‘It’s nice to see Jews being Jews’
JYC, a Friday-night group for young professionals, grows in Morristown
What do two eligible young Jewish bachelors, one from Bismarck, North Dakota, and the other from Highland Park, have in common?
A lot, it turns out.
Both of them — Nathan Vaisbort of North Dakota and Asher Weinstein of New Jersey — are interested in meeting nice young Jewish adults who share similar values, cherish the traditions of their culture, and are eager to engage in community.
Mr. Vaisbort, the 30-something investment banker and co-founder of Jewish Young Community of Morris County grew up in the capital of North Dakota, a city with just half a dozen Jewish families. The city’s only rabbi had left years earlier. It wasn’t until his parents moved to Las Vegas when he was 12 that Mr. Vaisbort made a meaningful connection with Judaism, he said. “I recall our temple’s members being horrified as to how little Jewish knowledge I had.”
After his bar mitzvah in a Conservative shul, Mr. Vaisbort embraced the importance of being surrounded by other Jews who shared his ideals and values. But between the time when he became bar mitzvah and when he went to college at 18, he yearned for a spiritual and social connection that he could not find.
Mr. Vaisbort’s experience at the University of Nevada Las Vegas brought him back to a spiritual center. “I became close with Rabbi Brochtain, who led the campus Chabad,” where, he said, he was “taught and inspired.” Mr. Vaisbort later joined the Chabad for Young Professionals. “Rabbi Brochtain served as a mentor to me in my college years and in life events throughout my young adulthood.”
Mr. Vaisbort said that he felt at home at Shabbatons and other lively events, where he could interact regularly with anywhere from 40 to 60 Jewish peers. When he relocated thousands of miles away to New Jersey for a job promotion, it was important to him to sustain close ties to other Jews. Knowing no one but hoping to deepen his connections, he took the plunge and made the 2,500-mile move.
Because New Jersey has a Jewish population six times larger than Nevada’s, Mr. Vaisbort assumed the transition would be smooth. But after trying to connect on internet dating sites and other online meet-ups, he found barriers to entry. “I realized quickly that there was a serious gap somewhere,” he said.
He tried calling many Jewish organizations to ask for help, but it was frustrating. Eventually, “I was put in touch with groups and sites like Tribe, Mesorah, and Moishe House” — but they were too far away, he said. Events in Hudson County were a 55-minute trek from his home in Morristown.
Asher Weinstein, a 30-something digital marketing specialist and Highland Park native, attended Drexel University in Philadelphia. “When I returned to Highland Park after college, I took part in a myriad of social activities out there for young Jewish people,” he said. “With an interest in inviting young professionals to meet and gather on Friday evenings following services, I spearheaded the Oneg group. I reached out to five or six synagogues requesting space to accommodate groups of 50 to 60 young Jewish people. The attendees arrived once the Friday Shabbat service crowd had departed.”
Food, snacks, and drinks were provided; guests brought wine and beer. “It was fun for a while, but I was doing all the work myself,” he said.
Four years later, after moving to Morristown, Mr. Weinstein and Miriam Loew, education and lifelong learning director at the Morristown Jewish Center, met to brainstorm activities for young Jewish adults. When Asher met Nathan at a Purim event at the Morristown Jewish Center in 2022, they hit it off immediately. Eager to figure out how best to get 20-something Jewish professionals off the couch on a Friday night to do something different, they put their creative heads together. “We each knew so many young people like us, who’d attended Chabad or Hillel during college, only to find themselves as young adults unsure how to interact with other Jews,” Mr. Vaisbort said. “The young professionals who attend Jewish Young Community events share a similar trajectory of experience.”
Mr. Weinstein agreed. “Unless they’ve attended a college with a strong Jewish presence, most Jewish young adults tend to fall out of involvement after their bar or bat mitzvahs.”
