the column | Come for the vodka, stay for the Jewishby abra cohen
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What does it take to motivate professional Jewish millennials to go to Shabbat services when pleas from Jewish mothers don’t do the trick? Coax them with free top-shelf booze and kosher hors d’oeuvres at an after-work happy hour.
That’s what Chabad Rabbi Yosef Langer has been doing every fourth Friday of the month for the past two years in downtown San Francisco. The SoMa Shul Happy Hour is billed as a shmooze with booze for young Jewish professionals.
I stopped by on a Friday after work last month. The donated space in the School of Digital Filmmaking, inside the Chronicle Building on Fifth and Mission streets, is hardly a swanky city bar. Instead, it has the feel of a startup space, sparsely decorated with high ceilings and industrial furniture.
What looks like a grown-up Hillel crowd steadily trickles in and awkwardly sips cocktails in clusters of well-dressed strangers, with a smattering of kippot. The mostly male and largely secular bunch seems to be looking for a new way to meet other Jews.
For the entire two hours, there is a steady line at the makeshift bar in the back of the room. “Stay for the services, or don’t!” encourages Langer, who says the event usually draws more than 75 people and often features local bands that perform until Shabbat comes in.
So far, Langer has brought out a decent-size community of young Jews for the event. Monthly turnout is in the age range he wants to target — millennial Jews at all levels of religious observance, even those who are not affiliated at all.
I’m 32, and part of the desired demographic. We are loosely defined as post–Generation X, born between the early 1980s and 2000. We are largely the children of baby boomers and looking to relate to Judaism differently than our Jewish parents and grandparents. How, exactly? We haven’t quite figured that out yet.
Traditional Jewish institutions are not the cornerstone of American Jewish identity for my generation. Many of us prefer Shabbat meals shared among friends at home, or lay-led services at Mission Minyan in San Francisco, or Wilderness Torah treks through the desert.
I’m drawn to events like Langer’s happy hour because they have a Jewish component without being overtly religious. The SoMa Shul Happy Hour has the feeling of a shidduch-meets-booze-meets-millennial-Jews event. Arrivals are greeted with a warm welcome from a rebbetzin, Tzippy Levy-Friedman, who in her late 20s knows millennials well. She eagerly whisks single guests away into circles of kibitzing people to make introductions. Maybe, just maybe, you might meet your beshert tonight.
As a self-identifying but nonobservant Jew, I see this kind of event as a good launching pad to “doing Jewish.” Conversations at some point invariably lead to Judaism or Israel, and dating also comes up frequently. “Do you date non-Jews?” I overhear someone ask. “My mom offered to pay for JDate,” another young woman quips.
As a millennial, I am still carving out my place in the Jewish community. I don’t feel entirely at home when I’m in shul if it’s not for the High Holy Days. When I lived in Israel last year, I usually celebrated Shabbat on various rooftops in Tel Aviv with friends, debating if we should open another bottle of kosher wine. In San Francisco, I haven’t figured out which Jewish community is most comfortable for me.
The party winds down at the SoMa Shul as the supply of hors d’oeuvres and donated handles of Angel vodka dwindles. Langer and his son, Rabbi Moshe Langer, announce that Kabbalat Shabbat services are getting underway. A steady stream of people moves into the back room, divided with a mechitzah down the middle to separate men and women. An equal number of happy hour attendees quietly duck out the front door.
“A whole variety of people come to the party,” Langer told me. Declaring that the monthly gathering has “spiritual integrity,” bringing young Jews together for a lively event without religious pressure, he noted that “you can have fun, and you’re not required to stay or pay. It’s very inviting.”
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