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Finding fellowship beyond the synagogue
Plus: Readers' dog photos; How our April Fools' edition came together; Ledger crossword; Top news of the week — Big Duke-Carolina game tonight; High-rise headed to Levine Museum spot, and more
Today’s Charlotte Ledger is sponsored by the Charlotte StrEATs Festival. Celebrate Charlotte’s food scene at the first Charlotte StrEATs Festival! On 4/16, festival-goers will walk through a mini-map of the city created in Gateway Village. Purchase a Tasting Ticket and taste your way through Charlotte’s most iconic neighborhoods. Free entertainment includes multiple cooking demonstrations, small business vendors, live music, and food trucks!
Charlotte’s young Jewish professionals connect and build community in less structured ways than their parents; holiday-themed events like ‘Bootlegger Purim Party’ draw crowds
Events like this well-attended 2019 Chabad Young Professionals Uptown Charlotte after-work cocktail party show that Jewish young people are eager to engage with other members of their faith and experience Judaism outside the synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Motti Groner)
by Michael J. Solender
Miriam Levenson knew she wanted to connect with young Jewish professionals when she moved to Charlotte from Pittsburgh in early 2020 to start a new IT analyst job. She just didn’t realize how quickly she could make that happen.
“Two days after arriving in Charlotte, I got a text message inviting me to a Shabbat (Jewish sabbath) dinner,” said Levenson, 24, recalling her introduction to Chabad Young Professionals - Uptown Charlotte, a Jewish community organization whose mission is bringing together Charlotte Jews in their 20s and 30s in Jewish fellowship. She’d given her contact information to a rabbi she knew in Pittsburgh who passed it along to a colleague here. “It was a pivotal moment for me. I made a lot of friends that evening, including many people that are actively part of my life today. To be immediately embraced by a community of likeminded people, who are at the same stage as me and wanting to engage in Jewish life, is incredibly relevant.”
Shifting dynamics in how — and increasingly, where — people practice their faith has evolved with the pandemic. For many in Charlotte, however, the move away from attending traditional houses of worship began long before Covid. This is especially true for a growing number of Charlotte’s younger Jews, many single, recent transplants who are on a quest to explore and define the role Judaism plays in their lives.
Chabad Young Professionals is helping many in this demographic tap into a welcoming Jewish community, interact with peers who share their values and beliefs and look beyond the walls of a synagogue to connect with Judaism in ways very unlike their parents. CYP was formed in 2016 by Rabbi Motti Groner, 32, and his wife Chaya, 35. Groner’s father is well-known Charlotte Jewish community leader Yossi Groner, director of Lubavitch of North Carolina and chief rabbi at Congregation Ohr HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in south Charlotte.
Chabad-Lubavitch followers practice what many consider an ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism. They are generally thought of as the most observant and literal practitioners along the three major branches of modern Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.
Motti Groner notes that CYPUC welcomes all young professionals regardless of their Jewish background, observing most participants come from Reform or Conservative practices.
“Young people want to experience authentic Judaism on their terms,” Groner said. “The vast majority of our program participants were not raised in the traditions of Orthodox Judaism. What I find today is many younger Jews don’t look for structure or formalities. They want to experience Judaism in a way that connects for them, and often that means outside of an established synagogue.”
Comfort and spiritual intimacy: Josh Blinkoff, 24, an operations and private equities business consultant who moved to Charlotte in 2019 from Tucson, Ariz., agrees. He found CYPUC through a search on social media.
“I find a level of comfort and spiritual intimacy here with Chabad that I haven’t felt elsewhere,” says Blinkoff, whose family was part of a Reform congregation in Tucson. Blinkoff attended a Hebrew Day School through the 8th grade and was involved with Chabad and a Jewish fraternity while at college at Arizona State University. “There is a pride I feel with being Jewish. It is a privilege for me to be part of a group where I’m welcomed into a Jewish home with others and can develop close Jewish friendships.”
Blinkoff said he’s come to consider the Groners good friends and has begun one on one weekly Torah study with Rabbi Groner. “Experiencing what it is to be Jewish is not tied to a building,” said Blinkoff who has not joined a synagogue here, though he occasionally attends services at area synagogues. He’s involved in community outreach connected to Chabad such as Friendship Circle, a Jewish social service agency supporting young adults with special needs. “There is a special feeling of belonging I have in being with and connecting to other Jews and the opportunity to support the community.”
