The Riverway Project: Engaging Adults in their 20s and 30s in the Process of Transforming the Synagogue

Rabbi Jeremy S. Morrison
Sept 12, 2008
The Riverway Project


In the spring of 2007, Synagogue 3000 published an article written by Tobin Belzer and Donald E. Miller titled, “Synagogues that Get It: How Jewish Congregations are Engaging Young Adults.”[i] In their study, Belzer and Miller described three synagogues – in L.A., Chicago and New York City – that are “making a concerted effort to understand and engage young adults by proactively addressing young adults’ multi-faceted interests in religion.”[ii] Belzer and Miller note that presently the majority of individuals in their twenties and thirties have no congregational affiliation, and that their affiliation rate is lower than any other age cohort.[iii] Moreover, congregations have been slow to adapt themselves to effectively address the needs of this demographic group.

The present article is a description of another synagogue that, to borrow Belzer and Miller’s phrase, “gets it.”  Temple Israel of Boston is the home of the Riverway Project (RWP). Named after the location of Temple Israel, the RWP is an outreach and engagement initiative for those in their twenties and thirties living in metropolitan Boston. The RWP seeks to connect greater numbers of adults in their twenties and thirties to Judaism and to the synagogue through a variety of entry-points. Launched in the spring of 2001, the RWP has succeeded at engaging this age cohort in synagogue communal life.

What follows is a discussion of the RWP’s history and its methods for engaging twenties and thirties in the process of creating meaningful Jewish experiences. Furthermore, this article will describe how the RWP’s approach to organizing and to perpetuating itself have transformed Temple Israel, a 1,700 member, 155 year-old, urban congregation.[iv]  


The Learning Curve: Moving from Place to People

In my fourth year of Rabbinical school, I proposed to the clergy of Temple Israel the idea of opening a satellite of the Temple — a kind of storefront synagogue for adults in their 20s and 30s — in the South End of Boston: a gentrifying, urban neighborhood, that is the home to many in this demographic.  My approaching Temple Israel with this concept was no accident.  I had grown up in the congregation, was very familiar with its entrepreneurial and innovative methods for constructing a synagogue community, and had maintained a close relationship with its senior rabbi, Ronne Friedman.  

At that time in the South End, which was, incidentally, where Temple Israel had had its first sanctuary (now an AME Zion Church), there was no established liberal, Jewish presence.  Our initial vision (which we called, “An Extension of Israel”) focused on creating a space that would serve the needs of this disengaged population. The storefront’s various activities would have both complemented what was already occurring at the main Temple Israel building (for instance, we would not have had programs for young children, nor high holy day services), but would have also been easily interwoven into the lives of urban Jews. 

This emphasis on creating a physical space for activities was one of our early stumbles.  A task force created by the Board of the synagogue to analyze the financial implications of this endeavor determined that this undertaking would be too expensive, and an entanglement of both financial and legal issues rendered this first iteration of our vision as infeasible. However, this stumble ultimately served us, because it encouraged us to shift our focus from creating a space to forging relationships between people (see below). Moreover, this evolution produced several of the core and lasting ingredients of RWP’s success.

Along these lines, we “broke ground” for the RWP by organizing a series of house meetings in the late spring of 2001.  We met with unaffiliated Jews living in the neighborhoods in which we have now established circles, and we asked the participants about their connections to Judaism, their reluctance to become affiliated with a synagogue, what of Judaism they would like to try, where they would like to try it, what we could do to help, and similar questions.  Participants responded that they were seeking Shabbat meals and services in an intimate setting, serious learning about Judaism, and social action projects.  They wanted to start with activities in their own neighborhoods, and they sought a mix of ages and types (e.g. married and single, older and younger; interfaith couples) to join together. Additionally, participants wanted any social connections to flow from these activities, rather than focusing on the social or dating aspect.  Many found it awkward to go to events with the goal of meeting partners and many found it off-putting to go “cold” into a large synagogue.  Out of these stated interests and concerns, the initial content of the Riverway Project’s initiatives emerged.  To this day, our participants’ desires continue to direct all of our programming, and the intimate setting of people’s living rooms continues to be instrumental in forging relationships.

