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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.
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.
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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."
Sometime next year, Offenberg plans to start up "Express Dating," which is kind of like power shopping and sorority rush at the same time. The no-nonsense approach brings about 20 to 30 people together in a coffee-shop setting. Participants pair up to talk for 15 to 20 minutes, and then move on to talk with someone else, and so on. The rules prohibit a few questions -- What do you do for a living? -- but the rest is up to the minglers. Everyone fills out a card noting who he or she is interested in getting to know better. And matches are notified.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has a few tricks of its own to draw in the young, urban crowd. In August, the Archdiocese of San Francisco named Sister Christine Wilcox its first director of young adult ministries. A young thirtysomething herself, who returned to the church at age 21, Wilcox is ready for action. Actually, the Catholic Church nationwide began a movement to reach out to young adults a couple of years ago.
The church's annual "Fall Fest," a convention of sorts where the 20- to 30-year-olds attend different seminars on faith and personal issues, drew a record crowd of 350 people this year. Much like Offenberg, Wilcox is looking to borrow successful ideas from other parts of the country.
"Theology on Tap," for instance, is where speakers and small groups of parishioners meet in local bars to discuss topics. The nonalcoholic version is called "Holy Grounds," and, of course, meets in coffee shops.
"You have to go where they are," says Wilcox, echoing a theory followed by Offenberg as well.
"We find that young adults are really looking for more than just a party," adds Wilcox. "There is a big movement to explore their spirituality and that means in their life."
The church, she says, has seen an upswing in volunteerism and small, faith-sharing groups among 20- to 40-year-olds. And, again, if you should happen to meet someone special along the way, all the better.
"I think some people are looking for a partner, and wherever that might be found is certainly going to be an attractive place to be," Wilcox says.
For a good number of people, it's been St. Dominic's Church on Bush Street. While certainly not defined as a "singles" group, the young adult (20 to 40) crew here is dominated by single, professional people.
For instance, Scott Moyer runs a software company from his home. About a year after he moved to the city, he attended the Wednesday night meeting for young adults at St. Dominic's, hoping to meet new people. Six and a half years later, Moyer is head of the group's planning committee.
The group's mailing list has grown to about 300. Any given Wednesday is likely to bring in 50 or so people, depending on the topic, and special events draw about 150. The group outgrew its meeting room a couple of years ago and had to move to another part of the church.
"We have people who are new to the city and they're looking to meet people and make friends," Moyer says. "People who have been in other areas of the country who have had similar experiences are looking to repeat that.
"A decent number of people have walked into the group and you [can see] their fears ... they're afraid of walking into a group of Holy Rollers or Bible thumpers and that's not who they are," Moyer says. "They're looking for faith or meaning in their lives."
The group has had heated debates over physician-assisted suicide and the death penalty, and its members have served the hungry at St. Anthony's kitchen. Sunday night mass generally draws a younger crowd at St. Dominic's, and most of the Wednesday night group has taken to staying after mass for wine and cheese.
Krissie Carlson, a 28-year-old who works in public relations, began attending regular activities with the St. Dominic's young adult group about six months ago.
"I went to college in the area, so I have a lot of friends in the area," says Carlson. "But it's nice to meet new people and do things with them.
"I think people are really trying to find a place where they feel comfortable," she adds. "It's easy to get caught up in the craziness of San Francisco -- it's all about what you're wearing and how you look -- these people are not like that. It's a relaxing atmosphere."
Moyer and Carlson also report that the St. Dominic's group has seen its share of dating and a handful of engagements.
"People come in looking to meet that special somebody, who want to look in a Catholic social setting," says Moyer. "Many people just end up dating. It's probably better in some ways, but it's also very community-based [meaning, everyone knows everyone else], and dating has its own challenges in that setting."