JUDAISM FOR YOUNG PROFESSIONALS: Chicago’s Project 613 aims to make Jewish life meaningful and fun for the millennial generation

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Jeff Guaqil, software developer and project manager, welcome to the wonderful world of sales.

The earnest twentysomething Northbrook native was tech-minded like so many of his millennial cohorts. But as he delved into the 21st century work world at JP Morgan Chase in Chicago, he found his work-life balance going out of whack. The level of fulfillment declined in an employment atmosphere that in many ways hearkens back to the pre-New Deal 1920s and the 48-hour (or more) work week.

And Guaqil did not have it as bad as some colleagues.

On the finance and investment side, they’d get e-mails late on Friday night, saying they’re needed in the office by 6 a.m. Saturday (to complete a Monday production),” he said.

Enter Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel, a super salesman in his own right, almost an unorthodox Orthodox rabbi.  Garfinkel spun his pitch to Guaqil as another convert to his Project 613, a year-old effort to enrichen the lives of Jewish young professionals.  One thing led to another. And so here is Guaqil pitching an idea for a regular Project 613 program to a business conference in Israel, coming away with $1,000 in seed money and talking some more with Garfinkel about how to implement yet another new-age, yet old-fashioned way of socializing.

If you haven’t already heard of Project 613, you’re likely in the majority. But give Garfinkel and Guaqil more time.  A veteran of almost a decade reaching out to Jewish relative newcomers to the work force, Garfinkel applied some of the passion he used as a White House intern in the first Clinton Administration to get 250 regular participants out of some 500 who have attended at least one Project 613 program since its inception on July 1, 2017.

Rabbi Shalom Garfinkel with Jeff Guaqil.

Garfinkel meets the young professionals more than halfway through a variety of friendly, sometimes one-on-one gatherings. He translates ancient but on-the-mark philosophies of Judaism into modern language and connections a social-media-conscious age cohort can

Chicagoan Dan Karesh, who never had a bar mitzvah, has one during a trip to Israel. Rabbi Garfinkel celebrates, at right.

understand.

“We have the blueprints,” said Garfinkel. “It’s bringing compelling teachers who can teach ancient wisdom in modern times. The principles are timeless.”

Project 613, named for the number of commandments or mitzvot, is marketed for young professionals “to love being Jewish,” to bring them closer to the Jewish people, to Israel and to Jewish tradition through cutting-edge offerings of Torah, social, Shabbat and travel programs.”

The organization’s MO is creating “a warm, accepting and ‘cool’ social environment where our young professionals look forward to attending.” Project 613’s unofficial tagline is “we do therapy for those wounded by Sunday School.”

The organization acknowledges the beast-of-burden on-the-job pace of young professionals.

“You work hard, but you want more out of life than work alone can offer,” is one of Project 613’s pitches. “You want to connect with high-quality people in a warm and welcoming environment. You feel Jewish and would be open to exploring the relevance of Jewish values on your life today. And of course, you want to have some fun!

Programs include ​weekly​ ​classes,​ ​guest​ ​lecturers,​ ​one-on-one​ ​study, small​ ​group​ ​sessions, and downtown Lunch & Learns. And showing just how outside-the-box Garfinkel can be, there is also a “Scotch and Schmooze” guys-only program where an associate conjures up a couple of bottles of prime libation. The boys get together with the Scotch lubricating – but not intoxicating – the “lively art of conversation.”

Guaqil is the kind of profilee Garfinkel desires. A Glenbrook North alum, he grew up going to Sunday school and participating in Shabbat meals. Even after going to school, starting work and living near downtown, he tried to make it home semi-regularly on Friday nights.

After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Informatics, Guaqil’s initial work as a software developer morphed into an analyst’s role. He was never all-work and no-play. He described himself as “a comedian of medium proportions and silly antics…loves to cook and indulge over bourbon…quotes movies and replies with gifs as if it’s real dialogue…an honest, hard-working, fun-loving, easy-going guy.”

Yet after working for five years at JP Morgan Chase, “I wasn’t getting that sense of fulfillment in work…I was not getting that fulfillment in personal growth, and I wanted more.  It was too much trivia, and not a benefit to people around me.” He participated in intramural sports and attended some Jewish Happy Hours around town, but he needed more.

In a real down period at work in 2017, Guaqil attended an Israel Independence Day celebration at Joe’s Bar on Weed Street.  

A Project 613 group at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel.

“This rabbi came up to me, introduced himself after recognizing my last name,” Guaqil said. “He remembered my older sister, Sarah, from working at the University of Illinois. He talked of a trip to Israel as part of his new organization. And I had nostalgia for my own Birthright trip. I needed to get away from work.

“Shalom Garfinkel is such a passionate, warm man. It was who he is as a person that attracted me to Project 613. It was something where I wanted to grow my education and understanding of Judaism, rather than just go to Happy Hours with other Jews. Lots of things stress us out. Who do I want to be and how can I help the community? How do I feel at the end of the day, but not from a corporate or financial end? Rabbi Garfinkel exemplified it.  He creatively teaches values of Jewish religion and Torah.”

