Heart of NJ: Mesorah provides religious, cultural ‘home’

Heart of NJ: Mesorah provides religious, cultural ‘home’

‘Low-barrier’ events offer young adults welcoming community

At the Mesorah Purim party in the Zimmerli museum in New Brunswick are, from left, Joey Miller and Alyssa Bree, both of Highland Park, and Jessica Goldberg of Hamilton.     
At the Mesorah Purim party in the Zimmerli museum in New Brunswick are, from left, Joey Miller and Alyssa Bree, both of Highland Park, and Jessica Goldberg of Hamilton.     

For young Jewish adults just starting their careers or attending graduate school, finding a connection to their Judaism can be difficult.

Most are not yet ready to join a synagogue or have just moved to a new area for a job and have not yet established a network of acquaintances.

To provide a means of finding both a social and religious home among their peers of various levels of observance, Mesorah NJ was formed last year; chapters have been established in Highland Park, Morristown, and Hoboken/Jersey City. 

The Highland Park chapter draws people from Middlesex, Monmouth, Somerset, and Mercer counties; the Morristown chapter from Essex, Somerset, and Morris counties.

Providing such a means to connect “is very important at this stage in life, when they are not ready to join a temple but not going back to college,” said program codirector Esther Lewis, who founded the organization with her husband, Rabbi Yehoshua Lewis. 

Fees are minimal for activities that include social gatherings, Shabbat dinners, classes, and opportunities to perform tikun olam, community service. 

The group is affiliated with the Mesorah USA network, founded in 2004 as the young professional branch of the Israel-based MEOR, which does outreach to college students and young adults to strengthen knowledge of their history and identity.

The Highland Park couple formerly held leadership roles with Rutgers Jewish Xperience, through which students explored their Jewish identities in various settings. They wanted to provide a similar experience in other parts of the state for newly married and single people entering a new phase of life.

“It can really be valuable to the Jewish community in the long run to provide a meaningful Jewish experience at this point in their lives,” said Esther Lewis. “This is not a singles’ bar. We have Shabbat dinners, community classes on everything from talmudic law to Jewish ethics, and trips. We bring these experiences to an age group that studies have shown do not have a strong connection to the Jewish community.” 

She said she herself will often meet young people over coffee, doing follow-up, answering questions, or offering individualized learning experiences.

The group, open to those between ages 22 and 34, is partially funded by grants and private donations. Over a two-day period earlier this month, calls made by volunteers to solicit tax-deductible donations for the nonprofit netted $120,407, to be used to subsidize trips and activities.

Most of the more than 500 young adults who have attended one of the events have heard about Mesorah through word of mouth, said Lewis. And although its primary purpose is to help young adults develop a connection to the Jewish community, she acknowledged that a handful of participants are now dating.

Lee Livingston of East Brunswick, who serves as a trustee and treasurer for Mesorah, said although he is well beyond the targeted age group, he attended several programs and found it “amazing that they’ve managed to get this connection.”

“Both old and young people want a connection to their community and the most natural community for these young adults to connect with is the Jewish community,” said Livingston, a former president of what was the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. In that position, he had seen firsthand the Lewises’ efforts at Rutgers Jewish Xperience.

He lent his North Brunswick business offices for meetings and for the volunteer fund-raising event. Watching the participants, Livingston said, he found their “enthusiasm, optimism, and excitement infectious.”

James Diskint of Princeton, a 28-year-old environmental lawyer, said he heard about Mesorah through several contacts who recommended it as a place where young professionals could meet for learning and community.

“I go to a class on Monday night led by Rabbi Lewis and have occasionally gone to their Shabbat programs,” he told NJJN. “I recently graduated law school and am new to the area, so it’s a nice way to be involved with something rewarding after work.”

Through the Highland Park group, Diskint — whose family was not religious while growing up — has found a welcoming community and classes focusing on different topics.

“Rabbi Lewis always explains the Torah perspective, and there is always a good discussion where questions are encouraged,” he said. “It’s really a nice way to learn about Jewish subjects. They provide dinner, which is great because I come right after work. I would definitely recommend it.” 

Other activities have included a Purim megilla reading and party with live music at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, an international food-and-wine gathering at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, and a ladies’ class and wine-and-cheese get-together at a private residence in Morristown.

Mesorah will also sponsor a Yom Ha’atzmaut community event featuring historian Rabbi Mordechai Becher on Monday, May 9, at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park. 

A “heavily subsidized” trip to Poland to explore Jewish life lost in the Holocaust and current stirrings of rebirth will be held July 10-17.

“One of our missions is that we do not create barriers for people to participate in the Jewish community,” said Esther Lewis. “All our events are low-barrier, and engaging and inspiring.” 

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