Charm City Tribe restoring tradition to Baltimore's young Jewish community

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Rabbi Jessy Gross of Baltimore organizes events to connect the community and works individually with young people to help them identify their stance on Judaism.

Following religious values taught as a youth can be difficult for many when entering adulthood, but Charm City Tribe, a two-year-old program in the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, aspires to reconnect people in their 20s and 30s to Judaic practices they may have lost along the road to independence.

Local families funded a three-year grant initiative to reach non-Orthodox young Jewish adults and generate positive attitudes toward Jewish culture.


Director of the program Rabbi Jessy Gross organizes events to connect the community and works individually with young people to help them identify their stances on Judaism.

"It's more like an art teacher than a math teacher," she says. After six years of religious studies, she moved from California to Baltimore to help form the organization.


According to a 2013 Pew study, 26 percent of U.S. Jews say religion is an important aspect of their lives. The study also says religious disaffiliation is just as common among all U.S. Jewish young adults ages 18-29 as it is in younger millenials.

In a 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, just 14 percent of non-Orthodox respondents 18-29 said being a part of a Jewish community was important to them compared with 43 percent of non-Orthodox respondents older than 35. Gross, who is part of the millennial generation, battled with how to take on her Jewish journey as a teen.

"I spent a bunch of years trying to talk myself out of rabbinical school," says Gross. "I feel at some point it became more radical to go to rabbinical school than a Phish tour."

Gross refers to what she does as "Jewish experimentation," finding innovative ways to tap into the younger Jewish generation.

The organization strives to help young Jewish people find their "rhythm of music" by keeping up with the Jewish calendar and holidays and traditions, building the Shabbat community on Fridays and Saturdays through traditional Shabbat dinners and helping them to stay committed to cultural behaviors and practices.

Members of Charm City Tribe reach out to prospective members by making themselves visible with public acts. The program set up in Fells Point, Federal Hill and Canton with a disco ball and other festive decorations to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday. The event was open to anyone in the neighborhoods who wanted to learn about the holiday meaning and traditions.

Sarah Edelsburg, now a member of Charm City Tribe, heard about the program through her B'nai Israel congregation.

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"It's made me feel a lot more integrated and comfortable in the city," says Edelsburg, a New York native. "I'm also constantly meeting new people, and that's so great for me."


The program also reaches out through a Jewish Community Center web page and Facebook. Members not only engage through religious practices, but also through social outings. In other efforts to spread the mission of Charm City Tribe, Gross takes to blogs and writes essays on several Jewish sites.

One of Charm City Tribe's recurring programs is "4 Rabbis, 5 Opinions." Four rabbis, including Gross, Daniel Burg, conservative rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue, Eitan Mintz, Modern Orthodox rabbi of B'nai Israel Congregation and John Snyder, the executive director of Goucher Hillel, a program for Jewish students at Goucher College, discuss some of the most controversial topics in religion and life, and share their different ideologies.

"Our goal should not be sameness," writes Gross about "4 Rabbis 5 Opinions" in an essay for the Center for Jewish People Publication. "A Jew unwilling to hear opinions different from his/her own stands in the way of becoming a stronger Jewish people."

Gross believes there is a generational shift in full commitment and practice to religious traditions, but it's necessary to find a way to bridge the gap.

"There's a lot of skeptics among my peers. … We have to learn how, and some of us have to really commit to it."

Charm City Tribe's next gathering, a community seder to celebrate Passover, is scheduled for Tuesday at Area 405 Gallery, 405 E. Oliver St. in Baltimore. For more tickets and information, go to