Garfinkel is about as loosey-goosey as a clergyman can get. Growing up a 49ers fan in the San Francisco area, he enjoyed an embarrassment of quarterback riches and Super Bowl triumphs supervised by Joe Montana and Steve Young. He still rues one particularly dominant regular 49ers season, drawing crocodile tears from Bears fans, that ended in a startling playoff defeat.

Eschewing a path to a medical career, Stanford product Garfinkel wanted something deeper out of life. He went to Washington, D.C. for the summer of 1993, garnering an intern’s position in the pre-Monica Lewinsky days out of the Office of Public Liaison in the Old Executive Office Building.

“We were in charge of getting the Clinton message out to ethnic groups, including Jews,” said Garfinkel. “When our budget won in Congress, we threw a party on the South Lawn.”

His rabbinical work took him to Chicago to work as director of outreach for a Jewish organization.

Jenny Aronsohn, a student at Northwestern Law School, took part in Project 613’s trip to Israel.

“I was finding young professionals coming to undergrad classes at DePaul, Loyola and UIC,” Garfinkel said. “But no one was giving compelling Torah content. So we started giving classes.”

Garfinkel decided to hang out his own shingle and focus exclusively on young professionals, who by now were differentiated from the privileged yuppies (Young Urban Professionals) of the 1980s onward through the Clinton economic boom of the following decade.  Today’s Millennials were stressed by entering a sketchy job market in the early and mid-2010s while saddled with huge college loans debt.

In one year’s time, Project 613 developed a variety of regular programs supervised by Garfinkel, wife Suri and program coordinator Kirya Fefer:

*WIN! Wednesday Inspiration Night. Scheduled weekly from fall through early summer. WIN provides a healthy dose of inspiration after a long day at the office. Dinner and serious socializing is followed by various options of inspirational Jewish discussions and classes.

“Rabbi Garfinkel brings a speaker or does the speech himself,” Guaqil said. “It’s very informal, very engaging.”

  • One on One Learning. Appointments can be made with the Garfinkels or Fefer to discuss the great issues of life and what Judaism has to say about them. Meetings can be in person or via Facetime/Skype if scheduling is too challenging.
  • Lunch and Learns. Serious wisdom and inspiration is dispensed along with a gourmet lunch. Participants can network with successful professionals while bumping up their Jewish literacy.
  • Shabbos in the “Chood” and Shabbos Downtown. Special Shabbat events in West Rogers Park and downtown are presented. Garfinkel puts on his chef’s hat to help prepare the fun traditional meal, for up to 30 attendees.

“He does a fun thing where everyone does a ‘l’chaim,’” Guaquil said. “You stand up and say something you’re thankful for. It’s another way to change your frame of mind.”

A real hair-letting-down event was the Scotch and Schmooze. In the old days, that’d be called a “stag” event – boys only. One lively recent topic was “Men in a #Me Too World.” Guaquil attended.

“We’re all good guys,” he said.

Recalled Garfinkel of the brutally candid comments: “The feeling was guys today are guilty ‘till proven innocent, and then they’re still guilty.”

For equal time, a similar women’s-only discussion group is on the docket.

Project 613 also began spreading its wings worldwide. After its initial Israel trip, Garfinkel sponsored a junket to Spain. A second trip to Israel took place a few weeks The participants met with Dvir Kahana, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel and current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, as well as leading Jewish philanthropists and start-up investors. During the sessions, they developed new business and leadership ideas.

On the last day of the convention, they pitched their ideas to a panel of leading business executives. Guaqil pitched his idea to create a board of leaders to assist Project 613 in reaching more young professionals in the Chicago market. Startup funding was awarded to the 28 different projects based on the strength of their ideas, the estimated impact and other critical metrics.

Guaquil did not land the grand prize. But $1,000 is a good start.

“The idea came from my experiences connecting to people, he said. “Olami did a wonderful job in working with the Jewish Leadership Foundation. They taught us how to how to evolve ideas, and how to pitch it. Each of the pitches went 60-seconds. Five were then selected for a three-minute pitch.”

None walked away empty-handed. Now Guaqil and Garfinkel must figure out how to program the former’s ideas.

“How do we provide an outlet where a speaker is not talking down to people, but more of a discussion based on what we’re learning from each other,” Guaqil said. “Have a young professional be the moderator, to where it’s a Q. and A. The goal is how can I incorporate Judaism in a manner where it’s complementary and beneficial rather than restrictive? How to better teach Jewish values?

“Garfinkel wants young professionals to own the programs. I definitely want to be involved more in that direction. The Olami trip helped. It was a great opportunity for me to grow, to give back to Project 613.”

His involvement in Project 613 and the Olami trip is timed to a fresh start in business. Guaqil just began working at ICE Clear Credit. He has grown on and off the job, and can point to himself as one possible path.

“We’re in a precarious position,” he said of young Jewish professionals. “We’re bombarded by social media. They list the Top 10 things we should be doing. There’s a lot of noise about what you should be.

“What Project 613 does is to filter out who should be your role model, what is important in your life.”

For more information, visit www.project613.com/contact-us/

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