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Robert Lester found love in the front row of a classroom at the Jewish Community Center. It was about seven weeks into an eight-week series of instruction on cabala, the academic study of Jewish mystical traditions that is rapidly gaining fans across the country. As Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi, the young, charismatic teacher partly responsible for cabala's popularity in San Francisco, held forth, Lester grew frustrated waiting for an opportunity to break in with a question. At a pause in Zarchi's presentation, a woman in the front row raised her hand, and asked about the exact same thing Lester had been struggling with, which had to do with the essence of God and the concept of man's free will.
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Lester added his thoughts. After class, he and the woman talked more about the issue. They're still talking -- they've been dating for six months.
Mind you, Robert Lester didn't enter the JCC looking for love. He was really looking for spiritual enlightenment, and some smart people with whom to explore Judaism. But it's not particularly surprising that he found a budding relationship. Such things are encouraged.
Religion has moved into the urban social scene in a big way. The thirtysomething -- and almost thirtysomething -- crowd in particular appears to be flocking to classes and social activities that challenge their minds, stretch their spirituality, and connect them to like-minded folks. Leaders of all faiths have been acting on a well-documented, collective worry about religious apathy. The challenge, of course, has been figuring out how to reach the 25-to-40 crowd, people who are typically between college and family and not particularly interested in traditional faith-based activities.
The answer, in San Francisco anyway, seems to be decidedly nontraditional: Beef up the content, and promote with guerrilla marketing. In the process, people are bound to connect with one another.
"People don't want to be branded or labeled as singles," explains Yossi Offenberg, Jewish program manager at the JCC. "You can choose to meet someone, but still get substance without pressure."
Four years ago, the JCC board began to re-evaluate the organization's programs, which were mostly dances, Hebrew classes, and various activities for children. A year later, Offenberg arrived on the scene, full of energy and expectation. After moving to the Bay Area from his native Toronto -- home to a bustling Jewish community -- he'd been sorely disappointed with San Francisco's offerings. A film teacher, Offenberg offered a JCC class analyzing film from a Jewish perspective. When only one student showed up, he taught the class anyway. And then Offenberg turned his frustration with the low turnout into a full-time job, one that now includes an assistant and a small army of volunteers.
"I thought about, 'What would I want to go to?'" explains 35-year-old Offenberg. "And, what's working in other places?"
Taking a page from places like the 92nd Street Y in New York City, a hub of Jewish cultural activity, and the Chai Center in Los Angeles, Offenberg revved up the San Francisco JCC's calendar. This fall brought a record registration of 500 people coming to 60 different classes and events.
The offerings are mostly educational, but with plenty of spin. For example, basic Judaism is titled "Why Be a Jew?" And then there's "The Darth Vader Within: Meeting Our Darker Side" and "The Five Levels of Pleasure."
The ongoing cabala classes fill up, with about 30 people for each four- to eight-week series, thanks mostly to word- of-mouth and an odd boost from Hollywood (Madonna, among others, is reportedly studying cabala). Lisa Schiffman, author of Generation J, an autobiographical and often humorous account of Schiffman's journey into Judaism, brought in a crowd of about 150 people earlier this month. So did Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, president of Hineni, a New York City outreach group for young, mostly single, Jews.
Call it socializing with spiritual substance. Offenberg believes that in feeding the mind, the heart will follow. "It's a lot more dignified to meet someone by, 'Hey, I liked what you said, that was interesting, what do you think?' than, you know, 'What's your sign?'"
A couple of years ago, Offenberg created "Talking Tuesdays," for "mindful mingling" to get people socializing. Essentially, participants listen to a speaker, then discuss the topic in small groups. The ever-present Offenberg floats through as many as five events a night, making sure everyone is introduced to someone else.
After "Talking Tuesdays" took off, "Table Talk" was born. "Table Talk" is the official schmoozefest of the JCC, where mostly "Talking Tuesdays" veterans have more time to mingle and discuss a particular issue.
"It's kind of cool because a lot of people have to go to bars to kind of meet people, but something tells me that's not the best way to meet a potential mate," says David Gilbert, who is 25 years old and single. "It's an intimate setting, where you're doing more talking and listening, and less putting beer goggles on."
Gilbert is a veteran of both cabala classes and "Talking Tuesdays" at the JCC.
"You're not getting the people that life is all about how nice their BMW is or the materialistic crowd," he adds. "It's people who are dealing with issues that we don't have answers to. It's not like the coffee shops of Vienna, but closer to that than Gordon Biersch."