After grieving during a week of funerals for their fellow congregants, straining to process the surreal and horrific murders at their synagogue, a group of millennials who had grown up at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha came to a stark realization: They needed to take responsibility to continue the spiritual and communal legacy of the congregation that they love.
Now, that group of about 10 twentysomethings has launched the Tree of Life Young Jewish Community, with the aim of providing connection for young Jewish adults and ensuring the continued relevance of TOL*OLS.
Today, the engagement of millennial Jews in congregational life is unusual. Only 3 percent of Jews in Pittsburgh between the ages of 18 and 34 are dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
That lack of engagement mirrors national trends. Millennials are less interested in joining Jewish institutions or observing Jewish rituals than their parents, according to a 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, which found that 32 percent of millennials self-identified as “Jews of no religion.” But after the funeral for Rose Mallinger, the last victim of the Tree of Life massacre to be buried, several young adults gathered for lunch to talk about the future of their shul.
“I grew up at Tree of Life, and I knew I wanted to get more involved than just showing up for the High Holidays,” said Andrew Exler, 29, a tax and accounting specialist, and the president of the TOLYJC group. His family are longtime members of the congregation, and his parents were married there.
“We want to keep things going,” he said.
The newly formed group will be planning social events, Shabbat dinners, educational programming and opportunities for interfaith engagement. It will be open to those ranging in age from 22 to 40.
Zach Schwartz, a 28-year-old business development professional, went to Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at TOL*OLS.
“In many ways, it was home to me and to some of the other families in the group,” said Schwartz, vice president and treasurer of TOLYJC. “It was a place of communal belonging for us, for me.”
After the events of Oct. 27, he said, “it was not even a question that we would do something; it was definite. It’s horrible to say it, but what happened drove me to action, to make sure that Tree of Life has a legacy.”
Schwartz is hoping to ensure that “the synagogue and the community as a whole has a place to come together to be Jewish.”
The fledgling group has encouragement and support from the leadership of the congregation.
“We have a wonderful group of congregants who bring energy and creativity to our synagogue,” said Sam Schachner, president of TOL*OLS. “We don’t see them simply as young adults. They are vital members of our congregation, have tremendous ideas and a passion to create change.
“I suspect that the Oct. 27 attack galvanized them to increase their involvement and make a difference as it has for many in our synagogue,” Schachner continued. “We have already added one of the members of the TOLYJC to our board of trustees, and we will do everything we can to support their efforts on behalf of the synagogue.”
Kari Semel, 26, is originally from Cleveland, but is now in town working on a graduate degree in social work at the University of Pittsburgh. She has embraced TOL*OLS as her new home.
A third-generation Jewish Federation employee — she interned at Cleveland’s Federation and then took a job at the Federation in Louisville — Semel wanted to be a part of what she sees as a pivotal step in reinvigorating the young adult Jewish scene in Pittsburgh.
“I wanted to create the community that I wanted to be a part of,” she said.
Her background in social work has clarified for her the importance of coming together as a community to heal from a trauma.
“I’m coming in as an outsider,” she said. “I’m not from here, but I’m focusing on trauma response. This is an important way for people to heal as a community. It’s a good way to reconnect with our generation and to move forward together and help each other heal.”
TOLYJC events are in the early planning stages, but organizers are committed to provide interfaith programming in connection with the International Day of Peace on Sept. 22. Held each year on Sept. 21 (which falls on a Saturday this year) the International Day of Peace is observed around the world providing a shared date for people to commit to peace.
The young adults at TOL*OLS are “uniquely positioned to be leaders” in the fight against hate speech and for religious respect, said Alana Rudkin, 29, interfaith and ritual chair of TOLYJC.
After Oct. 27, “it’s become the Tree of Life of the world, and people want to be involved,” she said. “We need to get young people together to have a stake in the game. How can we think of our synagogue as being a 21st-century synagogue?”
Rudkin, along with Schwartz, are “rallying a team of interfaith leaders and a steering committee” to plan an event in conjunction with the International Day of Peace.
“In the aftermath of Oct. 27, there was a real energy among the young people,” said Rudkin, who is a third-generation member of TOL*OLS. “We were shaken awake. At that critical time, I wanted to be part of engaging the younger demographic of Jews in the synagogue. We didn’t feel we had a stake because we went just on High Holidays.”
That is going to change, said Rudkin, a strategic communications consultant.
The new group will be finding ways looking to “serve the synagogue that always served us,” she said. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at