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The Moishe House Blog
By Ben Sattin
Recently, my two housemates and I hosted 20 young Jewish professionals from St. Petersburg, Russia in our home for Shabbat dinner, along with a small number of young Clevelanders.
Just a regular ol’ Friday night, amirite? Actually, for my housemates and I, it kind of was. We three are volunteer-residents with Moishe House Cleveland. We plan and host six events per month for the local young professional Jewish community.
Our events fall within one of four categories: social, Jewish holidays, Jewish learning, and community service. So, in many ways, we are quite accustomed to hosting such a large group of people. Just this time, most of our guests traveled a bit farther than normal to be with us.
This Friday night, like always, it was go-go-go for me and my housemates from the time we got home from work until we finished saying HaMotzi (blessing over the bread). And then we had to serve the matzo ball soup, that most Jewish of common grounds.
Eventually, I was able to stop serving and start eating, at which point I piled my plate high and sat down at the first open chair I spotted. Thusly, I found myself stuffing my face with barbecue chicken as I listened blankly to the discussion my three neighbors were having in Russian. I let them go on for a minute or two—forgive me, but I was hungry—before I, like the American they’d expect, interrupted their discussion to embark on some cross-continental bonding.
Our ensuing conversation meandered through a variety of topics: our comedic tastes in movies, American perspectives of Russia, the cleanliness of my room.
At one point, I was asked to describe what it is like to be a young Jew in Cleveland. I simply answered “exhausting,” because in any given week, there are multiple Jewish events targeted at myself and my peers, not to mention the endless number of secular activities Cleveland in general has to offer.
Abruptly, though, our conversation reached a topic that actually stumped me.
“I have a question I just need to ask,” one of my new friends began. “Is there assimilation of Jews our age in America?”
Wow. Now there’s a subject worthy of Shabbat conversation.
I had to take a moment to think before responding, and then took a little more time.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” was the insight I managed to muster. Knowing that was about as disappointing a response as possible, I tried to explain myself.
I have heard about the national studies out there describing the terrifying erosion of my generation’s connection to our Jewish roots. I recognize that we live in the era of globalization; the siren call of secularization is that much clearer now that we have 4G coverage on our smartphones.
Nevertheless, my personal experience is not this bleak. Admittedly, my perspective is quite skewed: I am very involved in the Jewish community, most of my friends are Jewish, and my social calendar revolves around Jewish events.
However, what I overwhelmingly see amongst the many young Jews that I encounter is a sincere desire to identify as being Jewish, even though we may not associate with our religion like the generations that preceded us.
For example, the night after our St. Petersburg Shabbat dinner, I went to a friend’s birthday party. This was a private party: it was not hosted by one of the myriad young professional Jewish groups in town, there were no Havdalah blessings made, no rituals practiced.
Regardless, the party was full of Jews, and we communally observed some of our people’s most ancient customs: we talked over each other, we concluded the birthday toast with a hearty “l’chaim,” and we left an hour after saying goodbye.
So while my generation may be less connected to that traditional vestige of Judaism—the synagogue—we still hold strongly to our identities as Jews.
Is this assimilation? As I initially told my St. Petersburg friend, I have no idea. I suppose much depends on your own definition of what it means to be Jewish. I am a Jew, my friends are Jews, and there are 20 Jews in St. Petersburg I now know. The old joke holds as true for us as it has for many other generations: ask a hundred of us what it means to be a Jew and you’ll still get two hundred different opinions.
But to me, that’s exactly the point; we each still have an answer explaining how we are Jewish.
My housemates and I welcome hundreds of young Jews each month at our numerous events. Up close, we see the shifting face of our generation’s connection to our religion, and I suspect that it looks different than the face of the generations that preceded us. However, what is important is that we are still coming together to form a Jewish community.
What will the face of my generation look like as it ages in the future? Of course, my answer is that I have no idea. But, for the moment, I think it’s a good start that many of us would agree that it will certainly look Jewish.
Before basketball players made it cool, Ben Sattin returned home to Cleveland after a five-year hiatus to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law, from which he graduated in 2013. Before law school, Ben earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Washington University in St. Louis and spent nine months as a volunteer in the Berlin, Germany Jewish community. Today, Ben splits his time between his actual job as an attorney with a litigation law firm and his volunteer work, serving as a volunteer-resident in Moishe House Cleveland and on various committees for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Anti-Defamation League, and Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.