Without memberships, young adults still find synagogues for High Holy Days

Without memberships, young adults still find synagogues for High Holy Days

Jonah Paul doesn’t belong to a synagogue.
He’s a Jewishly active — if not religious — financial analyst who has been living in Pittsburgh for about a year. He grew up in a Reform family, attending services about once a month. But at 26, having moved from Indiana to North Carolina to Illinois and New Jersey before arriving in Pittsburgh, joining a local synagogue just isn’t a priority.
“I have a lot going on,” said Paul. “I think being single has something to do with it. I haven’t had anyone pulling me, saying ‘Hey, we should go to services this Friday.’”
But for the High Holy Days this year, Paul wanted to pray in a synagogue. And his situation wasn’t unique. Paul was one of about 75 local young professionals who found a High Holy Days seat in a synagogue thanks to J’Burgh, the Hillel Jewish University Center’s branch that brings graduate students and young professionals around the city together to create a Jewish community.
For Paul, the draw of a J’Burgh-garnered ticket — he attended Rosh Hashannah services at Congregation Beth Shalom — was clear: “Going with someone else is always a little bit easier,” he said.
J’Burgh Director David Katz talked with synagogues to ensure space for young Jews looking for a synagogue experience, but without shuls to call their own. Synagogue-less 20-somethings are common, said Katz.
“People right out of college may not feel that comfort level of going to a synagogue,” he said. “They’re stuck between Oakland and Shadyside, thinking ‘Where do I fit in?’ It’s like a young adult purgatory. We serve as the bridge from college years to being a citizen of the Jewish community.”
Rodef Shalom Congregation welcomed 25 young adults who were brought in through J’Burgh. Rodef Shalom’s Membership Director Michelle Serbin spoke with Katz prior to the holidays to make proper arrangements.
Serbin said that the push for young adults to be embedded in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is “very communal in nature. The future of our community rests in creating connections within it.”
While many of J’Burgh’s programs are comparatively secular, Katz knew he needed to connect with synagogues for the High Holy Days.
“I think in order to do [High Holy Days services] correctly and do them justice, it’s best to have them in a professional manner in a synagogue,” he said. “And when we have such great institutions as we have in Pittsburgh, why not take advantage of that?”
Bringing young adults into synagogues for High Holy Days could also spark interest for future membership, though the present situations for many such people would prevent it.
“There’s a sense of knowing we may not be here long-term,” said Rich Shein, a 29-year-old post-doctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, who attended services at Beth Shalom. “It’s a big commitment for someone to pay their dues and join a synagogue. But Beth Shalom is a place I’d love to attend more than just the High Holy Days.”

(Justin Jacobs can be reached at justinj@thejewishchronicle.)

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