this busy urban center where job commitments, dating, smart-phones and paying the rent can seemingly overpower what genuinely makes people happy: meaningful human interaction.
During and after the meal, people came up to me and the lay committee members exclaiming how happy they were to have participated in the Shabbat experience, asking when there would be future activities and how they could be involved in planning upcoming events. In a time where there is so much emphasis on what Jewish young adults aren’t doing, it was absolutely magical to celebrate what they are doing.
As we were cleaning up, one committee member approached me and said, “OK, this was great. Let’s talk next week about next steps.” The Shabbat dinner was merely a spark that ignited a series of Jewish community building events for young Ramah alumni and friends in the Bay Area. Our lay committee has grown as a result of the Shabbat event, and I have received emails asking to partner with other Jewish organizations to expand and grow Jewish communal involvement across the Bay.
The San Francisco model is one that we hope to utilize in other communities across North America. It offers several important practices for lighting the spark of young Jewish engagement:
- Inspire and engage young Jewish adults from the bottom-up, not top-down. What was exciting about this project was the immediate willingness and dedication of the alumni themselves to participate, plan, and execute the event with only structural and logistical support from Reshet Ramah. The Bay Area Shabbat proved to us that, given the opportunity to participate in activities of Jewish communal engagement, particularly in the planning and implementation of said activities, Jewish young adults will not only show up — they’ll be the biggest supporters of your future events. In an age where many events are marketed as “next gen” or “young leaders” but aren’t planned by anyone from those groups, it is imperative that we cultivate Jewish young professionals as partners in the process, not as clients. At the end of the day, Reshet Ramah or any other organization working in young Jewish engagement needs to evaluate the metrics of success not as how many people walked through the door, but how many left saying, “I want more and I want to help.”
- It is important to have an open space. While the objective was to gather Ramah alumni in the Bay Area, the Shabbat was to be open to Ramah “alumni and friends,” expanding the reach of the Jewish community through offering those looking for meaningful Jewish engagement the option to participate within an existing Jewish communal structure. The lay committee suggested that we hold the event in a non-sacred space such as an art gallery or museum because the neutrality of the space would invite alumni who may or may not currently affiliate with Jewish practice, and that space would become sacred as a result of the Shabbat experience there.
- Listen and tailor to the uniqueness of each alumni community. In the case of San Francisco, a large proportion of Ramah alumni work in start-ups, tech companies, or think tanks. As a result, this particular alumni community is an excellent place to re-examine Ramah and Jewish engagement through the lens of social media. Another real possibility may be to create a Ramah start-up/tech incubator for the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and concepts. How amazing would it be if some of our alumni created the next big start up as a result of engaging with one another? Our role at Reshet Ramah helps determine what makes particular alumni communities unique and apply the appropriate course of action to nurture, support, and encourage those communities.
While the concept of dedicating ourselves through the lighting of Chanukah candles may be specific to the duration of the Chanukah festival, at Reshet Ramah, we’re in the business of lighting sparks of Jewish engagement year-round. We hope these efforts will ignite ideas, events, opportunities and passion for our Ramah alumni and friends across the country.
Dana Levinson is Assistant Director of Reshet Ramah.