There can be little doubt that keeping Jews in their 20s and 30s involved in the Jewish community is important. It is too often the case that young Jews assimilate and neglect their community, in many cases even if they attended Jewish summer camps during grade school and high school, or were active in Jewish youth movements growing up. Birthright is one such organization founded to strengthen Jewish identity and the Jewish bond with Israel. But there is still a need to keep those participants as well others involved in Jewish life when the trip comes to an end.
Stephen Richer explained the dilemma: “On my December 2007 Birthright Trip, my peers and I discussed how being Jewish affected our day-to-day interactions with the non-Jewish world. One travel mate said it didn’t affect his life at all because he never tells anyone that he’s Jewish. ‘Why not?’ I asked. He replied, ‘Because Judaism’s not exactly the coolest religion, right? I mean it’s kinda dorky’.”
“I felt simultaneously confused, exasperated, disappointed, and motivated to do something,” Stephen said. The result was his co-founding of Gather the Jews (GTJ) in the Washington, D.C. area, where Stephen currently serves as President.
The link between this incident during his trip and the founding of GTJ was not 100 percent direct; after all, nearly 30 months separated the two. But as Stephen notes, “GTJ is supposed to address what my fellow Birthright traveler felt – by encouraging young professional Jews to connect to Judaism in nearly any way or their own original way, GTJ promotes a Judaism that is young, cool, forceful, active, and robust.”
In day-to-day terms, GTJ primarily serves as an event aggregator and news service for young professional (22-39) Jews in the Washington, DC area. Their comprehensive calendar puts all local young professional Jewish events (religious, social, educational, cultural, athletic, or otherwise) on one calendar so that Jews do not have to search high and low to look for an appealing event. Their blog builds a sense of community by providing news and commentary on hyperlocal developments. “We’ve arranged for debates on Jewish topics; we’ve covered kosher food stories in the DC area; and we discuss Jewish dating,” Stephen recounts with a smile.
“We also boast the country’s only Jewish Guy and Girl of the Week feature,” he continued, “where each week, we highlight two community members who are actively involved in the DC Jewish community or have recently done something exceptional. Not only are the interviews fun, they help our readers put names to faces the next time they’re at synagogue.”
And so far this formula has proven quite successful. Over 2,100 young professional DC Jews subscribe to the weekly GTJ newsletter, and the GTJ website averages around 2,700 visits a week. But as Stephen points out, those metrics are less important than the personal stories they have heard: “People have found new Jewish events through GTJ; people have made new friends through GTJ; and, most importantly, people have grown fonder and prouder of Judaism as a result of GTJ.”
It is GTJ’s local success that has numerous cities and organizations reaching out to them about expanding the program. “This is a dream come true for the project,” Stephen said with pride, “and once we get our finances squared away, and our new website built, we look forward to expanding to other American cities.”
If you haven’t heard about GTJ until now, consider visiting their site as a way to connect with Judaism and the Jews of DC. Gather The Jews is a model that should be expanded, if not emulated, in cities through out North America.