To Infinity and Beyond… and Back
by Allison Rosenfeld
I finished my glass of wine and, with a final brush stroke, stood back to look at my masterpiece. I tried to decide if the two people I’d painted were falling from the sky or rising from the ground. Either way, I was happy with my final product at Bottle and Botega, a wine and painting studio in Chicago. This might not be the scene that comes to mind when asked to describe a 20-something studying Torah, and yet here I was, recreating creation instead of my typical Monday night of “The Bachelorette” and a Lean Cuisine. This was definitely my favorite Beyond and Back gathering.
As someone who has always been involved with Jewish life, regularly attends Shabbat services, and currently works as a professional at Chicago’s Jewish Federation, I wouldn’t say I’m lacking in opportunities to “do Jewish.” But what I struggle with is how to be Jewish at 25. What are the ways that a young, Jewish woman can explore Jewish values, participate in Jewish discussions, and carve out a unique Jewish identity? In the last two years, I discovered there are many, and most of them took me by surprise.
Beyond and Back (a.k.a. B&B) began in early 2011 at North Shore Congregation Israel (NSCI) with the help of a URJ Incubator Grant. The program’s goal is to provide Jewish social and educational opportunities for 20-somethings in the Chicago area and give them a Jewish touch point when they might otherwise not have one. Quite literally, B&B seeks out people who are beyond any structure that currently exists and brings them back to Jewish life.
In college, engaging Jewishly is, despite some people’s best efforts, relatively easy and concrete. You can attend Hillel, join a Jewish fraternity or sorority; maybe you do nothing but come home for the High Holidays, but you know how and where to find Jewish resources. Once we leave college, however, many people believe finding a Jewish outlet presents too many obstacles. Where do I go? What do I do? Beyond and Back solves that problem by providing a way to forge our own Jewish paths. In our monthly sessions, we grapple with Jewish and non-Jewish issues, from relationships, to what Judaism says you should do when you see a homeless person downtown, to what it means to really repent and forgive over the high holidays. Yet we address these ideas in a non-threatening, casual, social setting: attending a baseball game, doing a service project, hosting a table at a large Jewish community event.
B&B is spending the weekend with a group of high school students. The oldest one is eight years younger than you, and yet, you find yourself sitting on the tennis courts late at night, talking with them about friendship, school, how we never really outgrow seventh grade, and what it means to be a good person. The next day, one of the juniors tells you she wants to be like you when she grows up. B&B is studying Shavuot between 12 friends, five bottles of wine, and countless paintbrushes. B&B is having a free Shabbat dinner with 50 other young professionals and discussing how important the quality of gratitude is. B&B is having the opportunity to hear about the Jewish journeys of 10 adults (a generation older than you) who you admire and respect.
The community, knowledge, and friendships I’ve gained through B&B are invaluable to me. I believe every young, Jewish adult should have the opportunity to learn to think in new ways and find new reasons to embrace Judaism. But it is difficult for others to understand the power of a shared Jewish experience when they are not currently engaged in any.
So back to that painting. What you don’t see is what’s behind it: the clinking of wine glasses, the learning-your-friend-is-a-really-good-artist-and-you-had-no-idea, the laughing about it taking two hours for someone to paint a solid blue canvas. But these are the details that inspired me to paint creation to begin with. After all, there we were, creating something together. In the end, I decided the people are rising from the ground, reaching out to the infinite, searching for a Jewish experience that is both Beyond and Back.
Allison Rosenfeld is an active member of North Shore Congregation Israel and a participant in the leadership track of Beyond and Back. For more information about the Beyond and Back program, please contact Rabbi Wendi Geffen at firstname.lastname@example.org.