Fostering a sense of community is never an easy task; during a pandemic, some might think it’s nearly impossible. In young Jewish communities, like the Upper West Side and Washington Heights, newly married couples and recent graduates fled the city as COVID-19 turned New York City into a ghost town. Those who remained felt like the ones left behind.
Rabbi Yaakov Taubes of the Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights saw numbers dip as young residents opted to move to the suburbs as opposed to renewing their leases. “I was very nervous about what the state of the community would be,” said Rabbi Taubes.
In July, a Pew Research Center report found that 52% of young adults (ages 18 to 29) were living with their parents, compared to the 48% of young adults who lived with their parents during the Great Depression.
For a while, New York streets were desolate and apartments unoccupied.
But gradually, people did return to the city—even new residents moved in. “We had to start a hashkama minyan at shul because our regular minyan maxed out,” said Rabbi Taubes. Though numbers weren’t near what they were pre-COVID-19, the current figures surpassed that which was expected.
Throughout the pandemic, like many other organizations, Mount Sinai hosted events on Zoom—lunch and learns, davening, happy hours, etc.—but, as Rabbi Taubes noted, “People get Zoomed out. Zoom fatigue is a real thing.” When the weather warmed up, the shul began to host in-person events, including a socially distanced meet and greet.
For new residents, though, finding a sense of community during this time has proven to be difficult. While Mount Sinai and other organizations’ valiant efforts to engage the community are commendable, the unfortunate truth, as many have come to realize, is that face-to-face interactions are not easily replaced. Weekly religious communal gatherings are essential for new members, enabling them to integrate into the community. In the Heights and UWS, Shabbat meals and post-davening schmoozes helped nurture new relationships for those newcomers. Now, in the new COVID reality, these gatherings are less feasible. Although shuls host Zoom meet-ups, Rabbi Taubes admitted, “It’s very hard to meet people over Zoom events.”
All hope is not lost, though.
In August, Bella Adler, a recent Yeshiva University graduate, moved from her home in St. Louis to Washington Heights. A Beit Midrash fellow at SAR High School, Adler found a social connection among the seven other SAR fellows. She wanted to transfer that sense of connection to her new home in the Heights. “Being a new community member during this time was really challenging.” said Adler. She wanted to change that.
In an effort to create a sense of community among young people, Adler and four other recent grads formed the “20-Somethings Minyan,” a Shabbat minyan for recent grads and young professionals. The minyan began Oct.31 on the vast rooftop of a popular Jewish apartment building. Though the first gathering was formed relatively last minute through a barrage of Friday morning text messages, the results were overwhelmingly positive. Despite the frigid temperature, over 30 people showed up for services. The minyan has since moved to Shenk Shul, where the sign up list continues to quickly fill up.
“People our age crave to be around people going through similar life experiences. They need a place to go to see their friends and have meaningful Jewish experiences, and that’s minyan for a lot of people.” said Adler. The minyan was inspired by a desire to create an inclusive environment among young people.
Sophie Ostrow, another of the minyan’s founders, wanted to create an incentive for people to stay in the city for Shabbat. Hailing from Memphis, Sophie didn’t have the luxury of easily heading home for the weekend. Recently, she began to notice changes in the community— people were staying in the city for Shabbat.
“People don’t want to travel back and forth,” explained Ostrow. Many have siblings or parents who are immunocompromised, while others would rather not jump from place to place during the pandemic. This provides a rare opportunity for the younger Jewish community to create a defined space for a consistent group.
As the pandemic continues, Jews adjust and adapt to the new normal. Summer in the suburbs was defined by backyard minyans and outdoor hangouts; in cities, minyans moved to rooftops, hangouts to public parks.
With winter approaching, people will likely be confined to indoor spaces. In New York City, indoor space is tight. “Can people be indoors, wearing masks, with the heat on for a long period of time? Will they come to a shiur indoors?” asked Rabbi Taubes. Despite the concerns, he is optimistic about the future. “Whatever made our community desirable for the population it did, I do think it will come back.”
Adler is optimistic, too. “People think you need a lot of money or resources to build a community—you don’t...you really just need people to care about creating a space.”