While Mr. Weinstein had joined only a handful of Shabbat dinners hosted by the Morristown Jewish Center, he and Mr. Vaisbort hoped to organize something that offered community, engagement, and inclusivity. They began by scheduling a meeting with both Ms. Loew and the Morristown Jewish Center’s rabbi, David Nesson. They were anxious to show their peers that celebrating Jewish heritage and culture could be fun.
Since the synagogue’s cantor, Shana Onigman, had been preparing scrumptious free dinners for the synagogue’s members before Friday night Shabbat services, the two men approached her one evening with their proposition.
Would she be willing to cook for a group of young Jewish people from different towns and communities who wished to make social connections with their peers? The answer was yes! The seed for the Jewish Young Community Morris County Area was planted.
“Cantor Shana is extremely generous with her time,” Mr. Vaisbort said. “In addition to her cantorial duties and haunting melodies chanted each Shabbat, she’s committed to providing delicious food to Shabbat dinner attendees.” Mr. Vaisbort and Mr. Weinstein rave about her homemade challah — she offers a baking and braiding class — which is just one of the specialties served to those who register for a Friday night dinner and a meaningful service afterward.
“The shul has a kosher commercial kitchen, which makes cooking for so many people much easier,” Mr. Vaisbort said. “We typically serve Cantor Shana’s signature soup, roasted chicken, and a vegetable. We ask guests to bring their own kosher wine, and sometimes a little schnapps. Cantor Shana really tries to cater to her audience’s needs, making vegan, gluten-free, and dairy dishes.” While the rise in covid cases caused delays in the organization’s start up in 2022, throughout the past six months, JYC has been providing dinners and community to groups of more than 30 young Jewish men and women who register before Shabbat.
The two men are pleased with the response they’re getting to the events. “If someone finds their bashert through JYC, we’d be elated,” Mr. Weinstein said. “However, we are a group of singles, couples, and married young adults. Everyone is welcome.” While a core group of people seem to come back week after week, there has been a substantial growth in the number of those joining from Bergen, Essex, Warren and Hudson counties since the organization launched. Some people have also come from Brooklyn.
The cofounders sense an ease and comfort among the attendees. “It’s nice to see Jews being Jews.”
“What started as a handful of people coming to services to get back into the spirit of Judaism has turned into a word-of-mouth phenomenon,” Mr. Vaisbort said. “We advertise on most social media platforms: Yelp, Google Business, Facebook, EventBrite, and Instagram.”
While Mr. Vaisbort is somewhat introverted, Mr. Weinstein is more outgoing. “We balance each other out,” Mr. Weinstein said. “Nathan handles all of the behind-the-scenes work, such as fundraising, registration, and promotion. He’s created a WhatsApp group for people to connect before and after Shabbat events.” Both cofounders believe they can get along with anyone, but often feel closest to those with whom they can make a Jewish connection. “Helping others find community fills my soul and makes me appreciate what I do,” Mr. Weinstein said.
Mr. Vaisbort hopes to expand JYC to other types of activities, such as hiking, movie and game nights, synagogue-hopping, and wine tastings. Mr. Weinstein’s advisory role is to direct the marketing efforts and vote on the JYC board.
Although they have active full-time jobs, both young professionals contribute more than 10 volunteer hours to their organization every week. Now affiliated with Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, JYC accepts donations. “While the goal is to keep our meals free to participants, as we expand, we may ask for a nominal donation,” they say.
Mr. Vaisbort and Mr. Weinstein are committed to spending their off hours communicating with more shuls in Northern New Jersey to expand their reach.
At their most recent Friday night event, JYC used the support of One Table, a national nonprofit that provides a platform to invite guests to Shabbat dinners and offers funding for food served to up to 30 people. “While most young people don’t yet relate to the temple membership model, we offer many opportunities to help with cooking, setup, and cleanup and appreciate contributions of wine and desserts,” Mr. Weinstein said.
For more information about JYC and its Shabbat dinner experiences, go to its Facebook page at Jewish Young Community (JYC) Morris County Area or email Nathan Vaisbort at [email protected] B