This piece is part of a series on next-generation engagement following a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation). This universal topic is front of mind with Jewish leaders striving to create pathways of inclusion and connectivity to Judaism for “Gen X” and millennial Jews. Each panelist, including this author, has received a Cutting Edge Grant from The Foundation. The multi-year grants of up to $250,000 are awarded to creative thinkers, social entrepreneurs, and innovative organizations to develop and implement transformative programs of high visibility and impact in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Since being established by The Foundation in 2006, more than $15 million in Cutting Edge Grants have been awarded to 84 programs, with a particular emphasis on initiatives to drive Jewish engagement and inclusion.
There are countless organizations around the world all trying to foster community around Jewish life and meeting varying degrees of success. This reality makes all the more gratifying that, over the past five years, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) on Los Angeles’s vibrant and reanimated eastside and where I serve as executive director has built a model for significant and sustained growth. Our neighborhood—often referred to L.A.’s version of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—is a rich, diverse ethnic mix of millennial singles, young families and long-residing baby boomers and seniors who embrace the unique character of the Silverlake, Los Feliz and Echo Park community and for which SIJCC is a nexus—to Jews and non-Jews alike.
While our success is certainly not an exact science, there are a few consistent ingredients upon which we have come to rely:
We are nimble and responsive. We listen to what our community wants and create programing based on that. Sometimes that means the newest, freshest event or experience like our recent Days of Awesome series for the High Holy Days 5777. More often than not though, it means providing age-old services at the highest quality—meals and rituals on Shabbat, Havdalah in an unexpected place or a student and a mentor working in partnership towards a bat mitzvah.
We value the impact of our environment. We know that space, both on our campus and in our community, is as important as anything else we do. We host a Shabbat supper club at local, hip restaurants, we have converted our gym into a beautiful multi-use program space, we think about lighting, sound design and art as key to our success and the signals we send to our community that this is a contemporary, relevant experience.
We don’t try to be it all. We are strategic about the choices we make. We say no more than yes, and when we take something on we go all in, with strong content and great production value.
We are not fighting assimilation. We have an assimilated, multi-identity community. Jews and all other cultures feel welcome in our space that is deeply Jewish and radically welcoming to all.
We are irreverent and deeply relevant. Ours is a Center that has reinvented itself many times throughout the years. While programs have come and gone with the changing of the tides the one thing that has remained is the deep connection that people feel to the place, to each other and to the community.
In recent years, as our community has grown to triple its size and programs like East Side Jews and Culture Lab have taken shape and commanded attention, we’ve grappled with the transition from start-up to sustainable. Our community and our professional team have proven to be rich in idea generation, and creativity is the lens through which we see our programming. As we reach the moment when our programs are no longer new, the challenge to retain the nimbleness of our early days and the ability to pivot in response to our community’s interests has become a priority.
This fall we held three events for the High Holy Days, branded as Days of Awesome and touching each point of our community from families to individuals. Two of the elements have been standbys of the Center for the past several years: an apple and honey tasting for Rosh Hashanah and Down to the River, our tashlikh celebration on the banks of the L.A. River. The culmination this year was a Yom Kippur experience that drew nearly 400 people to our campus, joined together in song, animation, ritual and deep feelings and led not by a rabbi, but by an incredible team of musicians and educators. This experience couldn’t have happened if we weren’t listening to our community, who shared in a building crescendo of voices that they were ready for the SIJCC High Holy Day experience. Throughout the fall’s Days of Awesome, we were struck by a sense of rightness, a feeling that we were in just the right place, in the right way at the right time.
Now, only a month later, we are back to listening—carefully and openly—as our community shares what comes next at the close of a contentious election season. Our ears, our hearts and our doors are open to see what emerges. And even as the voices build to a crescendo again, as we start to shape the next months of programs and classes, we are eager to keep listening and continue meeting our community in the present moment.
We have not forgotten the nimbleness that helped shape our early stages. Rather we have internalized it and made it part of the DNA of our organization. As we continue to launch new initiatives and remake our standby events, our creativity acts as an anchor and keeps us grounded in what matters most: a community and the connections that form and grow each day.