Later in 2001, with a donor-funded, one year contract, but without any significant dollars to spend on programming, my wife and I moved to the South End where we had found an apartment which had a large enough living room in which we could hold services and communal meals.  In that first year we conducted 27 different gatherings in five Boston neighborhoods, an effort that built the foundation for the growth of the project. In some ways, we were able to reincorporate our initial vision: Riverway events that occur outside of Temple Israel’s building but happen in participants’ neighborhoods and living-rooms are considered an “extension” of Temple Israel, and all of our programming is conducted at times and in places that are conducive to the busy, work-filled lives of our participants. And a couple of times each year we use a donated storefront in the South End as a space for Qabbalat Shabbat services.

Meaningful Judaism

The RWP is comprised of worship, study, and social justice activities conducted both within the Temple Israel’s building and in various locations throughout the Boston metropolitan area. In an attempt to engage unaffiliated Jews in the creation of Jewish community in both informal and institutional settings, the RWP provides a panoply of connecting points, including casual Shabbat experiences in participants’ homes, low-cost opportunities to join this urban congregation formally, and regular opportunities for Torah study.[v]  On average, there are four to six RWP gatherings each month.

A hallmark of the RWP is a network of neighborhood circles situated in 4 urban areas in and around Boston. The circles meet in homes for Shabbat meals or services, study sessions, or Havdalah.  Although the circles are designed to be a tool for creating communities of Jews living in a particular neighborhood, the activities of each circle are open to anyone in their twenties and thirties living in Boston.  Consequently, at each event there are participants from different parts of the city, and the circles serve to form a wide network of qualitative relationships among our target population. Each circle has 12 – 18 core members.  Often partnering with aspiring guitarists and text teachers, I frequently lead the Qabbalat Shabbat services within the circles, while, with the aid of a coordinator, the participants organize and lead their own Shabbat dinners and other study and ritual gatherings.

In conjunction with RWP programming occurring around the city, the RWP also holds programs at Temple Israel designed to introduce participants to synagogue life and to integrate them into the larger Temple Israel community. These activities include holiday celebrations; study sessions; social action initiatives; “Riverway Tots” (a bi-weekly, pre-Shabbat experience for parents with children 0-3); and “Soul Food Fridays” (a monthly Friday night service at Temple Israel solely for those in their 20’s and 30’s).

In addition to our emphasis on partnership and ownership, a serious and critical approach to text-study is one of RWP’s main methods for connecting adults in their 20s and 30s to each other, to Temple Israel and to Judaism.  Over time, we have developed stratified learning opportunities.[vi] We began with a program that continues today: “Torah and Tonics on Tuesday,” a bi-monthly opportunity to study the Torah portion of the week at the Temple.  No Hebrew or prior knowledge is required for this drop-in learning experience.  Building on our participants’ increased comfort with and interest in study, we created a neighborhood-based educational experience called “Mining for Meaning.” “Mining” is a four-session course designed to deepen RWP participants’ understanding of Jewish rituals, how they may function in one’s life, and how they came to be.  Each session includes in-depth text study utilized to elucidate the historical roots of particular rituals as well as a “how to” workshop (demonstrations and discussions about how certain rituals may be adapted to one’s life).  Most recently, in partnership with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Hebrew College, we offered a new model of Me’ah, designed for this age group and taught by instructors in their 30s.[vii]


The People

The population of RWP participants is heterogeneous. The majority is over the age of 25. The range of professional pursuits is vast, including artists, graduate students, entrepreneurs, architects, teachers, doctors, and lawyers. Approximately 50% of participants are married or in ongoing relationships; about 25% of the participants are in interfaith relationships. A growing percentage of participants have infants or toddlers. For many, the RWP is either their first encounter with organized Jewish activity or marks a return to Jewish communal life after a hiatus that began when the participant left home for college. If a participant’s family was affiliated with a synagogue during his childhood, it was most likely Reform. Roughly 15% of participants describe their Jewish background as Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, or secular, and an estimated 2% of RWP participants report that they are from Orthodox homes. What unifies most RWP participants is a low level of Jewish knowledge and a beginner’s experience of Jewish ritual. Few have studied Jewish texts before engaging with the RWP; most have only a rudimentary or no understanding of Hebrew.[viii]

