There are many social options available to young adults in Hoboken and Jersey City at the end of a long and stressful work week, but many of these individuals are choosing Chabad. Sixteen years ago, Rabbi Moshe Schapiro and his wife, Shaindel, started a Chabad congregation to service families in the two neighboring towns. They built a thriving preschool and Hebrew school, but also recognized the need for a community organization for young Jewish professionals.
About a year and a half ago, they enlisted Rabbi Shmuli Levitan and his wife, Esta, to come to the community and start a new organization focusing on these young professionals. The aim was to facilitate a community for these men and women, and the Levitans have done just that.
At the W Hotel in Hoboken, they arranged some large-scale events, such as Chanukah and Purim parties, drawing over 100 young professionals to their first event, and these events have grown exponentially ever since.
In addition to its celebrations of the Jewish holidays, the organization also conducts smaller events. Almost every week Levitan and his wife host a more intimate event with an average of 15 young professionals converging at their apartment, by personal invitation, for a home-cooked Shabbat dinner. The first Wednesday of the month, they host a Torah evening called “Sushi and Scotch.” Typically, 15-25 young professional men and women come to study. What is unique about this event is that the evenings are hosted by members at their homes, at locations rotating around Hoboken and Jersey City. Ever since one of the young couples initiated the idea, Levitan has been there only to lead the study lesson, after which people mingle and connect.
About once every six weeks, instead of meeting at someone’s house, they have a Shabbat social, with buffet-style dinner and drinks, in the lounges of some of the apartment buildings where the members reside. These events draw an average of 40 men and women. Singles and couples alike participate. Esta makes the meals with the help of some of the members; occasionally they buy prepared foods from Brooklyn.
They also have challah bakes and recently had 30 young professionals participate in baking hamantaschen, hosted at the Levitan house. For Shavuot they hold cheesecake bakes.
They recently launched a new monthly Friday night event called “Friday Night Unplugged.” Taking place in an art gallery in downtown Jersey City, the event will include a happy hour followed by Kabbalat Shabbat and a community dinner.
Business networking events, led by CEOs of major corporations, are designed to help business professionals grow. They are looking forward to a real estate roundtable, scheduled with a real estate mogul, to be coming soon.
As a testament to the strength of these young professionals, Levitan says they have a Sustaining Partner’s Society, in which over 30 young members commit to donate monetarily, on a monthly basis, to help sustain the community organization. They contribute $36 a month for a pillar, and some members, Levitan is gratified to note, give three and more pillars a month.
Many of the members of the community make the 10-minute commute across the Hudson, and still others work in Hoboken, Jersey City or nearby towns. The group consists of many lawyers, doctors, teachers, financial people and real estate professionals. In spite of their busy lives and schedules, these young professionals dedicate time to be with other Jewish community members.
There are singles, and young couples without children, ranging from their 20s to 30s, who are involved, participating and giving back. Levitan says with pleasure, “They realize the beauty of the Jewish community and that it can be engaging, inspiring, insightful and fun.”
Chabad young professional organizations exist all over the world. There is a central office in Brooklyn headed by Beryl Frankel, which provides resources to help the various locations do what they do, without offering any financial help; all branches are financially independent. The central office runs a shabbaton once a year on the east coast, in which members from all the locales can participate. They also help the many organizations communicate with others around the world. Every location makes its own budget, and all money stays in the community; nothing gets sent back to the central location.
According to Levitan, “No other religious community can compare with Chabad for the return on investment.” Their budget is lean, with everything done in house. There is no office team. Levitan and his wife, with community member support, do everything. They have no fundraising teams, yet hundreds of young professionals are involved. “Rabbi Schapiro and his wife, Shaindel, were the driving force,” says Levitan.
Levitan notes, “One aspect of Judaism is the synagogue, but what defines Judaism is how people act outside the synagogue. To pray is one aspect of Judaism, but there are 613 mitzvot.” Their organization services the Jewish community in general, not just for prayer. For example, for Friday night dinner at their home, most of the young professionals join in just for dinner. He says they can go to shul first and walk home with him, but it’s okay if they come only for the meal. He adds, “To hear kiddush is a mitzvah.”
They are a community organization for young professionals, not a synagogue, and they meet their members at their current level of observance. “There is a rich Jewish identity to discover and learn about,” Levitan declares. “It talks for itself; it adds so much meaning to life.”
By Sharon Mark Cohen