Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh is new in town but brings a wealth of passion to the role.
For the time being, Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh is still uncomfortable with being referred to as The Well’s new executive director.
“Who am I to embody this thing?” he asks. “I’ve only just arrived. I’m trying to keep it floating. I haven’t actually built anything yet.”
But Stombaugh is, indeed, the new head of this Metro Detroit initiative for Jewish young adult social activity, an organization that has earned national accolades for its innovative approach to living Jewishly and just wrapped its annual “Build the Well” fundraising campaign.
The Seattle native arrived in Detroit this summer to start his new job fresh from a two-year rabbinical fellowship in Chicago and has faced three daunting challenges at once.
First, he and his wife, Stephanie Belsky, are starting over in a new city; second, they’ve been handed the keys to a still-young and experimental young Jewish group directly from its beloved founding director; and third, they’ve had to do all this as COVID-19 has severely restricted their ability to conduct outreach or even familiarize themselves with their new home.
“Stephanie and I are equally eager for this chapter of the pandemic to end so that we can really be present,” Stombaugh said. “In a community where everybody seems to know everybody, we are the new kids — and we just can’t wait to meet everybody.”
A Mission In Transition
When Rabbi Daniel Horwitz first partnered with Rabbi Paul Yedwab at Temple Israel to form The Well in 2015, they had grand ambitions at play.
Among them: If The Well proved to be a success with its unique model of forming informal Jewish communities around “shared interest groups,” they believed its model could be exported to other metropolitan areas around the country.
By 2019, The Well was turning out more than 1,700 unique attendees per year to its gatherings, of which there were 350 in a single year.
So, it was a surprise to many when Horwitz announced, in January of this year, that he was leaving The Well and Detroit to become the CEO of Alper JCC in Miami.
The announcement came amid a huge honor for The Well, as it was selected as a “10 to Watch” organization by Slingshot, a national group of young Jewish philanthropists. The Well had also secured a five-year continuation grant from local philanthropist Lori Talsky, which would ensure its survival after the expiration of the initial four-year pilot grant that got Horwitz’s vision off the ground.
But “I was ready for a new challenge,” Horwitz told the JN.
More than that, the 36-year-old Horwitz felt that he was moving out of the key life stage The Well was set up to attract. His children are now school-aged, and The Well intentionally doesn’t provide Hebrew school.
“I believe one of the reasons I was successful in the role was that I was in a shared life stage with many of the participants and could completely relate to the challenges and opportunities present in their lives,” he said. “Given that The Well’s design is not to continue on through the life-stages, but rather to serve a young adult and young family population, knowing that my own family was ‘aging out’ helped me know it was time to take the next step.”
The Well, arguably Horwitz’s biggest legacy in Detroit, would now have to figure out a way forward without its founding director. But operations manager Marisa Meyerson, who has stayed on for both Horwitz’s tenure and Stombaugh’s, knew the transition was part of the mission.
“As an organization that really champions the idea of innovation, we are always interested in change,” she said. “Anyone who’s in that role is going to champion innovation and progress.”
To replace the passion and vibrancy that Horwitz brought to the role, The Well would need a singular figure to step up into the director’s seat. When the 35-year-old Stombaugh came in for an interview, Yedwab said, it was clear from the outset he was that figure.
“It’s like getting someone from the major leagues,” Yedwab said. “Jeff is the opposite of an alienating personality. It’s hard not to be drawn into his sphere.”
A New Leader
Stombaugh grew up in an interfaith household in the Seattle suburb of Kenmore. His Jewish mother founded an independent Jewish day school in Seattle, where Stombaugh himself would work as an educator after college; his father was originally from Garden City, Mich., and converted to Judaism later in life.
Stombaugh had a strong Reform Jewish upbringing that was also interspersed with spiritual aspects from Buddhism and Daoism. After participating in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, his Jewish identity “blossomed,” and he set off on a path toward professional spiritual leadership that took him through Hebrew Union College and a stint in Los Angeles working at the University of Southern California Hillel.
While in LA, Stombaugh met Belsky on the dating app Hinge. Stephanie, an expert in digital media outreach, had helped launch the marketing department for the popular online comedy platform CollegeHumor.
They matched right before the High Holidays, every rabbi’s busiest time of year, so their second date was breakfast on Erev Rosh Hashanah morning. That was also when Stombaugh told her he might not be in LA the following year. And in fact, eight months later he was selected to become a rabbinical fellow at Mishkan Chicago, a progressive experimental congregation that was seeing rapid expansion among young adult Jews looking for an alternative to the traditional synagogue model.
That could have been the end. But ultimately, Belsky decided to come to Chicago with Jeff. The rest, as they say, is history.
