Young Jewish Philadelphians are experiencing a good problem to have: There are too many options for connection and too little time.
Between Jewish organizations serving 20- and 30-something Jews and synagogues designing programs and affinity groups for young professionals, there are dozens of Shabbat dinners, Chanukah parties and Sukkot dwellings to choose from.
But — like the paradox of choice — having more options isn’t always better.
It’s Trent Works’ job to help young Jews choose their adventure in exploring Jewish community and identity. As director of engagement of the Jewish Graduate Student Network, part of the Greater Philly Hillel Network, Works is responsible for guiding local Jewish graduate students on their Jewish paths.
If a 20-something grew up attending synagogue weekly, Works helps them find a synagogue that works for them. If someone is looking to kasher their apartment, Works will connect them with a rabbi. If a young Jew stopped going to shul after a b’nai mitzvah but wants to reconnect with their Jewish identity, it’s Works’ job to help them through it.
“A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, in my opinion, and that’s what I love about Judaism,” he said.
At 25 years old, Works can relate to the Jews he works with. The Fairmount resident hosts weekly Shabbat dinners with his boyfriend, inviting 15 or so guests over for lasagna, chocolate chip cookies and homemade challah.
“I get to meet all types of graduate students, whether they are Ph.D. candidates that come from a neurochemistry background, or they’re just like an artsy person that loves to create fashion and such, I get to meet people, and I get to funnel them into their different Jewish experiences,” Works said.
Works began working at the Greater Philly Hillel Network in August, but his commitment to Hillel has spanned his Jewish life.
Not raised Jewish, Works became interested in Judaism during his undergraduate years at the University of Delaware. He had Jewish friends and began spending his free time with them at Hillel events. Living with disabilities and as an openly gay man, Works felt comfortable in Jewish spaces.
“I felt more at home with the Jewish community, and I feel that they truly accepted me,” he said.
Works visited the mikvah two weeks before his graduation, finalizing his conversion and cementing his passion for building Jewish community.
“It’s a great way to show the next generation of Jewish leaders that they can take their Judaism to be anything that they wanted to be,” Works said. “That they don’t have to fit the mold of the perfect synagogue president or the perfect service leader; they can mold it around themselves.”
After graduating, Works joined the Rutgers Hillel, first as a Springboard fellow, then as its director of engagement. In his three years working for Hillel, he’s seen Jewish life transform due to COVID.
In early 2020, during the lockdown period, Works often lost track of the day of the week. Instead, he kept track of time by counting down the days to Shabbat, using Judaism to help him stay grounded.
At this stage of the quieting pandemic, Works can help young Jews reenter Jewish life. Working with Jews his age, he’s able to identify their changing Jewish needs, which are likely different from what they were during college.
“Undergraduate Hillels are kind of like a catch-all, where graduate work for Hillels — I would say — it’s much more focused,” Works said.
College students find a built-in community at Hillels, which provide programming for holidays, as well as social events. Graduate students and young professionals, however, have a clearer sense of their identities. They are looking for something specific from Jewish life, especially as an increasing number of young Jews are part of the LGBT community or are in interfaith relationships.
As a result, Works has an expansive idea of what Judaism can look like. In the coming year, he wants to see studying and meetings take place outside the synagogue.
On Feb. 21, he began his own Rosh Chodesh Torah study. As the weather gets warmer, Works wants to hold study sessions in the garden outside the Barnes Foundation or the Rodin Museum. Beyond talking about the Jewish calendar and Torah portion, he wants to talk about anything that’s of interest to Jews today, even if it’s “The Real Housewives of Miami.”
“All that’s Torah, in my opinion,” he said. “Because we’re engaging with human beings who happen to have the Torah inside of them.”