Culture, Identity, Politics

Young Jewish Syracuse

Hanah Ehrenreich, 28, is a founder and board member of SyraJews.  A Syracuse native, she is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, along with her parents and brother. She works full-time at Central New York Works on grants and projects related to green workforce development and is committed to the progress of upstate New York as a vibrant and growing region. She has lived and worked in London, Israel, Belfast and Washington, DC.
This piece was previously published in the Jewish Observer of Central New York.
Two years ago, the issue of a young Jewish community in Syracuse brought three people together. That first meeting, and all those that followed, resulted in the formation of a hip, young Jewish network called SyraJews and its 100-plus membership. SyraJews is a great organization, committed to creating a vibrant social hub for young professionals, graduate students, families and Jewish adults between the ages 21-39. That said, SyraJews alone doesn’t resolve the question of a young Jewish community in Central New York.
Take a look around your synagogue, across your recent family history, inside the Jewish Community Center gym. Where are all the 20- and 30-somethings? One here, one there, one just returned home from “fill in the blank” (i.e. Israel, college, first job, divorce). Of the three founders of SyraJews, only one has plans to stay permanently in this area.
This isn’t shocking when you consider that our community hasn’t fully engaged with the question of how to support Jewish life for this demographic. We need an honest discussion of what we offer as a community to the young adults and families that make up the generation missing in action.
Don’t get me wrong – Syracuse offers a great deal. Look at, “Come Home to Syracuse” or the “Live it. Love it. It’s All Here” campaign pioneered by 40 Below for young adults and professionals. The testimonials speak for themselves – Syracuse has arts, culture, nightlife, a great quality of life and good jobs for natives, returnees and transplants alike (at least it did pre-recession). We have strong economic drivers in healthcare, energy, environmental and educational fields. Our population has an above-average education level per capita and we are within five hours’ drive of most of the Northeast and half of Canada. We are the heart of Central New York.
Is it any different for a Jew here in “da Cuse”? Jewish life here revolves around the synagogue. Most of our synagogues lack a concentration of active, young members without kids who attend services regularly. Transportation poses a barrier to synagogue access. Perhaps our community should sponsor a CuseCar on the Syracuse University campus? This could serve as a bridge to connect the opportunities Hillel provides for Friday night dinners and student-led services geared toward undergrads to other community gatherings. Both the SU College of Law and SUNY Upstate Medical University have their own Jewish student societies. We’re missing a connection with these groups right off the bat because young professionals generally congregate where other students and young professionals already hang out.
All the area colleges/universities offer Birthright Israel trips and MASA programs, programs that are among the most influential experiences to connect a young Jew to Israel, Hebrew and practicing Judaism. There are few resources for the beginner-to-advanced Hebrew-speakers in our community and no local adult Hebrew education classes geared toward students home for the summer. There are no local scholarships to support students or graduates from our community to return to Israel for other educational experiences. We could really use a Hebrew-language lending library.
We need to demonstrate that our community welcomes new members and Jewish life outside of the synagogue. Onondaga County is courting Israeli businesses. Are there other hospitality services here that would make visitors stand up and cheer – such as kosher take-out? There is a wide void where a kosher, Israeli or Jewish restaurant should be in this region. People who want to lead a kosher life in Syracuse have the choice of Wegmans in DeWitt or Price Chopper on Erie Boulevard for groceries, but for those looking for kosher Finger Lakes wine, regional cheeses and Dinosaur BBQ sauce, there is nothing. The notable exception to this rule is the new Kosher Valley brand from Plainville, NY. Yes, Plainville Turkey Farm converted.
If you’ve graduated from higher-ed and are interested in starting your own business in town, Professor Craig Watters from the Whitman School at Syracuse University runs a Jewish entrepreneurship course. The downside is that none of our community agencies have prioritized mentorship or financing for young entrepreneurs or new Jewish business in Central New York.
SyraJews is a self-organized grassroots group newly-affiliated with the JCC that has operated on a zero budget for the last year. Will the community give to the JCC and Jewish Federation to make SyraJews financially sustainable? Will you, the reader, help Syracuse by supporting the efforts of this group to create a solid social network for young Jews? Can we invite more 21-39-year-olds onto agency boards and executive committees? Will we be proactive at sending our young leaders off to national Jewish Federation conferences, to New York City or Israel for exposure to other young leadership role models? And where and when will the upstate version of Jewlicious or Dan Sieradski bloggers emerge to promote, improve and immortalize our warm Syracuse Jewi-ness?
If you are a young Jew in Syracuse, or a young Israeli working at one of the kiosks at the mall, you might become involved by checking out the JCC, or rolling up to a bet knesset for High Holiday services… if you have access to a car. You might get introduced to events through the Jewish Observer or receive a welcome basket containing a Harrison Bakery challah and Kedem grape juice. You might find your way to a SyraJews kickball game… or you might not connect at all.
This last possibility is why we need to launch a discussion about a sustainable young Jewish community, focused on these four questions:

  • How do we engage this missing generation within the region?
  • What should or can we provide beyond weekly minyanim or semester-long programming to the sons and daughters of our community, the young mothers and fathers, the single and the engaged, the student and the graduate, the visitor and the returnee?
  • What do outsider Jews know of our community and how do we get the message out about what a great place this is to live, work and raise a family?
  • How are we working together to ensure a Jewish future in this community?

Several members of the community and our leadership are being proactive. The Syracuse Jewish Federation president is in active dialogue with the youngest members of his board; SyraJews has approached the Rabbinic Council and a symposium on young community is being planned. I hope that this article sparks a wider conversation.

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