The RWP has connected with a sizeable, diverse, and dynamic group of adults in their 20s and 30s. Approximately 1,500 people have, to varying degrees, affiliated with RWP programming. Several hundred individuals have become members of Temple Israel.  However, as would be expected among any large catchment of adults in this age-group, the RWP’s population is always in transition. After 3-5 years many of our core participants either move to new cities, or become engaged with the synagogue in new ways as they grow older, have children, and assume roles as participants or leaders in the larger Temple Israel community. Consequently, the RWP is constantly in the process of renewing its “base” by building relationships with new participants and developing new leaders. Ideally, the RWP – and the synagogue as a whole – is continually in a process of transformation: we seek to adapt our methods, structures, and programs to ensure that they are consistent with both Jewish tradition and the ever -changing ideas, and lives, of the members of our community.


Engendering Ownership

Since the RWP’s inception, we have sought to create leadership opportunities consistent with the quest for Jewish meaning that motivates most of the RWP participants.  Rather than replicating the leadership models of many synagogues with fixed committees that oversee various types of programs (i.e. the ritual committee, or the education committee, etc.) we have, instead, fostered a relational model of partnership between professionals and participants – and amongst the participants themselves – engaging all who are interested in the process of creating authentic Jewish experiences.  

For example, one of the goals of the “Mining” experience is to create ongoing, self-sustaining learning circles (what we are now calling “Still Mining for Meaning”) with participants becoming confident teachers of text for one another.  In different neighborhoods participants have continued studying theology, liturgy, and parashat hashavuah together.  Typically, each monthly session is taught by a member of the circle who, beforehand, meets with me or with a colleague to prepare a lesson plan. Furthermore, these gatherings are organized around the ritual of Havdalah, which also is led by the participants.

Two years ago, we created an ever-changing leadership group of 20-25 core participants that meets quarterly to evaluate, brainstorm, and plan. This group does not function as an advisory committee or focus group. Rather, to be part of this leadership “team” means to be an owner of RWP experiences.  By initiating new activities and improving current ones, this group of leaders is deeply involved in strengthening the RWP community.  They are visionaries as well as implementers who serve as the hosts, greeters, teachers, and musicians at RWP gatherings.

The coordinator of the RWP and I serve as organizers who facilitate connections between the participants based on common interests. As the founder of the RWP, I developed a model and infrastructure for building Jewish community within this cohort.   However, determining the content of RWP gatherings is a joint effort.  What I teach as a rabbi in the community, when I teach, and how Judaism is taught emerges through dialogue with the participants.  And the few times early on, when we created programs not initiated through collaboration, they didn’t succeed.[ix]


Synagogue Transformation

The presence of a sizeable and growing population of adults in their 20s and 30s has brought new energy and enthusiasm into the synagogue, and the RWP is serving as a model within the larger Temple Israel community for adding depth and quality to the Jewish life of its members.  Importantly, the inception of the RWP coincided with the commencement of our social justice initiative known as Ohel Tzedek (Tent of Justice).  Both of these endeavors are premised on relational-based models of organizing, and together the RWP and Ohel Tzedek have profoundly altered how Temple Israel transforms itself. Our interfaith, new member, and adult education activities are now developed through the methods that we utilize in the RWP.  And slowly, Temple Israel is becoming a synagogue community comprised of qualitative relationships among its participants.