Small but active population: Charlotte is the nation’s 15th most populous city, surpassing San Francisco, according to the most recent U.S. census, though the city’s Jewish population, often estimated at between 15,000–25,000, is disproportionately lower than many similarly sized urban areas. Counts vary widely, as younger Jews in our fast-growing metro increasingly choose not to affiliate with Jewish houses of worship, making gauging the Jewish population size a challenge.
Despite Charlotte’s relatively small Jewish population, there is an active Jewish presence here. Shalom Park, a 54-acre central hub of concentrated Jewish activity is home to the largest Reform and Conservative synagogues in the Carolinas (Temple Beth El and Temple Israel), a thriving Jewish Community Center and nearly a dozen Jewish agencies and organizations. Programing specific to the needs of Charlotte’s younger professional Jews, however, has not received an ongoing, dedicated focus.
Groner and his wife, Chaya, looked to fill this void and provide social, cultural, and spiritual outlets for younger Jewish professionals like themselves. With a small grant from a Jewish foundation and a tiny email list populated primarily with contacts from friends of friends, they launched an initial Friday night Shabbat dinner at their uptown apartment in 2016. Six people attended.
“Many larger American cities have young Jewish professional organizations,” said Groner. “New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and others. But there was nothing like that here. We knew it would take some time to build a community and started slowly with Shabbat. We have a brief (Sabbath) service and candle lighting (part of the Sabbath ritual), and I share a topical observation or learning related to the torah reading for the day. We enjoy a traditional meal, conversation, and fellowship.”
Parties and networking events: Over time attendance grew, and the Groners found the secret sauce in expanded social and cultural offerings. Today, they accommodate nearly 50 people in their home (they’ve moved to a townhome in South End) for Shabbat dinners two or three times monthly. They’ve added themed evening social events linked with Jewish holidays, often hosted at hip uptown venues. A “Drinks & Dreidels” party tied into Hanukkah at Ink & Ivy last year hosted 140. In March a “Bootlegger Purim Party” at Prohibition Bar had a fun gangster theme with around 100 in attendance.
In addition to purely social events, CYP is a conduit to many cultural offerings and community outreach activities. It recently hosted a networking and roundtable event featuring local community and business leader, JELD-WEN Inc. president and CEO Gary Michel (he and his wife, Jodi, are CYP donors), a Women’s Circle Challah Bake and Men’s Club Whiskey & Wisdom discussion of relevant Jewish topics. Book clubs have formed, and expanded networks have been created and meals were delivered to seniors during Covid lockdowns — all with roots back to CYP.
Rabbi Groner is enthusiastic about the momentum he sees. “We had about 1,200 attendees (320 unique) at our various programs (about 20) held last year,” said Groner, who emphasized it’s not simply the numbers he finds encouraging. “I know we connect people and bring Judaism into their lives. Two couples I know of have gotten married through meeting here, and one or two other couples may soon join them.”
For Levenson, becoming a member of a synagogue congregation is something she can envision in her future, but for now she’s fulfilled through the relationships developed through CYP. “I think people come as a social outlet initially but discover Jewish connections and values,” said Levenson. “Jewish life is very important to me. I like being in a place where I can be with others who share my cultural heritage and beliefs.”
These connections are gratifying for Rabbi Groner who, in the early days of the organization, wasn’t always confident the interest level was there.
“I’ve come to see a common denominator between all of these people,” Groner said. “They come here because it's important to them. It feeds something in them, and this is very tangible for all of us. Here, we provide a warm sense of Jewish community and common ground where we can all be together.”
Michael J. Solender is a Charlotte-based features writer. Reach him at email@example.com or through his website, michaeljwrites.com.
Today’s supporting sponsors are Soni Brendle…
… and Heartwood Tree. With over 42 years serving our area, Heartwood has evolved from a group of passionate tree climbers to an award-winning, nationally recognized industry leader. Heartwood’s staff of expert arborists have the knowledge and experience to care for your treescape as if it is their own.
