Just as many Gen Z and millennial Jews can be found outside of synagogue walls, Rabbi Elyssa Cherney wants people to know that holiness can be found outside those walls, too.
As founder and CEO of TacklingTorah, the Mount Airy resident and Germantown Jewish Centre member works with mostly unaffiliated Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s in the Philadelphia area to build Jewish rituals and guide them in their life cycle events.
“TacklingTorah’s mission is the everyday search for holiness in our everyday lives,” Cherney said.
At 36, Cherney understands the headspace of the younger generations of Jews who, to synagogues and larger Jewish institutions, may seem unengaged from Jewish culture and religion.
“Like every other generation, millennials and Gen Z are seeking out meaning and are seeking out what that role [of Judaism] looks like for them,” she said. “I think they’re just going about it in a different way than what has been the traditional model.”
Unlike older generations, today’s young people don’t always associate community with their geographical location. Due to graduate school or finding a place to start a family, 20- and 30-somethings aren’t staying put and, therefore, are looking for ways to find Jewish meaning that they can bring with them on their respective journeys.
Cherney consults with these Jews about how to incorporate Judaism into their lives, whether through lighting Shabbat candles weekly, weaving in Jewish traditions at an interfaith wedding or finding new ways to celebrate Jewish holidays.
She asks her clients questions that cause them to reflect on what they want from their Judaism: What is their Jewish identity today? What are their Jewish values? What were the parts of Judaism that they grew up with that drew them to Judaism in the first place?
As part of Tribe 12’s 2023 fellowship cohort, Cherney hopes to hone in on the needs of the Philadelphia Jewish community to better serve her clients.
Much like the community members Cherney has worked with since TacklingTorah became a nonprofit in 2019, the rabbi had to find her Jewish voice.
Raised as a Reform Jew in Long Island, New York, Cherney loved
“My rabbi was my role model,”
Cherney taught kindergarten through second grade at her childhood synagogue Temple Beth David’s religious school, even when she was still in high school. The synagogue was her “second home” and the birthplace of her dream to become a rabbi.
It was only when she left for college at Brandeis University that she realized the path to her dream would have hurdles.
“Day one at Brandeis, I met Jews that were different from myself,” she said. “And I immediately felt like my lifelong dream of becoming a rabbi was already being questioned by Jews who were more observant and weren’t as accepting of women rabbis.”
At one point, another Jewish woman approached Cherney and told her she couldn’t become a rabbi because she was a woman. Cherney got to know LGBT Jews and Jews married to non-Jews, who did not have strong or positive connections to a synagogue Jewish community.
But when presented with challenges about Jewish inclusion and the future of Jewish communities, Cherney searched for answers. After graduating with degrees in sociology and women and gender studies, Cherney worked as a community organizer at Keshet, a nonprofit advocating for LGBT Jews; she spent time as a programming assistant at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, one of the country’s largest LGBT synagogues.
In 2012, Cherney matriculated at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote on her quest to become a rabbi. After she was ordained in 2018, she took a fellowship at the 92nd Street Y in New York, focusing on innovations in Judaism and its crossover with entrepreneurship.
In Cherney’s words, rabbis are “constantly in the work of making connections for people, creating opportunities for people to engage and thinking up new ideas with their community.”
By the time she founded TacklingTorah a year later, Cherney was focused on making Judaism truly accessible to any person who wanted to engage with it.
Cherney frequently reflects on the words of medieval rabbi Rav Kook: “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.”
By catering to the needs and interests of young Jews with diverse identities and interests, TacklingTorah combines ancient rituals and values with 21st-century lifestyles.
“I don’t think I’m out here trying to do anything new,” Cherney said. “I’m just trying to do it in a way that reaches those people who feel like they haven’t been able to be a part of a community before.”