Rather than being an “either/or” proposition, many young Jews are attending such alternative events to supplement their Jewish experience, and not to replace communal prayer in a sanctuary.
A sampling of several of the attendees at the recent Rosh Hashana New Year’s Eve-style party hosted by Temple Sinai at the Carnegie Museum on Sept. 16, showed that most of those who went to the party also worshipped at a synagogue at some point during the holiday.
“I attended services, too,” said Dan Gilman, 30, who went to the Rosh Hashana party at the Carnegie to connect with other young Jews. After the Sunday night party, Gilman attended services with his parents at Congregation Beth Shalom on both Monday and Tuesday.
“The event Sunday night was a perfect mix of purely social celebrating — a New Year’s celebration — with some reflection on the new year,” said Gilman, who works as chief of staff for City Councilman William Peduto. “Rabbi [Ron] Symons presented an appropriate amount of reflections for the new year.”
Parties like the one at the Carnegie are important for a younger generation that is looking for events that have a more cultural and participatory bent, according to Gilman, but not to the exclusion of the synagogue.
“Many of the people had come from services, or were talking about going to services in the morning,” he said. “This event was very supplemental. Its purpose was to provide young professionals with another outlet to celebrate the holiday with other young people their own age, where dialogue and communication is encouraged, and to show them there are many ways to celebrate the holidays and the Jewish faith.”
Although Hayley Katz went to Temple Sinai for Kol Nidre services, she did not attend synagogue services for Rosh Hashana. Instead, she attended the Carnegie New Year’s party, but said that she missed observing Rosh Hashana at a congregation.
“My fiance thought it was a good option,” Katz said of the New Year’s party. “I would rather have gone to shul as well. [The party] was a good lesser substitute for going to services.”
“I felt kind of bad,” she added. “But at least I was around other Jews and talking about the holidays.”
Raised in a Conservative household, and a graduate of a Jewish day school and Jewish high school, Katz said she would be apt to attend an event like the Carnegie New Year’s party again, but preferably in addition to synagogue services.
“The event is a great way to network with other people,” she said. “But the other side of me would rather go to services and hear a rabbi speak. It’s more fun to go to the party, but internally, going to shul would be my choice.”
Matt and Kristen Keller moved to Pittsburgh about nine years ago from the Boston area. They are both active in the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Matt as the chair of the young adult division, Kristen as chair of leadership development for the young adult division. They are members of Temple Sinai, along with their two young children.
“I think the notion of having to be a Jew and going to synagogue is a thing of the past,” said Matt Keller. “Young Jews want to connect more with Jewish values and community, but they don’t necessarily need that brick and mortar institution.
“There are lots of other outlets,” he continued. “Tikun olam, doing mitzva projects. I think there is something fundamentally Jewish about doing those things with other Jews. I think you can have a spiritual experience and a religious experience without reading from a prayer book.”
Still, he and Kristen attended Temple Sinai’s Rosh Hashana service the morning after the Carnegie party.
“That evening at the Carnegie gave people that religious experience without walking into a synagogue that was maybe intimidating to them, or did not meet their needs,” noted Kristen Keller. “This was a way to celebrate the holiday with a group of Jews celebrating their needs in the same way.”
Matt Keller, 40, has his pulse on the younger Jewish Pittsburgh generation through his role at Federation. He believes that the high price tag on synagogue dues is a deterrent to many.
“Cost is a huge factor,” he said. “It’s really expensive to belong to a synagogue. It comes down to ‘what could I do with these dollars? What do I get for that?’ It might be that tzedaka is a better choice.”
Grant Abrams, 28, agrees.
“Dues are over-priced,” Abrams said. “It is absurd that it’s over $1,000 at my age. I can afford it, but do I really want to pay $1,000 to go to temple six or seven times a year? Most young Jews are not going to affiliate at that rate.”
Abrams, who attended the Carnegie New Year’s party, also attended services at Temple Sinai the following morning. Although he believes the price tag on dues is high, it is nonetheless important for him to affiliate.
“I come from a family where we went to temple my whole life,” Abrams said. “We had Shabbat dinner every week. When I moved here from Indianapolis in 2007 with [my wife] Courtney, I thought it would be a good way to meet other young Jews by joining the temple.”
Because his wife is not Jewish, and because Abrams wants to have a Jewish home, he hoped that joining Temple Sinai, and participating in J-Burgh events, would help “bridge the gap with my wife, and make her feel more comfortable.”
“It’s important for me to get temple exposure for my wife,” he said. “But if I were single, I might not be involved with Temple; I might be more inclined to do other things.”
The Kellers see the appeal to young Jews of choosing new ways to connect to their Judaism.
“I think they’re affiliating in different ways, in ways that are different than generations ahead of them,” Matt Keller said.
Events like the Carnegie New Year’s party, which was attended by over 70 people and cost only $18, can provide a non-threatening, low-cost alternative to traditional services, according to Kristen Keller.
“It was an alternative way to mark the holiday,” she said. “It was saying to people, ‘you can celebrate Rosh Hashana without having to go to a synagogue.’”
A Jewish community can be built around inclusive events, where those from all branches of Judaism join together to celebrate, without the imperative of being in a synagogue, according to the Kellers.
“I think where there’s an opportunity for affiliating Jewishly, whether it’s the Carnegie party, or a Vodka Latke party, there will be people from every part of the Jewish community there,” said Matt Keller. “You’re affiliating with the Pittsburgh young adult Jewish community. It’s just as powerful as sitting with 500 people and saying the same prayers.”
Nevertheless, despite the ever-increasing non-traditional options, many young Jews do aspire to synagogue affiliation.
“I will eventually join a synagogue,” said Gilman. “But in all honesty, not until I have a family.” Katz expressed the same sentiment.
“I would eventually like to join a shul,” she said, “but probably not until we have kids.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)