Match-making and dues don't woo young to Jewish life

Matchmaker, matchmaker, don't make me a match! And don't ask me for membership fees, either.

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Matchmaker, matchmaker, don't make me a match! And don't ask me for membership fees, either - at least, not if you want me to join organized Jewry and have Jewish babies. The established Jewish community's single-minded focus on these goals are actually deterring the next generation from pursuing them, Sarah Liebman told a Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference meeting here this week. Liebman should know. Arriving in a new city a few years ago, eager to connect with the Jewish community and make friends, she attended the only type of Jewish Federation event she could find for young Jews: a bar night. Liebman arrived feeling "like it was the first day of school," which was bad enough, but then she realized it was a singles evening. There were other young women there, but they had come to meet members of the opposite gender, rather than the same one. "They were looking over my shoulder to see if there was a guy they could talk to," Liebman recalled. "I don't think that's the tone you want at events." If the women made Liebman reluctant to attend, the men who come can be worse, according to one participant in the conference session Liebman led, titled "Talking 'Bout My Generation: How to Reach 20-something and 30-something Jews." When he held singles-type events for young Jews in his community, he related, "we would have 45-year-old male stalkers, and they would scare away my people." As can appeals for high membership fees - and frequent pleas for donations - at synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and the like. Many young Jewish adults are less well-off than their parents' generation and aren't interested in paying to belong to an organization. An acquaintance once told Liebman she wasn't involved in the Jewish community because she couldn't afford to take adult education classes: "When I asked for a scholarship, the organization kept telling me to ask later and then finally told me that scholarships were only for the elderly and disabled. The whole thing made me cry. I felt kind of judged, that I didn't measure up." So Liebman, distressed by the lack of appropriate, compelling programming, decided to start her own. Now 27 and living in Portland, Oregon, Liebman has spent the past year setting up a nondenominational young leadership program, Machar, which combines Jewish education with leadership training, and an informal social network for Jewish-themed events called Urban Jews PDX (the letters, the code for the local airport, are a hip slang term for the city). Some 350 people have gotten involved so far, but Liebman sees her work as only partly aimed at her peers. She also wants the older establishment to change how they approach this population. "We have to start thinking of people as being able to provide quite a lot more than a child and a check," she said. "Don't look at us as future couples, parents, donors - meet us where we are now." That means ditching off-putting questions about marital status, career, college education - and Jewish affiliation. It also means finding new ways to be inclusive by having events outside of Jewish institutions like synagogues; locating them in urban areas where younger people live, rather than the suburbs; and organizing them around themes such as the sports or the environment that they're already interested in. Hershey Novack, a 29-year-old Chabad rabbi who works with the "vastly underserved population" of graduate students, has been trying to use those approaches to boost the Jewish community in St. Louis. Involvement in that community has to be much more than "merely a mechanism to match, hatch and dispatch," said Novack after Liebman's session. "Judaism is much broader and richer." Indeed, Liebman herself said that the focus on Jewish survival removes Judaism from the equation - which is why it should be a compelling goal in the first place. She characterized the message as, "This is something we have to continue, and we have to provide the numbers and the dollars to do that - but there's not really a meaningful engagement with Jewish text and Jewish identity. And that's what I'm about, and that's what Machar is about." She also said that "instead of focusing on our need to survive by pairing Jews with other Jews, we need to create meaningful communities that will survive because people want them to survive." Not that young Jews don't want to be paired with other young Jews - it's just that they don't want matchmaking to be so transparent and overriding an issue, according to Liebman. In fact, as much as she might be fending off yentas, Liebman has now become something akin to one herself. She noted that her female friends assume that "now that I know everyone" as the hub of the young Portland Jewish network, "I have the perfect guy for them."