How a Discussion on Syrian Refugees Brought Me Back to Communal Judaism

Last year (and still today), America found itself in the middle of a heated debate. The country was divided by those who wanted to allow Syrian refugees to settle here and those who opposed it. This was especially evident in my hometown, West Bloomfield, Michigan. After an ugly township board meeting where members of the community spoke ignorantly about denying refugees entrance into the United States, and into Michigan specifically, I found myself at a loss for words. Confused by the hatred and hypocrisy, considering America is supposed to be the ‘melting pot’ of the world, I didn’t know what to think of this uproar against helping people in need.

I was comforted when I signed onto Facebook one day to find an event invite by a new local Jewish organization, The Well. A project of the Lori Talsky Zekelman Fund at Temple Israel and serving all of Metro Detroit, they described themselves as “inclusive” and claimed to appeal to a pluralistic audience looking to educate themselves in order to define their Jewish identity. The event was entitled “What Does The Jewish Tradition Say About Refugees?” They wanted people to come together to openly talk about the refugee crisis in a safe place, acknowledging that the Jewish people were once refugees, and that the need existed to look past the staggering numbers and headlines to recognize the human component to the situation.

The fact that the organization was brave enough to host this conversation (one that I should note was not advocating a particular course of action or political stance) helped me immediately recognize that it was a place I wanted to be. From my perspective, the event was transformative. With a diverse crowd of over 125 people in attendance, I was able to speak to people of all ages about my thoughts on allowing refugees to settle in metro-Detroit and hear what they were thinking as well. We heard the personal stories of two Syrian refugees currently residing in Michigan and the struggles they and their families went through to make it here. We also engaged in conversations using text as a jump-off point – including selections from Emma Lazarus, Tony Kusher, Torah, Talmud, Maimonides, and contemporary Syrian rap lyrics. The major takeaway from the gathering? Syrian refugees are human beings, and as Jews, we have the obligation to act in some meaningful way – we cannot stand idly by. I was moved.

I started to get more involved with the organization, attending a number of events, constantly intrigued by what I saw and experienced. One day, I was invited by The Well’s founding director, Rabbi Dan Horwitz, to join a committee helping to plan a large-scale out-of-the-box 2nd night Passover Seder. I quickly agreed, and over the course of a couple of months worked closely with 5 other young adult volunteers to plan an inspired-by-tradition yet completely off-the-wall Passover Seder experience (think techno dance break with glow sticks during Rachtza because the traditional blessing is al netilat yadayim - “on the raising of the hands”). The 90 (!) young adults in attendance included Russian Jews, intermarried couples, people who grew up at Day School and/or were active at their college Hillel, people who had never been to a Seder before, and everywhere in between! The level of inclusivity while making tradition accessible and meaningful was exactly what the attendees craved, and is a hallmark of The Well’s programming. Having been raised in the Reform Movement, but not exactly seeking out a synagogue at this stage in my life (I’m 24), I’m particularly happy that with the founding of The Well, there is now a liberal Jewish voice in the marketplace outside of synagogues, as locally, it previously had been entirely filled by Orthodox outreach groups. Passover in particular was an awesome opportunity to remind people of the power of ritual, and that the ability exists to make our inherited customs and traditions relevant to us — in our own way, in our own time – as we continue to tell the story of our people.

After having been empowered to create such an experience for others and learning about The Well’s ethos as it relates to empowerment-centric grassroots programming by and for millennials, I knew I wanted to get even more involved as a volunteer leader. Service is at the core of who I am, and while I have the privilege of helping others professionally as a fellow with Repair The World in their Detroit office, I was excited to find a way to help build Jewish community as well. When an open call for applications to join The Well’s strategic advisory board (aka “The Bucket List”) was released, I knew that I had to apply. I felt so privileged to have found and been moved by such an inclusive, tradition-rich and non-judgmental organization and wanted to give back. And now, I’m proud to share that I’m a board member, working to help Jewish millenials find their place in our Metro Detroit community.

Now that I’ve learned more about the organization from the inside, I think there are a few things about it worth sharing that can be of value to those looking to connect with millennials:

The Well is special because of our commitment to being radically inclusive.

Jewish? Great. Not Jewish? Great. Jew of Color? Great. LGBTIQ identifying? Great. We don’t care who you love, what color you are, or whether or not you believe in God – if you want to do Jewish with others, you’re most welcome. Whether we are having a program discussing the Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage ruling or a Yoga & Kaballah workshop, there is something for everyone, and all are welcome.

We make it a point to “network weave” and create micro-communities.

Not a particularly novel concept – but it takes time and skill to match up people and make sure they hit it off! We currently have 5 shared interest groups meeting regularly, with another 10 in the works. As a result of these groups, by the end of this year (only the organization’s second since its founding), we’ll have inspired and empowered over 150 young adults in our community to do something Jewish as part of a community on a monthly basis. This is in addition to the over 1,250 unique participants and over 2,500 total attendees we anticipate at our projected 130 programs in year two.

In the organization’s first year, over 50 young adults helped plan at least one of the organization’s 65 programs.

Empowerment isn’t just a word – it’s what we do (and I’m a prime example – I got involved because of it!). Young adults have been invested in and groomed for leadership by our communities, from investments in schools, to camps, to youth groups, to Hillel on campus. We’re waiting to be asked to lead rather than invited to attend!

I feel grateful to have found my place, and am now making it my mission to help others find theirs!

As we say in Detroit, we’ll Meet You At The Well!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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