Although the present iteration of the RWP is less expensive than what we originally proposed, generating financial support continues to be a challenge. As might be assumed, the greatest expense of the project is my salary and benefits.  But as I have explained to other synagogue leaders who have inquired about how we built the RWP, congregations do not need to hire a new member of the clergy to lead this kind of initiative. Instead, what is required is a re-prioritization of how a rabbi or cantor spends his/her time. The funds that we have raised to support the RWP have been, obviously, crucial to the development of this idea.  But equally valuable to the success of the RWP, was (and is) the synagogue’s shift in priorities.  The leadership of Temple Israel understands that this kind of outreach to 20s and 30s is vital to the perpetuation of the synagogue.[x]

In the past decade, many independent minyanim, comprised of Jews in their 20s and 30 have emerged as a response, in part, to synagogues that “don’t get it.”   But Temple Israel does:  its leadership has learned that relational methods for transforming the synagogue can be powerfully effective in this moment of Jewish history. By developing meaningful pathways to connection with Judaism, the RWP has engaged several hundred adults in their 20s and 30s in this dynamic and creative process.  The Riverway Project has transformed their conceptions of the synagogue experience, and I hope, will ensure that these previously disengaged adults will seek out Jewish community throughout the course of their lives.[xi]



[i] See Belzer, Tobin and Donald E. Miller, “Synagogues That Get It: How Jewish Congregations,” S3K Reports 2 (Spring 2007), Synagogue 3000/ S3K Synagogue Studies Institute.

[ii] See Belzer and Miller, p.2.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] It is important to note that a practitioner and not a theoretician wrote this article. I have been the director of the Riverway Project since its beginning and therefore I am not in a position to compare the RWP to other outreach efforts by synagogues in other cities.  Fortunately, there is a growing body of literature that provides more objective and broader insight regarding this age cohort, its relationship with Judaism, national efforts to connect twenties and thirties to Jewish communal life, and even an academic’s study of the RWP itself.  See, for instance, Jacob B. Ukeles, Ron Miller, and Pearl Buck, Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today (New York: American Jewish Committee, 2007).  Also see Beth Cousens, Shifting Social Networks: Studying the Jewish Growth of Adults in Their Twenties and Thirties (PhD Dissertation, Brandeis University, 2008).

[v] All of the RWP programs are either free, or cost the participant $7.00 – $25. One does not need to be a member of Temple of Israel to participate in RWP programming.  However, demonstrating its commitment to adults in their 20’s and 30’s, Temple Israel has established an introductory, one year membership of $36/$72 per couple for those 35 years old and under. 

[vi] For a further discussion of Torah and Tonics on Tuesday and the RWP’s approach to study, see Beth Cousens, Jeremy S. Morrison and Susan P. Fendricks, “Using the Contextual Orientation to Facilitate the Study of Bible with Generation X,” Journal of Jewish Education 74/1(2008), pp. 6-28.

[vii] Meah is 100 hours of study, at a college level, of Jewish history and text taught by academics and sponsored by Hebrew College and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. 

[viii] See Cousens, Morrison, and Fendricks, p. 8.

[ix] For instance, in the first year of the project we held a film festival (in collaboration with the Boston Film Festival), that drew very few participants.  A key to our success has been to “mine our niche”:  offering only programs that deal with ritual, study, or social justice.

[x] Here are a few statistics about the RWP and its success:

  • 5 Riverway Project participants have served on Temple Israel’s Board of Trustees.
  • Presently, 4 Riverway Project participants are leaders of Temple Israel’s Social Justice initiative (Ohel Tzedek).
  • 22 Riverway Project participants send (or have sent) their children to the preschool.
  • Each month there are 4-6 Riverway Project gatherings for study and ritual.
  • Each year, for the past 7 years, between 150 and 200 individuals join the synagogue through the Riverway Project.
  • 16% of Temple Israel’s current membership has joined through the Riverway Project.
  • 200 adults in their 20s and 30s attend Soul Food Friday services each month.
  • 75 Riverway participants have hosted in their home shabbat services, potluck dinners, holiday celebrations, or study sessions.
  • 20 Riverway participants have led their peers in text study.
  • 14 Riverway participants went to Israel together in 2005.
  • 6 Riverway participants have helped to lead a Shabbat service.
  • And 5 former Riverway Project participants are now at Hebrew Union College as Cantorial and Rabbinical students.

[xi] I am grateful to Bethie Miller, the coordinator of outreach and engagement initiatives at Temple Israel, for her thoughtful comments during the preparation of this article.