Growing up in Atlanta, I was just about as involved in Jewish life as you could get.
I attended Hebrew school until I graduated from high school. (Yep, my friends said, “I didn’t know there still WAS Hebrew school!) I also taught Hebrew school, read Torah at my synagogue, was heavily involved in BBYO and attended Camp Barney for 15 years. And that doesn’t include keeping kosher at home, holding weekly Shabbat dinners and attending seders with my family.
I was in a Jewish sorority, became involved in Hillel as a student and went on to work for Hillel for three years after I graduated. It wasn’t until I moved back to Atlanta at age 25 that I found myself lost on my Jewish journey and less connected to the Jewish community than I had ever been in my life.
I tried to get involved. I attended events. I reached out and tried to volunteer for leadership roles. But I just couldn’t find my place in the community. I never found somewhere that I felt I belonged.
So I gave up. I just decided that I had no choice but to be disconnected (not to mention disappointed). I was bitter and cynical. And so went my 20s.
But a few years later, a dear friend challenged me and inspired me.
“What if you could do something about it?” she asked.
So in May 2013 I gathered a handful of people in my living room for a focus group to talk about my idea to start a Jewish organization in Atlanta for young adults.
The conversation included reflections on negative experiences we’d had in the Jewish community. As participants shared their stories, this focus group quickly turned into a therapy session.
We heard from someone who felt judged when she attended a Jewish event. She felt like an outsider.
Another participant’s Jewish education taught him that there is only one right way to be Jewish, and everything else is wrong.
We listened to a young woman who went to shake the hand of a rabbi who is shomer negiah (someone who refrains from physical contact with members of the opposite sex), and his reaction was so upsetting to her that she never returned to that organization’s events. She “did not belong” there.
We heard, “My parents forced me to go to Hebrew school” and “I hate going to synagogue.” Our peers repeatedly shared stories of feeling judged, feeling guilty and feeling left out.
While it pains me to know that people had these traumatic Jewish experiences, we found comfort in knowing that we were not alone. Through these conversations, we developed the core values and guiding principles for an initiative.
It became clear that young Jews were thirsty for a place of belonging that was welcoming and nonjudgmental, where we could decide for ourselves how to be Jewish and do Jewish.
What started out with 19 people in my living room is now a nonprofit organization called The Sixth Point, an independent, nondenominational Jewish community for young adults in their 20s and 30s.
We recently observed Shabbat with dinner and carnival games at Skyline Park on the rooftop of Ponce City Market. We once sang Havdalah at Atlanta Food Truck Park. Why not celebrate Simchat Torah with an improv comedy troupe attempting to perform the entire Torah in 60 minutes? (Not hypothetical — we actually did that.)
We commemorate Tisha B’Av by volunteering at a charity — our way of rebuilding in the face of destruction. We make our own hamantaschen and our own Chanukah candles. Through all these experiences, we have made memories, formed bonds and built friendships that have created a strong Jewish community.
Today, the stories we hear are much different:
- “For the first time since I was a kid, I found what I was looking for — an independent Jewish community that made me feel wanted, included, valued and not judged.”
- “I consider myself lucky to have found such a warm and welcoming group of people at the Sixth Point, who have helped me find my own way to do Jewish.”
Young adulthood is a time of self-discovery and independence. We are trying to understand who we are and determine who we want to be. The Sixth Point helps young people find their way along that journey.
In the end, no matter our age, it’s up to each of us to find our comfort level and create our own personal Jewish identity.
If you value and believe in what we’re doing, I invite you to show your support with a donation at thesixthpoint.org. If you’re a young adult who is interested, check out our Rosh in the Park alternative to services on Saturday, Sept. 23, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. More details at thesixthpoint.org.
Michelle Levy is the founder and CEO of The Sixth Point (thesixthpoint.org).