DANVERS – Creating an atmosphere that attracts all Jews – especially younger generations – was the challenge issued by Combined Jewish Philanthropies President Marc Baker on a recent visit to the North Shore.
Baker asked over 40 local Jews gathered Feb. 12 at Danversport to imagine a more welcoming community, where those on the fringe find a place where they belong.
“We decided to focus this broadly on the topic of welcoming community in part because we heard it over and over and over again last year in so many different ways – this concept that not enough people feel welcome here,” Baker said during Conversations for Action, a leg of his second annual Greater Boston listening tour. “What can we actually do to close that gap? What can we actually do to address some of the things that just came up and be a more welcoming community?”
The meeting was divided into two rounds posing different questions. Each table discussed the question among themselves before the entire crowd reconvened to share their thoughts. The first round, entitled “Envisioning a Welcoming Community,” asked: “What qualities or adjectives would you use to describe a welcoming community?” As a warmup, participants were asked to reflect on three quotes that focused on the issues of geography; an overemphasis on families at the expense of single people; and the culture of mainstream Jewish institutions as barriers to inclusion.
Sue Callum of Peabody talked about how her children don’t feel as connected to their Judaism because there aren’t as many Jewish options as there once were, while Pam Milman Stein, also of Peabody, was one of many to point out that people need to feel an emotional connection to Judaism. Stein praised the Lappin Foundation for helping Jews reconnect with their faith at home through programs like Rekindle Shabbat. Amy Gold of Marblehead spoke about the importance of understanding generational differences in Jewish identity and experience.
“I think if you asked several other generations, whether Generation Z or the Millennials, some of them will say, ‘I’m Jewish,’ and many others will say, ‘I’m Jew-ish,’” said Gold. “Because of that, they’re looking for very different things, and I think part of what is so hard is to understand how to reach out and have some people understand what they could get from wanting to participate in the Jewish community, people are really questioning what role Judaism has in their life.”
The last session was devoted to addressing these challenges. Participants were asked to point to particular Jewish organizations that they find welcoming, and to write suggestions for others that they do not. Shelley Baker of Lynnfield praised Chabad for regularly inviting people into their homes, while Amy Feinberg, also of Lynnfield, praised PJ Library for engaging young children so well. Jerry Somers of Marblehead praised the Jewish Teen Initiative for the way it lets young people bring their friends into Jewish life. Somers suggested that synagogues use a similar model for bringing in unaffiliated Jews.
“They’re given the task of making contact with and inviting other Jewish kids to activities…meeting them where they are and drawing them to various events,” he said. “There could be ambassadors or outreach people who would talk with other people in the community who may not be involved or may not be aware of everything.”
Meanwhile, Amanda Clayman of Swampscott suggested more intergenerational programming. Deb Schutzman of Beverly asked simply for a North Shore section of JewishBoston, CJP’s community news and events website. Others suggested adding younger people to institutional boards, and helping cover the cost of any mandatory membership fees.
CJP is currently cataloguing information gained on the tour and figuring out how to put the suggestions into action. Baker urged the crowd to do the same.
“Welcoming is vital, and there’s a way in which every one of us can do it when we leave the building,” he said. “There’s an element where you can architect it on a communal level and we can have our institutions get better, but the character of our community is the sum total of the choices that every member of that community makes every day.”