“Home away from home,” even at home

Silverstein Base Hillel providing Jewish life during pandemic

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Base Ambassadors pose with Rabbi Megan and Paige and Rav Ezra and Laura at the summer 2019 Base celebration. Photo credit: Robert Kusel.

A recent online discussion titled "Understanding Your Millennial Children" empowered parents to better appreciate young adults' views on Jewish life, independence, and hot-button issues like antisemitism, Jewish identity, and interfaith marriage.

The hour-long forum, held in March, was the latest offering of Silverstein Base Hillel, a home away from home where students and young adults connect, learn, and grow in an inclusive, warm Jewish setting. Siverstein Base Hillel--administered by JUF's Metro Chicago Hillel--"is so accessible to everyone," panelist Robin Lieberman noted. "Silverstein Base is really my primary source of Jewish connection in the Chicago community… I also think Judaism is blended into my everyday life now… [and] who I am as a person."

At the heart of Silverstein Base Hillel are two rabbinical families who open their homes, providing hospitality, learning, and service to local Jewish young adults. The first location opened in Lincoln Park in 2016 with Rabbi Megan GoldMarche and her wife Paige offering programming and Jewish connection: "We're providing pluralistic Judaism for young adults," GoldMarche said.

In 2018, a second Silverstein Base Hillel location opened in the West Loop, overseen by Rav Ezra Balser and his wife Laura Elkayam. "Part of the tremendous joy of Silverstein Base is that we get to welcome so many people into our home for collective and holy moments," Balser said.  

Pre-pandemic, Silverstein Base Hillel offered a busy schedule of in-person classes, social events, and Shabbat get-togethers that reached hundreds of young Chicagoans. Over the past year, it has transitioned seamlessly to offering socially distanced programming; hosting online classes; running outdoor activities when weather and social distancing guidelines allow such as small outdoor Shabbat dinners; and delivering Passover seder meals and Purim hamantaschen bags.

"We want folks to feel someone is taking care of them," GoldMarche noted. In the runup to Passover 2021, Silverstein Base Hillel empowered parents to buy Passover treats for their Chicago-based children, organized and distributed by the group.

Phil Trachtenberg, a 20-something West Loop resident, started attending Silverstein Base Hillel during the pandemic and describes their COVID-era programming as "pretty incredible" at connecting people. Thanks to their efforts, he said, "we can still connect and build community during this time."

Today's millennials don't necessarily want a traditional synagogue membership like previous generations, said Suzanne Lampert, a Glencoe resident and Metro Chicago Hillel board member, whose daughter and future son-in-law live in Chicago and enjoy Silverstein Base Hillel events. Even so, said Lampert, "they are still looking for a way to connect and a way to learn."

Silverstein Base Hillel's rabbinic families provide a way for young Jews to connect in a deeply personal way with the Jewish community. "What's so great about them is they facilitate this space where you can connect over societal issues that are going on right now--when you can bring in Torah study with a rabbinic couple," Lampert explained.

Hundreds of young adults have found community and connection through Silverstein Base Hillel, tuning into programs on mental health, spirituality, history, and racial justice--and the unique lessons that Jewish thought can shed on these pressing issues. In the past year, GoldMarche began a community for young adults who have lost parents and are grieving during the pandemic. A new b'nai mitzvah program has also given young Jews an added way to connect.

In the past, in-person events were the mainstay of Silverstein Base Hillel. During COVID, online learning has provided a key sense of routine and community. Whether in person or remote, Silverstein Base Hillel is revitalizing the Jewish community across Chicago, bringing together millennial Chicagoans. 

"This year we have had to change the direction a bit," Balser noted. "Encounters that were previously quite deep and personal became all the more so. The magic of Silverstein Base during the pandemic is that we are, through our screens, being welcomed into our 'Basers'' homes for these same holy moments."

The Silverstein Base Hillel is made possible through generous support from the Silverstein Family, the Crown Family, and Anonymous.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. lives with her family in the northern suburbs of Chicago.  

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