In 2000, a Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle demographic study showed Seattle’s northeast quadrant as the state’s fastest growing Jewish community. Recent U.S. Census data suggests it still is. Add to this a trend of young adults turning away from organized religion, and you have a recipe for three new Jewish programs gaining footholds in that neighborhood.
Nicknamed The Hub @ SJCS when the idea germinated two years ago, Jewish Junction launched in January with the appointment of manager Niva Gurewitsch. A Seattle Jewish Community School initiative, it partners with PJ Library, the Stroum Jewish Community Center, and the Seattle Jewish Cooperative Playschool.
Jewish Junction, explains Gurewitsch, was “created in response to a need for young families living in Seattle’s metropolitan core and northern suburbs to more easily access community programming and activities.” It transforms SJCS into a multi-use communal hub where participants “meet and connect with other families interested in expanding their Jewish community.”
The popularity of programs held during The Hub’s pilot year, like those mentioned above and Community of Mindful Parents lectures, made the need for something like Jewish Junction clear. “Over 50 percent of the participants…weren’t affiliated with the school,” said Gurewitsch. At the beginning of last year, SJCS won a Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education 2011 Challenge Award for $125,000 for the initiative, a competitive grant given to schools driving revenue through innovation.
As a non-denominational, free or
fee-for-service organization with no membership, “our hope is to provide a casual and comfortable entry point into the organized Jewish community in ways that support and encourage sustained participation,” Gurewitsch added. They’re reaching out through Facebook
(www.facebook.com/JewishJunction) and Twitter (@JewishJunction), with a website launching soon.
While Gurewitsch is housed at SJCS, the Junction functions independently of the school and is funded by grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, local family foundations, and private donors.
“Jewish Junction provides a secular opportunity for engagement of families,” said Amy Hilzman-Paquette, director of community engagement at the Federation, and the “opportunity to connect families” with the organized community.
Renee Cohen Goodwin, Chief Operating Officer of the SJCC, calls programs co-sponsored with Jewish Junction a “mobile SJCC,” and wrote in an email that programs that happen away from their Mercer Island or North Seattle campuses, like summer camp, the preschool co-op, the young families’ Passover seder, and fitness classes, “are important steps in providing the wider community with more avenues to build connections with one another.”
The Junction does not compete with synagogues or day schools, Gurewitsch stresses, but is a “matchmaker” between families and organizations and resources, letting families “discover how, where, and with whom they want to ‘do Jewish.’”
Attracting participants from young adults with and without children to older adults, Mercaz Seattle (www.mercazseattle.org)
is a learning and gathering center founded and run by Rabbi Avi and Rachel Rosenfeld in their North Seattle home. Rachel describes Mercaz as “open Orthodox,” borrowing an idea started by Rabbi Avi Weiss in New York.
“My husband and I have always been interested in different models for Jewish engagement,” she said.
Mercaz began as a monthly melaveh malka (traditional meal after the end of Shabbat) to which 12 to 40 people would come for an evening of music, stories, and songs. “We saw that it was sparking something,” she said.
Mercaz now hosts one Friday night service and meal and one Saturday evening meal each month, plus classes. Women and men sit and sing together at the inclusive gatherings, but a mechitza (divider) is erected for services.
Bellingham native and University of Washington grad Rabbi Rosenfeld was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, and is a chaplain at Swedish Medical Center. Rachel Rosenfeld has a master’s in education and teaches part-time at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom. They have three children, ages 7, 5 and 2.
“We’re trying to reach whoever wants to come,” and make an effort to avoid schedule conflicts with neighborhood synagogues, Rachel said. “We’re not trying to replace [the synagogue],” but rather add a Modern Orthodox outlook not generally found in Seattle.
For young adults without children, Selah Seattle has taken a similar approach, says founder Renna Khuner-Haber. It also doesn’t compete with synagogues, but creates a place for those who don’t find a peer community at local houses of worship.
Moving to Seattle a year ago to begin graduate studies at Bastyr University, Khuner-Haber says she was looking for “strong, spirited, Friday night davening.” Not knowing where to find it, she hosted a gathering at her house. Fifteen people came. Now the home-based egalitarian monthly services and Shabbat vegetarian potlucks attract 30 to 40 participants.
Selah (www.facebook.com/SelahSeattleMinyan) is run by a volunteer leadership team and sees itself as part of the independent minyan movement evolving around the country.
“The independent minyan is what the havurah movement was two generations ago,” said Khuner-Haber.