Building a Young Jewish Community in the New Jersey ‘Burbs
by Rebecca Missel
Most of my early memories are Jewish memories. From running my fingers through the fringes of my dad’s tallit to singing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in Hebrew at my preschool and helping my mom in the synagogue kitchen, Judaism was an important part of my young life.
Those strong connections continued through my grade school years, where I was a total Jewish nerd who actually liked going to religious school and only occasionally ditched Hebrew high to go to the mall. Cue the typical overachiever montage of me rising through the ranks of my synagogue youth group to become chapter president and attending myriad regional events. I took a break in college from leadership roles but still went to Hillel and majored in Judaic studies.
Fast forward through four years steeped in Baltimore’s diverse, engaged, and well-funded Jewish community with full-time jobs in synagogues and federation and two master’s degrees. I collected oodles of memories gathering around friends’ Shabbat dinner tables, debating finer points of halakha with classmates, and traveling to Israel on a professionals’ exchange.
After graduation, I found myself living in suburban New Jersey, working at the Jewish federation, where most of the staff was much older than me and where my peers were all locals with little interest in building new friendships. A colleague asked what my husband did for a living because surely a young woman would not come to the area if not for her husband’s job. It was a bit awkward telling her I didn’t have a husband. Despite these setbacks, slowly, I built new connections, found families to host me on holidays and tried to find a Jewish place where I belonged.
It didn’t take me long to notice that my colleague was representative of a bigger issue. The perception in the established Jewish community was that people like me – single, 20/30-something, professionals – did not exist in the suburbs. We were all supposed to be in New York City, or Hoboken, or maybe at Rutgers. But certainly not in Hackensack, Morristown, Bridgewater, or Caldwell.
Yet, I met more and more people like me. They were both transplants and locals, comfortable in their Jewish identity and still seeking, Birthright Israel alumni and unaffiliated, single and coupled, and all wanting to connect. And so, on December 8, 2009, with an event making Chanukah care packages for U.S. service members in my living room, Jersey Tribe was born.
Designed to give young Jewish adults from across the religious spectrum an opportunity to engage with each other and their communities, Jersey Tribe welcomes singles, couples and marrieds. Each month, the group gets together for social, volunteer, educational, philanthropic and religious events and it has grown into the largest regional organization serving young Jews in New Jersey with more than 275 participants.
The group is driven by the values of collaboration, inclusiveness (we welcome people of all faith traditions at our events) and enabling people to build personal connections. I am most proud of Jersey Tribe when I see the friends people add on Facebook, or hear about new couples (whether singles dating each other or two married couples finding friends) who meet at events. It also makes me smile knowing that almost every Jersey Tribe event is someone’s first Jersey Tribe event. The motivator behind everything is the power of creating a vibrant community of, by and for young Jewish adults in New Jersey.
Since launching Jersey Tribe, I’ve formed a whole new collection of Jewish memories. There’s the one from our inaugural potluck Shabbat dinner at the home of a member who had never before hosted a Shabbat meal. And the time we made Yom HaAtzmaut art projects with special needs kids at the JCC. Or the time an Ethiopian immigrant spoke to our group about her experiences in her native country, Israel and the US while we shared an authentic meal together.
Whether it’s an overtly Jewish event or something that attracts people simply for the opportunity to socialize, I cannot underscore enough the incredible X factor of Jewish peoplehood and the role it’s played with Jersey Tribe. Something intangible but indelible compels all our members to join us in making their own Jewish memories, and I am honored to be a part of it.
Rebecca Missel is the URJ’s manager of grants administration and the president and founder of Jersey Tribe. Recently named one of The Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36, she grew up in Arizona and earned master’s degrees in public policy and Jewish communal service in Baltimore.