“We’re a victim of our own success,” said Rabbi Perry Tirschwell, Rabbi Pesach Lerner’s successor as executive director of the National Council of Young Israel. “The reason it’s called Young Israel is because it was started by young people 100 years ago who weren’t connecting to the shuls because the speeches were in Yiddish and the shuls were recreations of Galicia, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary.”
These young American-born Jews, Rabbi Tirschwell said, “created a different type of shul – a shul where there was singing, a shul where the rabbi spoke in English, and a shul where there was social programming.” But with nearly all community synagogues now featuring many of the components that Young Israel once championed, what is the purpose of the organization today?
The Jewish Press spoke with Rabbi Tirschwell about this topic, among others.
The Jewish Press: What’s your vision for Young Israel? What is its purpose as we enter 2014?
Rabbi Tirschwell: We want to return to our mission of servicing synagogues and inspiring people in their 20s and 30s. We’re going to bring Young Israel back to its roots because you have a whole generation of singles living in Manhattan who are not really connecting religiously after they’ve left college or yeshiva.
Aren’t there already organizations and shuls that cater to the singles crowd?
There are definitely efforts, but it’s not nearly enough. Leaving Yeshiva University aside, you have 1,500 singles in Washington Heights. There are four, five, six times that number on the West Side. The numbers are overwhelming. Some shuls try to reach out to them, but there are so many and they’re transient. You can’t blame the shuls for not investing a lot in them because many of them don’t pay membership. They belong to the “free generation.” Also, their goal is to get out. They don’t want to stay in Manhattan. They want to get married and move to the suburbs.
So I think the shuls need a lot more help.
What kinds of things do you have in mind?
We want to hire couples who are going to reach out to singles to become their spiritual leaders and introduce them to someone of the opposite gender because there’s a lot of casual relationships but not nearly enough serious dating going on. This generation – even if they had rebbeim in yeshiva or seminary – they’re not connected anymore. There isn’t really anyone looking out for them at this point.
There are outreach organizations in Manhattan focused on inspiring people who did not grow up in the Orthodox world, but there’s not really anyone who’s trying to deal with the frum-from-birth singles.
What other ideas do you have to help these singles?
These young professionals – you’re talking about people in their 20s and 30s who are building up their careers now – don’t have a lot of free time during the week, so it really revolves around Shabbos: onegs, meals, and then personal relationships will come out of that.
But Young Israel is a synagogue service organization, so our first and foremost focus will be helping shuls be the most they can be – helping them cut costs, run more inspirational programs, reach their youth better, etc….
Thirty or forty years ago, people’s charitable dollars generally went to the synagogue. That switched over at a certain point and the focal point of the community became day schools. People are very concerned about their children. But when these kids grow up, their connection [to Judaism] is going to be through a shul. It’s not going to be through learning, it’s going to be through davening, and I think we’ve sort of missed the boat on that. We need to make shuls more inspirational and help them reach more people.