Forum for the Future: Knowing Thy Community
by David Gerber

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Age: 32

Profession: Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Beth Or, Maple Glen, Pennsylvania

Jewish Childhood & Early Adulthood Experiences: Raised in a Reform family; became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis. My early Jewish identity was largely formed by my Hebrew school experience and my family.

At Indiana University, I was one of the few Jewish members of a large fraternity. Because of the intifada, Israel was frequently in the news, and non-Jews considered me the de facto “expert” on what was happening over there, as well as on Judaism in general. Eventually I tired of not knowing the answers and took it upon myself to begin studying Torah on my own. I soon found a love for Torah and knew I wanted to pursue a life of Jewish learning and teaching, which led me to rabbinical school.

Perspectives on Engaging 20s and 30s: Prior to enrolling at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I worked with the Jewish community in St. Louis to revitalize their young adults. Meeting with every Jewish young person—affiliated and unaffiliated—who would give me a few minutes on the phone, or in person for coffee, I discovered that their needs are not very different than the needs of any young adult: Young people want to be around others who share their passions. With this in mind, I formed several small interest-based Jewish communities—Jewish dog owners, Jewish bike riders, a Jewish football league, etc. Over the nine-month period of my involvement, 500+ young adults were participating in Jewish communities of their peers in ways that mattered to them, thereby deepening their own sense of Jewish connection.

The groups were successful, I believe, because I took the time to get to know the community’s needs. In this digital age, it’s easier for congregations to ascertain the needs of their congregants of all ages, and if we properly utilize the information we gather, we can create more meaningful engagement.

For my senior rabbinical thesis at Hebrew Union College, I researched the effectiveness of mobile technology in Jewish outreach. Focusing on QR codes—the barcodes readable by smartphones—I collaborated with Jewish communities nationwide to create cutting-edge resources. With a QR code, a Hebrew school curriculum can become multidimensional—the student arrives at a page in his workbook that asks for the prayer to be chanted out loud, scans the QR code, and immediately hears the cantor chant the prayer. Several non-Hebrew-speaking parents told me that this technology enabled them to help their child with his/her Hebrew homework, and as a result, felt more connected to their child’s religious experience.

The QR code is just one example of what is now available to enhance our communities. I think of outreach as a mosaic; each tile represents a different way to reach out. There are tiles for mobile technology, snail mail, streamed services, adult education classes, etc. At the same time, I am a big believer in the necessity of a beit knesset (synagogue). Jews will always benefit from a physical community—a place to gather, pray, and learn together. No single medium for outreach will apply to every community member, so it behooves us to reach out in as many ways as possible.

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    Union for Reform Judaism.