Photo of Rabbi Aaron Miller playing the guitar at Metro Minyan

What inspired you to create Metro Minyan – the flagship program of Washington Hebrew’s Young Professional Group, “2239”?

2239 has been thriving for 15 years. It started as a way to engage Washington Hebrew’s young professionals in dedicated young professionals programming. Our flagship program, Metro Minyan, began about four years ago. It is a once a month Shabbat experience, the largest of its kind in the Reform movement.

When I got to DC, one of the things we quickly realized was that there weren’t a lot of Reform options, especially for impactful Jewish content. There were a lot of happy hours, kickball teams, and social events that Reform Jews could go to and feel like an authentic part of their community, but as far as religious expression goes there weren’t a lot of good options out there for Jews on the margins. The vast majority of DC’s Jewish community identifies as Reform, so we wanted to create a religious experience where Reform Jews could feel authentic and appreciated and in a space they could call their own. So we created Metro Minyan as a Reform Shabbat, specifically for Millennial Jews.

In what ways do you and 2239 engage with Jewish young professionals on a regular basis?

My favorite program is Metro Minyan, as I mentioned, our monthly Shabbat initiative. The question behind Metro Minyan is “how can we create a compelling, rich, vibrant Jewish experience where we cram as much Judaism as we can into a Friday night, and how can we make Judaism the draw for what brings people there?” Metro Minyan begins around 6:15 with “Shot of Torah”, basically a Torah Study over drinks. We have a happy hour setup, people come in, grab drinks and a copy of the Torah portion, and we do a really deep dive into the parsha. After “Shot of Torah”, we begin our Friday night service. The service is filled with singing, and we bring in a professional song leader from New York, who is fantastic. The service has this resonance to it, that even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the melodies you’re able to participate in a really full way. And then afterwards we have dinner, which is catered by any number of excellent restaurants in DC. We just had Indian food from one of my favorite Indian restaurants here in the city, and we’ve done Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean, etc, and it’s almost always a terrific meal. We try to make even a Shabbat dinner, which is a very social thing, a very Jewish experience as well. Before we eat, we light candles together, say kiddish together, we do motzi together, we have conversation starters at every table that help people to get to really know each other, and we sing birkat hamazon together at the end. We then partner with a local bar to keep the social component going even after the Jewish event is done. That’s Metro Minyan in a nutshell.

We also do other events, intensive Jewish learning with “12 Jewish Questions” and other social events that we do about once a month. So typically there’s a social event about once a month, and then Metro Minyan once a month as well.

How do you connect the traditional and the modern to talk with today’s young professionals about Judaism?

One of the things that we try to do with 2239 is root the modern Jewish experience in an ancient tradition, and one of the ways that we do that is through what is very much a modern Shabbat experience. Shabbat is one of the most Jewish institutions there is, and by creating Metro Minyan as a Millennial experience, for Reform Jews, we have redefined what it means to celebrate Shabbat. It’s more than a Shabbat dinner, and there are a lot of great Shabbat dinners out there. What we want to do is give people a sense of real and deep Jewish authenticity, through study and prayer that infuses the entire Metro Minyan experience. So we’ve taken these very ancient customs, and have brought them out of our congregation’s halls (we actually meet in churches along DC’s metro lines). We’ve really tried to modernize what a Shabbat observance could mean, but the Jewish pieces remain the same. I hope people rediscover their Jewish identities through Metro Minyan, whether it’s through the learning or the music, or the dinner afterwards, and I hope that Judaism comes to mean a little more with each Jewish experience Millennials share with us.

Are there any innovative approaches you’ve taken and seen work well, and how has social media played into your work?

2239 would not be nearly as successful as it is today without social media. Social media has been huge, with Facebook and with Twitter, and with all kinds of other ways that we’ve been able to promote and get the message out, beyond just word of mouth. Social media, though, is really just a launch pad to real human connection. The goal of social media is not just to have a conversation online, but also to get people into the same physical space, which, especially in the age of social media, is so desperately needed. People are craving face-time and community, and our use of social media is to get people in a space where they can celebrate Judaism with other Millennials who are looking to do the same.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Most of 2239’s best ideas have been offered by our Steering Committee. What makes 2239 terrific, and really outstanding, is that we have recruited some of the most dynamic and creative minds in DC to develop and lead the programs that make our work so great. At every Metro Minyan, we have a newcomer’s table or two that is staffed and led by our Steering Committee of lay volunteers. This idea came from our steering committee, and it’s a great way, when you’re new to Metro Minyan and if you’re new to DC, to meet other people who are new. NextPage, our 2239 reading initiative, also came from our Steering Committee. Our Steering Committee allows us to consult with some of the most creative and passionate Jewish Millennials around, and our success is our collective vision for Judaism come to life.

