Thursday, October 16, 2014

An Introduction to the Riverway Project

A frequent focus of blog posts: The Riverway Project

Living in Boston and studying for my PhD in the sociology of Jewish education at Brandeis University, looking for Shabbat prayer experiences and to meet people, I stumbled onto something called the Riverway Project. My second time at this 20s/ 30s experience, both times having involved living room-based, Friday-night prayer, I realized that with its portable chairs and prayerbooks, with the community it intentionally brought together repeatedly in the Cambridge/Somerville area, it would be the perfect focus for a research paper on experiential education, and then the perfect focus for a qualitative study in a research methods class, and then the perfect focus for a dissertation on the Jewish growth of adults in their twenties and thirties. My Riverway Project research was conducted not quite ten years ago, and it could be said that much about the Riverway Project has changed since then, including its director and programmatic staff. At the same time, the guiding principles and programmatic pillars of the Riverway Project are the same today, the ideas to be understood from Riverway about the structure and potential of Jewish education for this population as true now as they were then. As such, I (will) draw from it as a case of healthy and interesting experiential Jewish education throughout this blog.

The Riverway Project was developed in the early 2000s by Rabbi Jeremy S. Morrison, a new pulpit rabbi at Boston's Temple Israel. Before designing the project – in order to design the project – Morrison met with adults in their 20s and 30s throughout the Boston area to hear from them about what they wanted and what they resented in existing Jewish institutional life. He heard themes: His constituents wanted intellectual and spiritual exploration of Judaism and they wanted to build local community, to get to know others with whom they might celebrate Shabbat in their own backyards. Morrison expanded a program the synagogue was already running – Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays – and launched neighborhood-based prayer and study. At the time of my dissertation research, a few events comprised the Riverway Project's calendar:
  • Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays: A biweekly, Tuesday evening, open text study that takes place in the synagogue. Dinner begins at 6:30; study begins at 7:00 and continues until 8:00. Under Morrison’s leadership, about twenty or thirty participants studied the Torah portion of the week. 
  • Neighborhood Circles: Living-room based Friday-night prayer services and Shabbat dinners with ten to thirty participants. Like Torah and Tonics, Neighborhood Circles do not have “members” nor even consistent participants, but there are those who attend frequently and who comprise a shifting core of the Circle. 
  • Soul Food Friday: Monthly, Friday-night Shabbat services at the synagogue with a band and a Jewish soul food oneg afterward. Approximately 300 participate in an energetic prayer service. 
  • Mining for Meaning: A four-week class for ten or twelve participants located in one neighborhood that focuses deeply on several holidays, “mining” them for meaning. This has been the only serial class, with the same participants repeatedly, that the Riverway Project offers. Several times that it has been offered participants have chosen to extend the group’s meetings beyond its initial four weeks.
Additional events – Riverway Tots, for parents and children, and service opportunities, and study in local cafes – also now comprise the Riverway calendar, but these above opportunities are those mentioned most often on this blog.

The Riverway Project today is directed by Rabbi Matthew Soffer. Its website today reads its purpose as:
Through our study and ritual experiences, the Riverway Project creates opportunities for reflection and learning. Our goal is for participants to feel comfortable and connected as they explore their Jewish selves. 
And its mission is: 

"Connecting 20s and 30s to Judaism through Temple Israel."

As explored in blog posts, it is important that the Riverway Project's mission is about connecting participants to Judaism and then to Temple Israel. Riverway was and remains a uniquely structured program in the 20s/ 30s Jewish arena, a project that promotes the Jewish growth and development of participants. From that, all else that is so often in the 20s/ 30s space – friends, romantic partners, new synagogue members – will and has come. It is this focus on Jewish growth, on its participants' rich Jewish lives, that makes the Riverway Project such an interesting case for learning about the Jewish educational experiences of this population and of adults more generally.

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