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21st Century Hanukkah: Vodka, latkes and candles

Jonathan Raiffe, 30, fondly remembers lighting menorah candles and participating in Hanukkah sing-along’s with friends. In college, however, “I pretty much went my own way.”

Dean Neiger, 29, grew up in Belgium where anti-Semitism was prevalent and his family was not very religious. His attendance at synagogue and other Jewish institutions was sporadic, at best.

And Brenda Bracha Vargas, 29, raised in a Christian household, explored Judaism as a teen, after attending a friend’s bar mitzvah. At 26, she began a rigorous Orthodox conversion that she says has given her life new meaning.

On Thursday the three will come together on the sixth night of Hanukkah for latkes, vodka and candles. Vodka Latke is expected to attract about 500 20- and 30-something Jews for a modern-day celebration of the Festival of Lights, held on the terrace of the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach.

The event is hosted by The Tribe, a local organization nationally recognized as one of the 50 most innovative Jewish groups in the country, the only one in Florida so honored. The Tribe, founded in 2004 under another name by two young women looking to revive the fellowship and community they had known growing up, is one of several groups around the country seeking to redefine what it means to be young and Jewish in the 21st Century, where technology rules and traditional religious institutions no longer hold the influence they once did.

“At the heart of Judaism is community and it’s an essential component of Jewish life,” says Rebecca Denar, The Tribe’s director. “Now we’re able to have multiple ways of expressing Judaism and multiple ways of providing community.”


Searching for ways to bring young people back into the fold is nothing new for traditional denominations. Typically, young adults drift away from the religion of their youth during high school, college and the years that follow. Eventually marriage and children may bring them back, but as young people postpone those life-cycle events, the span of years in which most have no affiliation with a religious institution is growing.

“When kids get done with college and until they have children themselves and are maybe ready to join a synagogue, there’s really not much out there for them,” says Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies.. “Not that they don’t feel Jewish. But when they go into a synagogue, what they see is older people and families, not others like them.”

What’s more, Jewish Millennial — born in the 1980s and early ’90s — are markedly different from their parents at that age, Sheskin adds. They tend to be better educated, but fewer are married and more are likely to be children of intermarriage. Figures collected by Sheskin show that this generation’s participation in Jewish institutions, including membership in synagogues and community centers, is low.

National studies and local data collected by The Tribe confirm this portrait of disconnection. More than 75 percent of those who have participated in The Tribe’s activities are not members of any synagogue.

It’s not just young Jews who fall away from traditional ties to faith. A report released in October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life underscored that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is accelerating, from 15 percent just five years ago to about 20 percent today. This is particularly true for younger Americans. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with just one in 10 for the 65 and older set. However, the survey also found that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults consider themselves spiritual in some way — that is, they believe in God or pray every day.


Among Jews, labels and connections tend to be complicated. Judaism is a religion, a culture and an ethnic group. “A lot of being Jewish today is identity driven,” says Raiffe, 30, who grew up on Miami Beach and now lives in Midtown. “Many of us are asking, ‘What does it mean to be a Jew today?’ ”

For Raiffe, the answer translates into “finding ways to connect to that rich tradition (of Judaism) on a meaningful level”— namely community service.

“The issue we have before us is this: What will draw young Jews to a collective Jewish life,” says Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College who has done research work for Synagogue 3000, one of The Tribe’s donors. “We have to provide alternatives for young Jews to connect with Jewish life and each other.”

Other groups do just that — The Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s The Network, for example, and the Jewish Community Services Alliance. But The Tribe tries to “meet them where they are,” says director Denar, both on a religious level and a physical level. The Tribe hosts events that blend tradition with innovation, the secular with the spiritual. It does not charge membership dues, and the appeal is to Jewish life and identity, not necessarily to religious precepts.


Its oldest event is Shabbat on the Beach, where participants can join in a non-traditional Sabbath experience with song, prayer, wine — and a great view. Another popular event was a series of programs at the Equinox gyms, and in January, participants can join The Tribe at the annual “Jews and Canoes” in Oleta State Park for a Tu B’Shvat celebration, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. The group’s last large-scale event was covered in the New York Times because the off-beat Rosh Hashana services encouraged the congregants to participate by texting.

Next week’s Vodka Latke event, co-sponsored by the young Jewish groups The Network, The Alliance, Birthright and MASA, is The Tribe’s largest event. Young rabbis from the three denominations of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — will invite guests to light a candle. Proceeds will benefit Miami Children’s Hospital.

This kind of event, says Cohen of Hebrew Union College, typically draws young Jewish professionals. “They want something very social, but they also want something with purpose. They want meaningful socializing, not just getting together with friends.”

Meaningful socializing was what first prompted Helena Cohen, now 30, to co-found the young professionals group at Temple Beth Sholom that would eventually evolve into The Tribe. She is now on The Tribe’s board of directors.

“I wanted to make my own community,” she said. “When I came back from college, everyone I grew up with was no longer here. Most of my friends were gone, but I still wanted to connect with young Jews.”


Rabbi Gary Glickstein of Temple Sholom in Miami Beach, which still houses The Tribe’s office, recognized the opportunity early on. “We needed to reach beyond the walls of the synagogue to these affiliated and unaffiliated young Jews. Our job is to help them on this journey of finding a Jewish community that speaks to them.”

The Tribe is carving out the path slowly, earning economic support from various groups, including the Woldenberg Foundation, the Sandler Foundation and Synagogue 3000/Next Dor, organizations interested in re-engaging young Jews.

Neiger, who moved here from Belgium six years ago to establish an eco-friendly dry cleaners, said he had trouble making friends at first. The Tribe, however, introduced him to people — and to something much more.

“It’s a very pluralistic organization and that’s what I like about it because there are opportunities for everybody, including the less religious,” says Neiger, who now chairs the board. “Since I’ve been part of it, it has taken my sense of community to a whole other level.”