WHEN BRIAN Immerman became the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in July, 2012, he was 31, unmarried, and the inheritor of the Hineini Project for young professionals.
”I was not exactly successful in the beginning, to say the least,” he laughs.
Now Emanuel’s associate rabbi, hes 34, newly married (as of Feb. 6) and at the forefront of one of the most dynamic young professional entities in town.
How did Immerman’s initial failure to energize young professionals turn a victorious corner?
”I actually reached out to the director of YAD, the federations Young Adult Department, and we had coffee, he says. I asked him, What is the secret to your success?
”He said it was based on community organizing principles: You form a leadership team of individuals who are very committed and can invest the time and they end up driving the process.”
Immerman followed this sage advice and formed the Hineini Project Leadership Team.
Alan Frosh was the first chair.
Current co-chairs are Emily Hungerford and Hilary Cooper.
Hineini attracts hundreds of participants to musical Warehouse Shabbats, Sushi and Sake in the Sukkah and off-site fundraisers, to name a few.
While the young professional umbrella range is technically 22 to 40, Immerman generally targets programs for the 25-30ish set.
”Sometimes people feel a little offended with a mid-30 cut off,” he says. ”While no one is turned away from an event, people walk in and realize it isn’t for them.
“The reality is that we have to focus on the majority,” says Immerman, who adds that opportunities accommodating different ages are under consideration.
Hineini was founded by then Assistant Rabbi Mitch Delcau around 2008. His first project was Torah on Tap (now Brews and Jews), a novel approach to social interaction and Torah study.
Immerman, who admires his predecessors ingenuity, says that while the primary goal of today’s Brews and Jews is bringing young Jews together, the Torah still plays a role.
“Whether I give a talk or someone wants to give a dvar Torah, its always part of the mix,” he says. “But I also prefer ending with questions in small groups or one-on-one.
“This facilitates community building, and Brews and Jews is a vehicle to create this connection.”
For some time, Hineini relied on head counts to gauge an events popularity. Now it tracks the number of people who consistently show up to assess success.
Additional programs include Warehouse Shabbats, founded by New York Jewish musician Josh Nelson, and separate onegs for young professionals following Emanuels Shabbat Unplugged.
LIFECYCLE CALENDARS have changed for young professionals. Three decades ago, couples married around 25 and had children a few years later. Now the average age for marriage is 30, and many delay having families until the mid-30s or beyond.
”From a synagogue perspective, most institutions assume that by the time youre in your 40s you have kids,” Immerman says. “There was always this expectation that once you marry, you join the temple.
”That’s why the majority of our programming is for families,” he says. ”But we don’t do a great job for people who are single and dont have children.”
Young professionals can feel isolated and collectively turned off by a synagogues emphasis on ECE, religious school and family programming priorities.
Unsure how they fit into the general Jewish scheme of things, their alienation frequently results in absenteeism.
Asked what young professionals desire from their synagogue culture, Immerman pauses. ”So many things are changing in the Jewish world,” he says.
”I’m not convinced that they aren’t getting what they need in synagogue,” he qualifies, ”but sometimes I think that the synagogue is an uncomfortable place to look for it.”
For at least the last 10 years, Jewish organizations have launched an all-out offensive to lure this demographic through Birthright, Honeymoon Israel, JEWISHcolorados YAD and similar efforts.
While Immerman applauds these networks, he challenges the notion that Jews of a certain age can hop a free ride to all things Jewish.
”First, you are giving them the message that Judaism is free when youre young and were going to send you to Israel, buy you lavish dinners and do all these things for you,” he says.
”Then they get older and we say, You have to pay a significant amount of money for the same opportunities.”
Although Temple Emanuel funds young professional programming, it operates in accordance with a set budget.
Immerman says the Hineini Project has been experimenting with various methods of payment for events at the door.
”We list a suggested amount but we never put barriers in front of those who really cant afford it, he says. Still, Judaism isnt a pay-as-you-go model. It costs,” he says. For example, Sushi and Sake in the Sukkah, which attracts up to 100 people in the temples sukkah for blessings and havdalah, is an expensive affair.
”We’ve been very blunt about the money involved in buying sushi for 75 to 100 individuals,” he says.
”But we also talk about tzedakah. You might not derive a benefit from whatever youre putting into it, but youre supporting the community. And that’s how they look at it.”
WHEN IMMERMAN initially formed the Hineini Project Leadership Team, he chose seven to nine people to set the torch of innovation ablaze. Now everyone has duty assignments and the membership base has soared.
”I attribute the success of the project to this very engaged team,” he says. That’s the model.
“You find people who are interested in a particular thing, engage them, and their energy drives the others.”
Is the endgame reintegrating the young professionals into Temple Emanuel?
”Yes,” Immerman smiles. ”The goal is to build community and relationships so that people feel that they belong to the greater congregational family.”
Hineini is part of Temple Emanuel, and Emanuel is their home.
He says that the temple has launched a major listening campaign to assess the needs of ECE families, singles, empty nesters and seniors and help them feel connected here.
The temple has also switched from a programming to an engagement structure.
”Programming is a bunch of staffers sitting around and choosing which programs were going to provide,” he says. ”The Hineini Project epitomizes engagement — a group of congregants who are committed to an aspect of their Judaism, decide to do something about it, and work to make it happen.”
Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News