At Mishkan, Stombaugh’s talent for connecting with people shone through. “He’s really easy to talk to,” Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, Mishkan’s founder and spiritual leader, told the JN. “He genuinely does care about people’s lives.” Heydemann noted Stombaugh was especially adept at crafting videos and web content for Mishkan — an important skill for maintaining Judaism during a pandemic.
In 2020, as Stombaugh’s fellowship with Mishkan was wrapping up, the position at The Well became available. He and Belsky paid a visit to Detroit for the interview, where, says Yedwab, both of them wowed the selection committee.
At the airport on the way back, Stombaugh recalled, “both of us were really looking at each other and felt, in our kishkes, like there’s something here that we really like … This is the next place to be.”
Stombaugh accepted the job. The couple moved to Royal Oak in the summer and Belsky now works for Gyro Creative, a strategic brand identity and design studio based in Detroit. They have begun their new lives as Jewish Detroit leaders.
Those involved with The Well say that, while Horwitz and Stombaugh have very different visions and leadership styles, they are united in their desire to make The Well great.
And the two have become friendly, too — bonding over the shared experience of moving to new cities mid-pandemic for jobs that involve Jewish relationship-building.
Central to Stombaugh’s approach? A belief in lowering the barrier to entry for Jewish life.
“You don’t have to have the right things, you don’t have to know all the words to be Jewish,” he says. “You can create meaningful Jewish experiences with the things you have around you.”
This is the kind of messaging that Yedwab believes will resonate with young Jewish adults who may see traditional membership as too old-fashioned or too regimented. He views The Well as “a feeder system” for eventual synagogue membership: a chance to convince Jewish young adults that there is value in gathering somewhere as a Jewish community and encourage them to explore traditional membership once they start raising families.
Though The Well is “a project of” Temple Israel, the two take pains to distance from each other in most of their branding — they don’t refer to The Well’s participants as “members,” and they don’t want anyone to get the impression it is a synagogue or affiliated with any specific one.
Though Yedwab expects that Temple Israel would “get our fair share” of The Well’s graduates, he says the program is intended to lift all Detroit-area congregations. “We hope every congregation grows, 10 years or 15 years down the line, because there was a Well to keep those Jews interested in Judaism.”
An eye on membership is also why Yedwab gives The Well two stipulations about their programming: no High Holiday services and no bar mitzvahs. Those, he says, are the domain of formal congregations. Everything else, though, is fair game.
That’s no problem for The Well, which under Horwitz built its model around nontraditional ways to “do Jewish.” The program’s core model is “shared interest groups,” in which a group of people can come together with The Well’s guidance over just about any passion, so long as they can find a way to incorporate Judaism into it.
Shared interest groups were designed to reinvent the concept of a chavurah, a small group of like-minded Jews, and can include anything from bagel-making to one of Stombaugh’s passions, mixology. But they’re all really a means to an end to “do Jewish.”
Meyerson said The Well treats the interest itself as “the mechanism that gets certain people in a room together, where then the interest becomes spending time with each other and learning about each other.”
The Well also hosts some traditional worship services. Stombaugh has organized events including a virtual “Friendsgiving Shabbat” and an in-person “Tiny Tashlich” for Rosh Hashanah. There is a monthly “Tot Shabbat” service geared toward families of young children who are not yet school-age.
In a sign that young families will continue to play a crucial role in The Well, the organization recently hired Marni Katz as its new family educator. Yedwab says he hopes to add an outreach director once fundraising comes through. Previously, The Well shared office space with the Jewish News in Southfield, but that ended with Horwitz’s departure and the staff currently has no formal office space.
Of course, like every other organization built on in-person interaction, The Well has struggled to continue connecting its participants due to COVID-19.
“Here, I hired this amazing cheverman (a Yiddish term for an active, social leader). And he’s stuck not being able to do what he does best, which is drawing people to him,” Yedwab said.
Stombaugh and Meyerson have done what they can to keep The Well’s communal spirit going. When the weather was warmer, Stombaugh held Shabbats and other small gatherings in his backyard.
For Chanukah this year, they made and distributed “The Well’s Hanukkah Box,” packages containing goodies and activities to keep folks busy for all eight nights, with a social component, as well. Among them: a set of Bananagrams for a virtual tournament of the word game, and a kit for making sufganiyot (with Stombaugh and Belsky hosting a virtual cooking demo in their kitchen).
The Well’s team hand-delivered many of the boxes to the community themselves. Meyerson says they are exploring a similar model for Passover.
At the core of The Well’s strategy is working to counter the perception of a larger generational anxiety about the future of Detroit’s Jewish community, as synagogue membership declines and mainstream Jewish institutions struggle to engage young adults in the post-college demographic. But Stombaugh says this isn’t a new concern.
“The Jewish people are always worried about the next generation of Jewish people,” he said. “And so it’s on us, the Jewish community, to educate and curate and be present for and relate and translate this tradition to the next generation, as we have always done.”
And the building is just getting started.