It was Friday, and Chinatown was bustling with young adults ready for a night out in the District. But on the second floor of a church annex at Eighth and H streets NW, Rabbi Aaron Miller was reading to a hushed room from Exodus 24:1.
“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel ascended,” Miller said. “And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.”
Miller’s reading sparked an immediate response from the young professionals seated at tables for Metro Minyan, a monthly gathering that brings together Jewish 20- and 30-somethings.
“Why are we taking this so literally?” said one woman after Miller finished. A conversation ensued about how to apply Old Testament lessons to modern problems.
“Do we take the Bible literally or as history, or something that as Jews, grows, changes and evolves over time?” Miller asked.
The gatherings are designed to create a community for young Jewish professionals in the Washington region. Jews around the world start their Sabbath observations on Friday nights, with services that often include candles, wine and bread. Rabbis read from the Torah and offer blessings. Metro Minyan — ‘Minyan’ is a Hebrew word for prayer gathering, Miller said — offers participants a chance to connect with their peers and faith leaders in a similar fashion.
About 250 people gathered that particular Friday evening to study, sing and eat together. They discussed the Old Testament and how it applies to their lives.
Miller said a growing number of young Jewish professionals are looking for “a Jewish place to learn, pray and, of course, meet each other.” He said “every detail of the shabbat experience, from selecting Metro-accessible venues to serving Thai food,” is geared toward the city’s Jewish young adults.
Sponsored by Washington Hebrew Congregation, the group was started two years ago by 2239, an auxiliary group whose members are 22 to 39 years old.
The Metro Minyan also serves as an informal social club, Miller said. The group sponsors outings to Nationals baseball games, wine-tasting trips, and a special Purim ball and Passover seder.
“For me, Metro Minyan is an opportunity, as a young Jewish professional in D.C., to come together once a month to eat, pray, study and come together as a community,” said Marc Friend, 25, a contractor who lives in Northwest Washington. “This is a good opportunity to meet old and new friends.”
Metro Minyan organizers said that the monthly meeting is designed to help young Jewish adults connect with their heritage after they’ve left home but before they’ve started families of their own.
“I think now more than ever, recent college graduates are searching for meaning and connection in their lives,” Miller said. “For many Jews, however, engagement unfortunately stops during adolescence and restarts decades later when they have children and rejoin a congregation.”
During the January service, the attendees, who represented a mix of Jewish traditions, sang in Hebrew from the Mishkan T’Filah, a prayer book for Reform congregations: “You shall love Adonai, your God, with all your hearts, with all your soul and with all your might.”
During the study portion of Metro Minyan in January, Miller fielded questions about a lesson from Exodus. Participants also discussed what happened as Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. During a robust discussion, one participant said that it was all right if people disagreed.
“To be Jewish is to wrestle with struggle,” the woman said.
“I just think that it is incredible that you can get 200 to 250 young professionals to get together on a Friday, with everything else that is going on in this city,” said Valerie Hillman, a member of the 2239 committee as she welcomed people to the gathering, held in the annex of Calvary Baptist Church.
Seated at the table next to Hillman was committee member Matt Solomon, who said the group’s young professionals are involved in community service projects and other events across the region. “For me, it is about connecting with the community,” he said.
That, Miller said, is what he wants each participant to take from the meetings, held on the fourth Friday of the month.
“I hope that this generation of Jews are inspired and are dedicated to carry with them that Jewish spark, that Jewish spirit, whether they are here in D.C. or wherever their lives may take them,” Miller said. “That they are so moved by this experience at Metro Minyan, that no matter where they go, where they get married or the communities they end up, they strive as best they can to create what being a Jew means.”