DECEMBER 13, 2018, EVERETT – When Rabbi Sruli Baron was in rabbinical school at the Yeshivas Lubavitch-Detroit, he spent his breaks and summers traveling around the world to Jewish communities with no permanent rabbinical presence, from Chile to Venezuela to Argentina to Germany. One break, he and friends brought Torahs and tefillin to Cuba, and met with Jews on the island. Baron was determined to reach out to as many of them as possible, including a Polish Jew in his nineties named Joseph Heller who lived in a remote, mountainous village on the northern coast.
One four-hour drive later, inside a rambling countryside house, Baron helped Heller put on tefillin for the first time in decades. “He started to tear up a bit, and we asked if everything was okay,” said Baron. “He was just transported back to his bar mitzvah in the main synagogue in Havana. It was powerful to see a Jew who had been disconnected from his roots for so long, and to see that there’s essentially no such thing as being disconnected from your roots. When we showed up, that spark that was there may have been dormant, but it came back to life.”
At 27, Baron has already spent many years helping to reignite that spark in Jews around the globe. Since Sept. 2017, he has brought that mission to Tobin Bridge Chabad in Everett, which is attracting a growing number of Jewish millennial professionals just north of the Mystic River. Baron and his wife Chaya moved to the area from Brooklyn after they learned that Rabbi Yossi Lipsker wanted to open a Chabad in the shuttered Congregation Tifereth Israel in Everett. Baron encountered various “pessimistic voices” warning him that a new synagogue couldn’t survive in that location, which had once hosted a large and thriving Jewish community.
For much of the last century, tens of thousands of Jews set down roots in the same neighborhoods where millennials are now moving to in Chelsea, Everett, Medford, Malden, Melrose and Revere. Those first and second-generation Jews largely moved to northern Massachusetts in the 1950s and ’60s, forming the foundation of Jewish communities in Swampscott, Marblehead and Peabody.
“Many people see it as like, ‘Oh, the Jewish community moved on, so there’s no need to keep any shuls around anymore,” he said. “I would agree – maybe – if there wasn’t this resurgence in the Jewish population because of young professionals moving in. The Boston market is exploding, everything’s pushing north. So I see it as coming back in a major way; obviously a different style community than what was here before.”
Baron, himself a millennial, wants to create classes and services to show young, secular Jews that Judaism is more than a collection of foreign prayers their grandparents recited by rote. Instead, Baron argues, Judaism can be profoundly relevant to the questions, challenges, and aspirations of young people. “We [millennials] don’t do things because our parents told us to do them; we do them because we want to do them,” he said. “We just want to see how Judaism as a spiritual framework is relevant and meaningful in my life. And that’s all of my work – I write that at the top of my page every time I prepare a sermon and before we sit down to Shabbat dinner.”
Ezra Krechmer, 29, of Melrose, has been attending Tobin Bridge since its Purim party in March, and agrees that the shul caters to millennials’ desire for deeper meaning. “I think millennials are obsessed with this notion of free thought, of not having our opinions molded by one person,” said Krechmer. “We don’t want to sit down and be talked at – we want dialogue. I feel like Tobin Bridge provides me a safe space to do that … [Baron] is able to bring the conversation to a higher level.”
Tobin Bridge holds Friday and Saturday Shabbat services once a month, and observes all major Jewish holidays (often with a party to go with it.) Additionally, each week, Baron holds “Torah on Tap” classes at local bars, and “Soul Coffee” classes at Baron’s Chelsea home, that tie weekly Torah portions to contemporary topics like relationships and work/life balance. Baron holds classes in a relaxed, public space in order to foster healthy discussion and debate. “It’s creating a space and environment where you can speak up and disagree, where you can say, ‘That concept you just mentioned doesn’t jibe with my worldview’, and feel free to disagree openly and passionately,” said Baron.
“I think that Sruli and Chaya have a very realistic approach when it comes to millennials,” said Miriam Silverman, 25, who grew up in Newton and now lives in Everett. Silverman, a teacher, has been attending Tobin Bridge since it was founded. “They try to focus their events and different activities on what millennials want to do. They take the formality out of it, and make you feel like you’re part of the family.”
In a sense, Baron has been preparing for this role for much of his life. He grew up in Maryland, where his parents opened a Chabad House. “I grew up in that environment – being Orthodox, but being the only Orthodox kid on my block,” he said. “So, [I grew up in] a place of giving, a place of sharing our tradition and helping people find Yiddishkeit, helping people find meaning in Yiddishkeit, so that’s where the seeds were planted – move to an area with a very small community and try to build it.”
Baron has done this many times, in many different environments, because he believes that something extraordinary happens every time a Jewish person connects with their Judaism. “If one person has a meaningful experience at my Shabbat table, or at a synagogue, then that’s it – I’m doing what I need to be doing,” he said. “The soul is like an atom. The impact of a soul connecting with its source is like an atomic burst of energy.”
For more information, visit www.tobinbridgechabad.com.