In May of 2018, Rabbi Ariel Stone, Kalyn Culler Cohen, and I met to discuss a local phenomenon in our hometown of Portland, OR: the abundance of young Jewish organizers, activists, and individuals creating Jewish programming and hubs of community outside of our Jewish institutions. The problem was that while these were thoughtful efforts and well-tuned to the organizers’ peer groups, they would spark and then quickly fade.
Many of these Jewish event planners, hosts, and organizers, including myself, were younger — 20s and 30s, mainly queer-identified, and a significant number raised outside of the organized Jewish community. What we had in common was that we were actively seeking places where we could be Jewish in ways that felt authentic to our experiences. For many of us, traditional Jewish environments such as synagogues and Jewish Community Centers did not offer spaces where we felt invited to show ourselves fully — even in programs and organizations that were targeted to younger adults. When we tried to enter these spaces, we had the sense of feeling unseen as young Jews, queer and trans Jews, multiracial Jews — or we would struggle with feeling like we did not know enough, having grown up in interfaith families or raised outside of Jewish homes or communities. We sought places where we could bring our whole selves, and the solution seemed to be that we needed to build those spaces for ourselves.
In 2018, we launched TischPDX: Unaffiliated Jewish Leadership Incubator, with support from local private donors, to boost, as well as learn from the informal organizing happening in our community. Our theory of change is that when we center the ideas and work of those organizing their peers in these liminal Jewish spaces; pay attention to their vision and insight; and support the shoots of this new growth; we are helping to build what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls “The Third Era” of Judaism. Essentially, instead of trying to create programming that attracts young and under-engaged Jews, we approach local organizers and offer the support they identify as necessary to stabilize their efforts and deepen their leadership skills. We understand that by supporting these innovators at their roots, we can help our amitim (fellows) move from seeing themselves as marginalized in the Jewish community to being a central force, guiding our community into the Jewish future.
We have sought to nurture these young Jewish organizers in two ways: by responding to the fact that they have the creativity to organize what they cannot find, and to the equally significant fact that they choose to do so as Jews. To the first need, our primary answer at TischPDX has been a 10-16 month local cohort program. Over that time, we provide our fellows with a mix of adult Jewish education, social justice training, and relationship-building activities. To the second, we engage them in accessible and exciting Torah study, showing them the strong and supportive truth of the Jewish roots they feel within themselves. The cohort experience also includes a stipend, ongoing mentorship, and the opportunity to connect with other local organizers, with the goal of building a mutual support network during and after the fellowship year.
We have now graduated two cohorts and, through initial exit surveys, our fellows overwhelmingly report that their experience with the TischPDX cohort left them:
- Feeling significantly more confident leading Jewish ritual
- Experiencing increased comfort in traditional or mainstream Jewish environments
- Better equipped to serve their marginalized communities within a Jewish context
One of our recent graduates, Nat Glitsch, spoke about her experience of the TischPDX fellowship program in this way:
“My time in TischPDX has enabled me to do more organizing than I thought I could and to trust that if I start wheels in motion on something, people will come together and things will happen. During my time in TischPDX, I was able to see that even the smallest gathering is important and impactful. I first started organizing local Jewish events in Portland during Hanukah 2019, and from there helped create a network of queer, rotating-house, rotating-host Shabbat, and holiday gatherings, where we all helped each other grow confidence in hosting leadership, and creativity. Later, TischPDX helped so much to expand the intentionality and impact of my Jewish community organizing. It fed into other relationship-based organizing drives as well-- especially grassroots labor and union organizing! In these other spheres, I've been able to embrace my leadership role Jewishly. Before TischPDX, I never felt comfortable with the word ‘leader’ or even talking about ‘leadership.’ I started to use many of the skills I was learning in TischPDX to continue connecting people, to facilitate meetings, projects, campaigns, events, political education, and beyond.
The COVID-19 crisis really affected my Jewish organizing. In terms of event planning, at first, I felt totally hopeless, but Shavuot 2020 was a turning point for me. I created an intensive spreadsheet of free classes & talks from all over the world for the week, and we hosted a multi-day ‘Shavuot Slumber Party’ on Zoom. People would pop around to virtual Shavuot learning events around the globe and then come back to chat, share, and hang out. People could even bring friends & colleagues back to the Zoom room, who they were connecting with or “running into” during classes/events. We had so much fun, and that was when I first realized Zoom wasn’t a huge barrier. Honestly, the holiday ended up being more fun and dynamic than it might have been otherwise! Later with the High Holidays, with great weather for gathering cautiously outside, I really got to see that small events have a lot of merits too-- since our events had to stay small for safety reasons. It was special during Sukkot to make the most of one of our many earth-based holidays, encouraging and coordinating meaningful rotating-sukkah gatherings under the open sky. Overall I really feel like I am with my people at TischPDX. My Jewish organizing work has become so much more expansive and inclusive-- I learned so much through this fellowship. ”
You can find more about what we do at TischPDX and how we are engaging marginalized and unaffiliated Jews in Portland and beyond on our website and blog at tischpdx.org.
Eleyna Fugman is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of TischPDX: Unaffiliated Jewish Leadership Incubator