Are there any leaders you especially admire?

I especially admire my grandfather, of blessed memory. He was a rabbi with no small measure of chutzpah. There was a courage about his rabbinate that I really admire. Not just in steering his congregation- which he did for decades of his life- he was also a national voice in social action. He was one of the Jewish voices leading the fight against segregation. He went down to the South in the 50’s and 60’s more times than I could count. He was beaten, shot at, and arrested, but he was passionate about the Jewish values that made the Civil Rights movement a fight worth fighting. At every juncture in American history, he was able to summon not only his Jewish tradition, but also the courage and bravery to fight the fights that needed fighting. And he was able to inspire his congregation behind most of these causes as well. I believe that he not only made our country more just and compassionate, but that he inspired his Jewish community to be more just and compassionate as well.

I know you recently became a father, and congratulations by the way, how has fatherhood changed your perspective on leadership, managing time, engaging with young people, etc?

Well, thank you! When you are a dad there is never enough time to do all of the things you want to do. So one of the things I’ve discovered through being a dad is that you have to prioritize and you have to prioritize strategically. One of the things I think that has really helped me in thinking about Millennial engagement is that you don’t have to be a dad to be really busy. My whole life is Jewish, but when you’re working with Millennials, you’re working with people who have social and work commitments, academic pressures, hobbies, passions, and not a lot of time. They’re prioritizing too. Being a father has taught me that priorities matter, and the only way we can get Judaism to be a priority is to make it matter, to make it different enough that people can’t get it anywhere else. Millennials are already going to happy hours, they’re already going to museums, they’re already doing these things but they’re not doing Jewish- not yet, at least. So we’re looking to offer additional color and texture to their busy lives and to make Judaism something that is worth it, worth coming back to, and worth bringing their friends.

If you weren’t a rabbi what would you be doing?

Applying to rabbinical school!

If not that, I think I would be a teacher. There’s a kind of satisfaction that comes from walking with someone as they discover something new. Rabbi, after all, means teacher. When you are able to teach and when you are able to guide someone along a learning journey, you have the ability to have a profound impact on how people understand themselves and understand the world.

And if had to choose a grade to teach, I would probably teach at a university level. I think college is especially an age when people are considering new ways of thinking. Most of them, for the first time, are discovering a higher level of learning and engagement with the world. And I feel like the best of what Judaism has to offer, and has had to offer for the past 3000 years, is written by and for Jewish adults. So to be a part of someone’s religious journey, as they’re first exploring religion from an adult lens, would be a privilege.

If you and your wife could take the day off to go anywhere in the DC area, and have an amazing babysitter, where would you go?

First of all, we have amazing babysitters! My brother and sister live in DC, and about 20 cousins as well.

If Lauren and I could design a perfect day I think it would include a hike at Billy Goat Trail, and assuming we had made reservations months in advance, end with dinner at Rasika.

What books do you recommend for good summer reading? 

It’s not a light read, but it is the High Holiday season, so every summer I read This is Real and You’re Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew. It’s a book about the season leading up to and including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s a transformative book and I read it every year. It also helps me get into High Holiday sermon writing mode.

What is your favorite kosher restaurant in the DC area? 

I actually think there’s only one! It’s called Char Bar.

I also just found out there’s also a kosher food truck. A GW student started it, which is amazing, and I’m excited to give it a try.

What goals do you and 2239 have for the next year?

The next stage of 2239 is to create some national momentum. We’re thrilled that our numbers are high, and we’re especially thrilled that our success is from an event as Jewish as Metro Minyan. But the real success for us will be when other congregations in other cities are able to establish their own thriving professionals’ communities. Through our work, we’ve been able to pioneer a sustainable and effective model for creating lifelong Jewish connections for Millennial Jews. Other congregations around the country are really beginning to do the same as they’re pivoting from exclusively social events to real, deep, and transformative religious content. We’ve started working with rabbis all over the country, and the Reform Movement as a whole, to expand the 2239 model of engagement as something that could affect not just Jews in DC, but Jews throughout the country.