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Alumni “Meeting Young Adults Where They Are”: GatherDC and the High Holidays

By Josh Polanski

“Prepping for the High Holidays by having a month for introspection and questioning has completely changed my relationship with the chagim,” said Rabbi Ilana Zietman ’19, the community Rabbi at GatherDC based in Washington. “I no longer feel as overwhelmed by the idea that I only have a few days to do teshuva or else I’m screwed for the year.”

As Jewish communities around the world make-ready for the High Holidays, our rabbinical and cantorial alumni prepare their synagogues and communities for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur through creative programming for the month of Elul. For Zietman and GatherDC, this means “meeting young adults where they are.”

Wanting young D.C. Jews to feel “not alone in the things they are struggling with and/or hoping for” and recognizing that the city has a healthy and diverse set of established High Holiday services, GatherDC uses creative and alternative ways to connect people to each other and Jewish traditions.

“Sometimes people have obstacles to being able to do those things like intense work schedules, a loss of where to start given all the options, feeling like they can’t do it themselves, being unsure of who to celebrate with if they can’t or don’t want to go home for the holidays, and if they will be welcomed into Jewish spaces, among others,” said Zietman.

“To help people overcome these obstacles, we offer experiences that are after work hours, curated and non-traditional (or at least, are seemingly so, but are of course inspired by Jewish tradition!),” Zietman continued. “This includes our annual High Holiday Deep Dive cohort throughout the month of Elul, which is a spiritual exploration of the hard, essential life questions the chagim ask of us.”

A woman sitting in grass on a blanket. She is pointing to the mask on her face.
Rabbi Ilana Zietman in a GatherDC shirt and a cloth face mask.

GatherDC’s Elul and High Holiday plans include inviting individuals to host Rosh Hashanah seders, partnering with OneTable and Haggadot.com to provide informative background about the ritual meal and provide resources to connect with peers. Plans also feature an offering of Tashlich rituals at major DC area waterfronts, and an annual Alt YK non-service 2-hour service the morning of Yom Kippur. Alt YK takes place at a popular DC area concert venue and “will feature thematic storytelling, Torah learning, letter writing and journaling, music, and a creative art element to help people think about where they’ve been, where they are, and where they hope to be,” said Zietman.

After the Alt YK experience, GatherDC will host a lunch-in for those unable to fast for a variety of reasons. “We want to normalize and honor this personal decision rather than keep it hush hush,” Zietman said. “So we are offering a lunch meetup after our Alt YK experience for people who want to find others who are also going to be eating on the day and provide them with a Jewish intention-setting ritual so that their Yom Kippur meal can feel holy and a part of the day’s meaning itself.”

A board labeled "found" with a plethora of sticky notes attached to it. A woman is standing at the board, adding a new note.

In a few weeks, the non-profit organization will also publish their annual comprehensive DMV High Holiday Guide to help people navigate the High Holiday offerings in and around the city. After the creation of the guide, the organization plans to look internally to ask what gaps they can fill themselves.

Because engagement is a large part of the work of GatherDC, they will be undertaking a massive campaign “to reach back out to every individual we’ve lost touch with this past year to reconnect, hear how they’re doing, and wish them a happy new year.”

If you are in the D.C. area for the High Holidays, more information is available at https://gatherdc.org/.

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