Have you ever been invited to try a new restaurant, only to take one look at the menu and realize that there’s nothing there that you want to eat? It feels as if the chef focused entirely on creating a menu she would like and forgot to ask the customers what would appeal to them. For me, this metaphor exactly describes my Jewish experience through childhood and early adolescence.
I grew up in South Florida at a synagogue my parents helped found and had my hand held through my entire Jewish childhood experience. By the time I was a teenager, despite the best efforts of the institutions I’d grown up in, I wanted nothing to do with any of it. It felt like people who didn’t understand were me making decisions about what I should do and how I should live.
Then, a friend called and asked about creating a new BBYO chapter (a Jewish youth group). I was a teenage boy, and I believed there would be girls there, so I decided to give it a try. No girls showed up, but when the director told us that it was up to us to plan programs and create initiatives and get our friends to attend, I was intrigued. She looked at us and said, “Look, guys, this is going to succeed or fail based on what you want it to be and the effort you’re willing to put in.”
What I didn’t realize until later in life was that it was the first time anyone had ever asked me, “What do you want your Jewish experience to look like?”
Hook. Line. Sinker.
My whole journey shifted. From that point on, I’ve spent nearly every moment of my professional and personal life in some sort of Jewish space. Everything I’ve done since that first BBYO meeting has been done with the goal of creating an experience for myself and for other people where they can define their Jewish lives and their Jewish communities on their own terms.
It’s been 22 years since I attended the introductory meeting to start that BBYO chapter, and I now work as a Director of Advancement for Moishe House, an organization that empowers Jewish young adults to create their own Jewish communities through peer-led programming. I spend my time at work speaking with partners and supporters about the need for peer-led spaces for Jewish young adults.
And then, I spend my time at home with my wife and daughter and in the Temple Beth El community attempting to apply these same principles.
As we move forward and Temple Beth El pursues an expansion of the Small Groups model, I cannot help but be excited for what the future of our community looks like. By flipping the script and letting people drive their own experiences (with assistance and guidance from staff and clergy when needed), we allow people to create and live the Jewish lives that makes the most sense for them and their families.
When people drive their own experiences, they feel more connected and empowered, which in turn builds leadership from the ground up instead of the top down. And this is the type of community I want us to become, because I’ve seen it work time and time again in my own life and the lives of my friends and peers.
I hope that others will join me in pioneering this model within Temple Beth El. Under the guidance of our staff, it’s up to us to answer the question, “What do you want your Jewish experience to look like?” and to then put forth the effort to make it happen.
Dave Press has over 15 years of experience working in the Jewish communal sector, and is the Southern Director of Advancement at Moishe House, based in the global organization’s east coast headquarters in Charlotte. He and his wife, Laura, their daughter, Ella, and their two dogs, Moses and Alfie, live in Waxhaw.