Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is talking about kabbalistic teachings with such passion that he pitches forward in his chair, but just as quickly settles back. His arms are a flurry of activity, and he continuously grabs the black kippah that keeps threatening to slip from his head.
It's Monday, Sept. 18, and Adlerstein fully acknowledges that he's competing with "Monday Night Football," but every chair around the conference table in Project Next Step's ground-floor suite at 9911 Pico Blvd. is full. The crowd is more interested in wrestling with the existence of evil and existence itself than watching the tackles and touchdowns.
Welcome to Mysticism on Mondays, a course offered through Project Next Step, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's educational outreach program for the unaffiliated post-college set.
"We're looking for the kind of people who are not so comfortable other places," Adlerstein says. "We're trying to get to people that are not going to go to a synagogue, haven't gone to a synagogue, don't feel comfortable there, somehow aren't going to be turned off to the fact that there's a yarmulke on my head, but are still willing to look at the various parts of the Jewish experience, particularly the content of it, and react positively."
Less than six months old, Project Next Step is still in the experimental stage and slowly evolving to better meet the needs of their intended audience. New courses being offered include an overview of Jewish law and "The Ethical Screen" on Wednesday nights. "We'll take clips from TV and movies where the industry has actually handled different issues well and use them as trigger films for discussion," Adlerstein says.Project Next Step's monthly series of intellectually stimulating town hall meetings is another feature, with intimate audience sizes purposefully capped between 40-60 people and a $5 suggested donation, though no one is ever turned away for inability to pay. One recent meeting featured former neo-Nazi T.J. Leyden recounting his experiences as a white supremacist. Adlerstein says celebrity speakers probably won't be too far off in the future.
Together with his colleague, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, Adlerstein is hoping that Project Next Step will eventually spin off some social groups and varied activities where people can meet new ideas and new people.
"Obviously we're not going to get 100 percent of the crowd. We're poor competition for a disco. But to think that all young people want nothing more than beer and music would be terribly unfair," says Adlerstein.
Project Next Step, among other groups, is trying to reach out to young Jews who, as Etshalom says, are "disaffected or haven't yet been affected."
Establishing a career, paying off school costs and looking for a beshert are of primary concern to most 20-somethings. Many can lose touch with the Jewish community or, worse, have a negative experience that pushes them away.
Appealing to 20-something Jews who aren't involved in the community can be a difficult task. But there are groups that put forth the effort to keep 20-somethings involved in the Jewish community, even if it means that they might lose money in the process. The groups are more interested in providing individuals with a great Jewish experience so that they won't feel the need to look elsewhere for communal, social or spiritual fulfillment.
Project Next Step's organizers pursue Jewish involvement through an academic bent but want to make sure that people are eased into a Jewish identity at their own comfort level. "Growth is the main thing," says Etshalom.
Adlerstein says that the tools of guilt and Israel don't work anymore as methods to keep young Jews involved with the community.
"The next item that is going to work to keep Jews interested in their Judaism is the impact that Jewishness has on the moral and ethical issues that people face, as a society and as individuals," says Adlerstein.Courtney Mizel, a 27-year-old sales and marketing v.p. for an Internet company, has yet to join a synagogue because she hasn't "found the right fit."
She's been involved with Project Next Step from the start and says she will stick with the program even after she joins a synagogue.
"It's one thing when you meet someone at a party. It's another when you're meeting people and talking to them about significant, intellectual things and not worrying about where you work and what you do, but coming together to focus on something that is outside of your everyday life," says Mizel."In terms of going to a kabbalah class, I had never taken one and knew nothing about it. I came into the second or third class because I had missed the first one, and it was a very gentle introduction and very nonjudgmental. You don't feel like you're taking a class and getting quizzed."
Facing issues of growing concern, like intermarriage and Jews who convert, groups like Project Next Step want to show 20-somethings that Judaism and the Jewish community still have something to offer.In April, 32-year-old Jeff Posner started Nexus, a group for 20- and 30-something singles and couples from the South Bay and Orange County. Tired of the same old brunches and dinners offered to young professionals, Posner got together with a few volunteers to start a group that would engage young Jews in activities that appealed to them. The group started slow with a rock-climbing class, a few movie nights and a Memorial Day party.
"[Young] Jews are just like everybody else. We like to go to movies, we like to have coffee nights, ski, bike. If we don't offer that type atmosphere for Jewish young adults, they're just going to do it with someone else who isn't Jewish. Why not give them the opportunity to do this in a Jewish environment?" says Posner.
Posner says that many for-profit businesses that appeal to Jewish singles look to Nexus as competition. He says that was never his intention.
"If I'm throwing a dance and they're throwing a dance, they make money on their dance and I lose money on mine," says Posner. "But they look it at as 'That could have been 100 people at our party that we could have made money on.'"
Nexus regularly collaborates with other groups to provide the participants with a variety of opportunities: spiritual, social and charitable.
For tzedakah, Nexus has already volunteered time at the Seal Beach Animal Care Center and is intending to donate gifts to orphans during Chanukah and volunteer time with Habitat for Humanity. Posner even encourages his members to donate whatever they can to the federation in their area.
For Shabbat, the group participates with Traveling Shabbat Singles and 405 Singles. "I try to encourage people to participate both in the social and the spiritual events," says Posner.
Posner has not yet joined a synagogue himself, so Nexus has also been a great opportunity for Posner to keep a connected to the Jewish community.
"Nexus has provided a chance for myself, our volunteers and our participants to feel secure in knowing that there are other people who feel the same way they do, who want to belong to a synagogue but at this point feel that membership is too expensive, or if they've gone looking, they haven't found a congregation that's young enough for them."
Posner says that there's a lack of commitment to 20-somethings because a financial return equal to or greater than the amount spent in an effort to appeal to them can be sporadic at best.
A nonprofit group, Nexus doesn't have a beneficiary agency and doesn't bring in enough money itself to purchase advertising to make its existence known. Posner has had to rely on free newspaper listings, a Web page and word of mouth.
Posner would like to work with the larger organizations and see more money invested in outreach to young Jews.
"After college, a lot of Jews seem to drop off the map," says Posner. "If [the community] is really looking toward continuity, teenagers don't convert out of Judaism or intermarry. It's the 20- and 30-year-olds who date and are looking for friends and lifelong relationships that usually leave Judaism or intermarry."For more information about Project Next Step, call (310) 552-4595 or visit www.projectnextstep.org. To contact Nexus, visit www.jewishnexus.org, or call (562) 799-9965 between 9 a.m and 8 p.m.