Should I be a psychologist or work in high tech? Is this the person I should marry and build a home with? Should I make aliyah? Am I the same religiously as I was a few years ago? In what community should I settle as I begin my family life?
It is striking that there are thousands of Modern Orthodox young professionals living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, yet there is not one rabbi dedicated full time to serving them. The years following college are a time of big questions, and the answers to those questions are central to individuals’ religious and personal journeys. Of course, the shuls on the Upper West Side, and their amazing rabbis, invest enormous time and energy in young professionals, but there is a reasonable limit as to how much they are able to give to a demographic that tends to shortly move on to other communities. At the same time, the contrast between young adults’ experience on campus – where they run the community, plan programming and make decisions – and the experience that follows of being the most junior members of an established congregation, whose focus and priorities may lie elsewhere, leaves many in this age cohort feeling adrift in their religious and communal lives. We believe that the larger Modern Orthodox community should invest philanthropic dollars in hiring a full-time rabbi dedicated to serving young professionals and to finding physical spaces that are appropriate for young adult community building and programing.
At the same time, hiring a rabbi is just one important piece of the puzzle. Other kinds of communal leadership and opportunity can also help to anchor young professionals as they embark on their post-college lives. For example, a few years ago, young professionals began their own grassroots organizations to respond to this need for community and programming. Two groups, “UWS//Jews” and “BAbayit” (Bnei Akiva Bayit), run communal tefillot, meals, shiurim, and a wide array of social events.
As part of this broader effort to engage this demographic, four years ago SAR High School’s Machon Siach launched a year-long fellowship for young professionals. In the program, a close-knit cohort of men and women, together with SAR faculty, engage in text study and conversation with an eye toward further developing their religious identities. The reason Machon Siach and SAR are investing in young professionals is twofold. First, SAR believes that yeshiva high schools sit at the nexus of the individual, the family and the community, and therefore we feel a sense of duty to engage this underserved demographic. Second, at its core, SAR’s Machon Siach is dedicated to empowering and transforming teachers into researchers, writers and communal thought leaders. Such empowering means giving individuals time to research and write, but it also means providing a forum for faculty to engage the broader Modern Orthodox community. The Siach Graduate Fellowship brings together young professionals with SAR faculty and, in doing so, connects up-and-coming lay leaders with up-and-coming thought leaders.
The fellowship intentionally explores three topics that are meaningful to Modern Orthodox young professionals: (1) Money, Materialism and Meaning, (2) Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, and (3) Sexuality in Yahadut. The curriculum and guest speakers are scaffolded with the intention of expanding each fellow’s thinking on a particular topic. For example, on the topic of day school tuition, fellows take an in-depth look at school budgets. Instead of merely criticizing the high costs of day schools, as so many of us do around our Shabbos tables, fellows meaningfully explore budgets and debate the values that they implicitly espouse: are educators in our community being paid enough? In what parts of students’ educations should day schools most heavily invest? How should our community balance the various expectations we have for our schools while also containing costs? Through these discussions, which build on their own day school experiences and insights, the fellows also examine what considerations drive their own career choices. Is it meaning? Remuneration? Both? Something else? How can they become more conscious, self-reflective choice-makers in their own lives?
On the topic of rabbinic authority fellows not only explore the meaning of rabbinic power in the 21st century but also push each other on עשה לך רב asking if there is a religious figure in their lives to whom they look for guidance. They question why they do or don’t have such a figure guiding them and why having someone playing that role for them might be important. Finally in the realm of sexuality they address a challenge that may be especially present at this stage of their lives: the sharp contrast between halakhic dictates around sexual contact before marriage and the realities of dating delayed age of marriage and modern relationships.
Interestingly, we have found many people apply to be fellows who did not attend SAR High School and are not otherwise members of the SAR community. Frequently, they share with us that they have been looking for something like this in their lives. Sometimes, they note that they always felt an affinity for SAR and its philosophies and practices, even when they did not or could not attend SAR High School. The desire and need for spaces for post-college and early-career adults to engage in meaningful and thoughtful religious reflection about essential, life-shaping questions is evident in the increasing numbers of applications to the Siach Graduate Fellowship year over year. We have even been contacted by individuals from outside the New York area to ask if they can participate in these cohorts virtually. (The answer right now is no, but that may change. We hope at some point to launch a parallel national Zoom cohort.) As a community, we must see that the cultivation of seriously-engaged, values-driven religious adults cannot stop after high school or the years in Israel or even the years on campus. The Siach Graduate Fellowship offers one model for investing in young professionals as they navigate being Modern Orthodox in the broader world and embark on the next stages of their lives.