A Night on the J-Townby Jessica Hanewinckel April 28, 2010
When Rabbi Michael Satz arrived at Congregation Beth Israel in July 2009 from the Philadelphia area to begin as the shul’s new assistant rabbi, he’d already spent a lot of time participating in groups for Jews in their 20s and 30s. Being in the demographic himself, he understands the importance of connecting young Jews to one another. But he is an anomaly, in that he and his young wife, also a rabbi, are professional Jews among an age group that often has drifted from practicing, meaningful Judaism.
“I know how all my friends think and interact with Judaism,” Rabbi Satz says, “and that’s why I understand how people in their 20s and 30s see Judaism and how they see their involvement in the world also.
“We as young Jews are looking for something that’s meaningful,” he says. “I’m not against what they do, but synagogues, Federations and JCCs across the country don’t necessarily know how to reach out to us and give us something we can’t already get somewhere else…they don’t know how to speak the language of young Jews about a meaningful Jewish experience. They know how to speak the language of kids and of Jews with kids in preschool and up, but not to those of us in the middle.”
Rabbi Satz’s unusual perspective has given him the motivation to make his participation in these groups to be about more than simply encouraging young Jews to mingle with other young Jews. Rather, he’s encouraged the groups to be an outlet for learning, spirituality and building a greater understanding of the religious side of being Jewish.
At CBI, he’s continued his efforts by refocusing the direction of and reigniting interest in J-Town, a formerly established group for young adults that had fallen by the wayside. At the direction of CBI’s board and senior rabbi, Rabbi Satz has taken on “the mission to go out and find Jews, knowing they may not become Beth Israel members, but that we’re doing the mitzvah of engaging them in Judaism.”
“I wanted to create a cohort of Jews in their 20s and 30s to experience Judaism,” Rabbi Satz says. “I wanted to take Judaism out of the synagogues and meet young Jews where they are…What I’m trying to create is a community of Jews who get together — for Shabbat and around holidays and to learn about Judaism — that’s not totally focused in our synagogue or any of the other synagogues, but that’s out in the community.”
In the past year, most of the programming has been coordinated out of CBI and Temple Emanu-El, but Temple Adat Shalom and Temple Solel have also offered their verbal support.
So far, about 100 young people have expressed interest in the grassroots-style group, and many have attended J-Town’s diverse activities, located in people’s homes and public spaces: Shabbat services, dinners and lunches, including one at La Jolla Shores; a Chanukah party, which included a candle lighting and discussion; a study session about Jewish ritual in the Gaslamp Quarter; a Havdalah; and even a Padres game.
“My goal is to get Jews to meet Jews while experiencing Judaism,” he says. “We’re networking and meeting people one on one to create a community rather than just putting on events for people.”
Rabbi Satz’s idea of creating a Jewish outreach specifically for Jewish experiences is novel in San Diego, he says. His inspiration comes from a similar and very successful group in Boston called the Riverway Project (www.riverwayproject.org), whose coordinators he’s spoken to about their work there. Like at Riverway, Rabbi Satz says he hopes to eventually add enough participants to split interests into smaller subgroups to facilitate even more learning, as well as include subgroups for specific San Diego neighborhoods.
Central to all of this, of course, is putting Judaism in a new light for Jews who might have lost interest in what truly makes them Jewish.
“The Judaism they know is the Judaism of Hebrew school, and we need to help people realize that Judaism is for adults and help them experience Judaism as adults,” Rabbi Satz says. “Maybe they experienced it when they were in college in Hillel, maybe they didn’t. Maybe there have been a few years gap between college and now, and I’m trying to help them to create a community by meeting young Jews out there [wherever I can].”
To find out more about J-Town or to get involved, visit the group’s Facebook page (search J-Town) or contact Rabbi Satz.
Congregation Beth Israel
9001 Towne Centre Dr.
San Diego, CA 92122