Rabbi Matt Green has spent the years since his Michigan days building Jewish community in innovative ways.
Rabbi Matt Green, 30, grew up imagining the kind of Jewish community he wanted to be a part of. An Okemos native, he had a strong Jewish identity, but lived in a place where there weren’t many Jews.
“I think that when you don’t have something, you’re able to dream up what it is you want,” he said.
Green has spent the years since building Jewish community in innovative ways, from using dating apps to connect people over Shabbat dinners to curating programming for Brooklyn-based Congregation Beth Elohim’s young adult group, Brooklyn Jews.
“As I experienced Jewish community in college and beyond, places that had bigger, more established Jewish communities, I realized that my vision, or the way in which I was Jewish, and the way many of my peers were Jewish, was never really expressed in Jewish culture,” he said.
He set out to give people who might have felt invisible in communal Jewish life because of who they were or where they grew up a space to be Jewish. And so, he took on building community as a creative pursuit. “My work in general is about articulating a meaningful way to be Jewish in the 21st century,” Green told the JN.
In his current capacity as assistant rabbi at CBE, he’s working on building community around culture and civic engagement, including virtually during the pandemic.
“I believe there are many ways in which Jewish culture has been misunderstood, over the past few decades in particular,” he said. “Often people say they are ‘culturally Jewish’ to express that they don’t find much meaning in Jewish religion. I believe that culture is as serious and essential to Jewish practices as ritual and spirituality are, and I try to reflect that in the content I curate for my community.”
Green was one of about 15 Jews in his graduating class of 350 in his Lansing-area high school. He spent his youth explaining Judaism to his non-Jewish peers — his family was even on the front cover of the Lansing State Journal lighting Chanukah candles one year. He was active in Greater Lansing Temple Youth, a NFTY chapter in Lansing, where he held leadership roles in his chapter and for his region.
He got a glimpse of larger Jewish communities as part of the experience and also when he and his mother, who grew up in Farmington, would spend time in Metro Detroit.
When Green’s parents divorced and his mother moved to Ann Arbor, he relished the Shabbat mornings they spent at Zingerman’s Deli, where he devoured a corned beef sandwich and the Detroit Jewish News, which he picked up from a nearby newsstand.
“I was fascinated by this world of Jews that existed 45 minutes away. I’d imagine it while eating matzah ball soup with my mom,” he said. “I often joke that Zingerman’s is why I became a rabbi. It represents my vision for what American Judaism can and should be. It is a thriving cornucopia of culture, which is full-throatedly Jewish and expresses it through food and connection to the past.”
Moving full-time to Ann Arbor in 2008 to attend the University of Michigan, Green studied abroad his junior year in France. He discovered the family he was staying with, who he was very fond of, didn’t like Jews. They’d talk about how the Holocaust was overblown and scoff whenever Israel would come up in the news.
He never had the courage to tell them he was Jewish, but the experience made him more aware of his Judaism, he said. “Against that backdrop as I was abroad, as many people do, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life.”
He decided to attend rabbinical school instead of law school, and changed the focus of his studies, rearranging his schedule to take an introductory Hebrew course. He graduated from Michigan with a major in history and a minor in political science, and after graduation worked at U-M Hillel as a Berman Fellow, where he met with students, developed programming and honed in on engagement.
“Both my experience in Ann Arbor meeting all different kinds of Jews my own age, and then essentially working for Jews my own age at Hillel that year, gave me an insight into how millennial Jews understand themselves: what they like, what they might like and what the Jewish community might offer them,” Green said.
He spent the first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem and returned to New York in the fall of 2014 to finish his program. When he moved to NYC after Jerusalem, he was single and on the gay dating app Grindr, where people were fascinated by the fact that he was becoming a rabbi.
“So many people expressed that they were into being Jewish, but they didn’t really have a place to call their Jewish home,” Green said.
So he launched Grindr Shabbat as a way to create Jewish meaning in the context that they were living and shifted his profile to focus on organizing Shabbat dinners. The program was a huge hit. “I think one of the successes of Grindr Shabbat is simply that it’s called ‘Grindr Shabbat,’” he said. “You know from the name it’s not going to be the ‘same old, same old,’ and I think that’s really the point.”
He became a rabbinic intern at CBE in 2015, and continued Grindr Shabbat until fall 2016. Many people who’d been involved in it followed him to Brooklyn Jews, a chavurah offering services, learning and social experiences, which had been under CBE’s umbrella since 2007.
Green became an assistant rabbi at CBE in 2018 after he was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Now, entering his third year as assistant rabbi at CBE, he’s running the New Jewish Culture Fellowship, which invites artists to create new content to be consumed communally and, in turn, builds programming for people who call themselves secular, cultural Jews.
Funded by UJA Federation, the fellowship was designed to give grants to emerging Jewish artists so they could meet other Jewish artists, study texts together and then produce related content for the community. The cohort of six is currently meeting over Zoom. They study with Green and a creative director over the course of a year.
Green said he’s also worked to incorporate more opportunities to engage with secular Jewish writing, such as when he interviewed novelist Nathan Englander on Shavuot. Brooklyn Jews has a Jewish book club.
Building Community During a Pandemic
Now, with a pandemic underway, Green has had to use his creativity to address the realities of a society in which people cannot gather in person for communal prayer, meals and other shared cultural experiences.
“Even when we can’t gather, people really want to be able to see one another’s faces, really want to meet with one another, to see old friends and to gather socially,” he said. “My sense is that this time has allowed me to distill all of these things, both the importance of my interpersonal relationships and of teaching, to offer people a different world and to allow people to connect with one another.”
The culinary experience he’d planned for Passover had to be canceled. They did a seder on Zoom instead. Weddings he was set to officiate have been postponed. “The whole purpose of being a rabbi is to be present with people, and especially when we’re thinking about synagogue life … It’s all about gathering, and that’s exactly what we can’t do,” he said.
However, he’s moved what would have been in-person conversations and classes online and is also running Friday night services on Zoom.
He’s used the opportunity to bring people within CBE closer together by having synagogue members check on one another and make sure their needs are met, especially older members, and has seen participants in Brooklyn Jews embrace Shabbat with more gusto.
“What’s interesting to them is to organize Shabbat dinners among themselves, where they can interact by Zoom or FaceTime,” he said. “So, I’m helping them as they make Shabbat something they own.
“I think [the pandemic] has allowed us to really figure out what’s important in building a community,” he continued. “The programming is important and central to articulating what it means to be Jewish today, but it also offered an opportunity to just check in on people.”
Trends that were already under way in the American Jewish community are being accelerated by the pandemic and related economic crisis, he said. Many American Jews are reevaluating the value of belonging to a synagogue and also what it means to do so, especially when they can’t meet in person.
“I know across the country, many of my colleagues are seeing a decline in synagogue membership and obviously that’s because of coronavirus, but realistically that began a long time ago. COVID has sped all of that up,” he said.
As for their broader Jewish experience, people are increasingly bringing Jewish home during the pandemic. Shabbat dinner has become more central, with people sometimes Zooming friends in to join them. So has consuming Jewish culture via books, television and film, and new hobbies such as studying Hebrew or Yiddish, he said. “It’s something to do right now, and we no longer have the excuse that we’re so busy.”
Some synagogues have already radically shifted their membership structures, he added, noting that Brooklyn Jews takes payments for certain events and donations, but doesn’t have a traditional membership structure.
With the High Holidays right around the corner, individuals and communities are having to think about what people really want for their High Holiday experience.
“I think one thing people really want is familiarity. I think people want to see the familiar faces of their clergy,” Green said.
But again, there could be opportunity in store, he added, explaining that he’s working on developing not only a conventional Zoom service for people who want that experience, but also working with a film production company to create two 45-minute videos that will serve as reflections on the High Holidays.
“As much as I love the 1,500 people that come and it feels so amazing, what these videos will offer is a different kind of full expression of what I want Brooklyn Jews to do,” he said. “The opportunity to do something different, something I always wanted to do, is exciting, even if it comes at the expense of the thing I love most, which is High Holiday services.”
With his community spread around the United States during the pandemic, he’s seeing people Zoom in at home in Michigan, the New York suburbs and beyond. There’s always been some migration in and out of the community as people enter different life phases and move away or back to Detroit, he said. However, with the pandemic and increasing shift online, its stickiness and ability to resonate with young Jews is now importantly more portable than ever, as are its lessons valuable for building communities near and far.
“Brooklyn Jews is not rocket science. It’s literally just a millennial rabbi crafting community for millennial Jews,” he said. “And one really important thing in understanding how to build community for this demographic is it has to come from somebody — likely a rabbi or another Jewish professional — who is of the demographic.”
Brooklyn Jews demonstrates that there’s enough value in crafting Jewish content that people will pay for it, and it has the ability to pay for itself, he said. It also has the ability to help lay a foundation for the Jewish future.
“In the same way synagogues argue that a religious school is an investment in the Jewish future, investing in young adult programming — crafting community for young Jews, especially if it is allowing them to craft it for themselves — it’s allowing Judaism for the next generation to take shape,” he said. “It’s likely not going to be exactly the same as the synagogues of our parents, but it’s essential, if the Jewish community is going to continue, that young Jews have to be given free rein to experiment and build something new.”