Today’s treat🦴: Check out photos of fellow Ledger readers’ adorable dogs
We were excited to see so many photos of your dogs land in our e-mail inbox after last Saturday’s “Who let the dogs out?” photo package showcasing local dogs enjoying their furry selves in the springtime weather. Thanks to those of you who sent in pictures of your furry best friends. You can see the full collection here!
This week’s Ledger crossword theme: ‘What the Meck?’
It’s time again for The Ledger’s weekly Charlotte-themed crossword. Break out those pencils, or pens if you dare. (Or if you’re tech savvy, do it on a tablet with the .PUZ format with an app called Across Lite)
Ledger crosswords are by Chris King, edited by Tim Whitmire and presented by CXN Advisory. Enjoy!
.PDF (suitable for download and printing):
.PUZ (suitable for use on tablets and computers with Across Lite app):
We publish solutions on Mondays. You can check out all our weekly puzzles and answers on our dedicated Crosswords page.
The story behind the fake story: How yesterday’s April Fools’ edition came together
From Ledger editor Tony Mecia:
We received a ton of feedback on our April Fools’ issue yesterday, with many readers telling us they believed the article about a new underground development in South End to be plausible until they read the name of the “Novel Troglodyte” micro-apartments — or perhaps the line about hobbits living in the area in the 19th century.
The issue came together over several months and, like many creative endeavors, was a collective effort. Thanks especially to friends of The Ledger Jon Goldberg and Nick Felten, who shared lots of ideas and make the issue better, and funnier. Among other contributions, Nick envisioned and wrote the article on the Bojangles bo-berry shortage. Jon produced the “Jay Bilas” Q&A and wrote much of the fake “job board.” His 13-year-old daughter, Julia, helped us in a pinch and created the lead “BelowSo” image of people walking dogs and doing yoga in an underground mall. My 19-year-old daughter, Caroline, created the image of the stairwell by South End’s heart wall.
My flash of inspiration on the BelowSo story came one night in February as my wife and I left a South End restaurant after dinner. I looked at the big Lowe’s tower and thought to myself, “What if that extended underground?” And boom, an April Fools’ edition idea was born. (Weeks later, Jon improved on the idea by coining the names “BelowSo” and its dog park/taproom tenant, “Subwoofer.”)
We had far more strong material than we had room for (but there’s always next year). And many thanks to our readers — and some of the people and companies mentioned in our fake newsletter — for their senses of humor. We figured folks could use a laugh.
This week in Charlotte: Duke vs. Carolina in Final Four tonight; High-rise planned for Levine Museum site; CMS halts rollout of clear backpacks; 2 big N.C. job announcements
On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.
Clear backpacks rollout paused: (WFAE) Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is halting the distribution of clear backpacks for high schoolers this week after discovering warnings related to California’s Proposition 65 that they could contain hazardous chemicals. Those warning labels are required by the state of California and are on many common household items. The district ordered 46,000 of the book bags at a cost of $442,000 after seeing an increase in guns in schools.
CMS leadership change: (Ledger 🔒) Akeshia Craven-Howell, the associate superintendent in charge of student assignment at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, is reportedly leaving the district — a departure that comes as CMS is set to make some big decisions about boundary lines related to new schools. The student assignment responsibilities will be transferred to a staffer who joined CMS last month from a job working with healthcare coalitions.
Cawthorn rebuked over orgy claims: (NBC News) U.S. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy says he rebuked Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Republican congressman from Western North Carolina, over Cawthorn’s claims on a recent podcast that legislators had invited him to orgies and done cocaine in front of him. A source with knowledge of the meeting said Cawthorn “failed to provide any evidence of the sex and drugs allegations that have outraged his colleagues.” Cawthorn’s claims and subsequent criticism from fellow Republicans made national news this week.
High-rise headed to museum site: (Ledger) The Levine Museum of the New South has sold its building uptown to a New York developer, which is planning to build a high-rise apartment tower on the site. The Levine Museum sold its 0.7-acre site for $10.75M to New York-based development company Vela Uptown LLC. The Museum has been for sale since last year. Museum leaders say they want to transform the museum into one that is better suited for the digital age.
Charlotte SHOUT! returns: (Charlotte SHOUT!) The Charlotte SHOUT! festival celebrating creativity and innovation through art, music, food and ideas started yesterday and runs through April 17. Festival events and activities are being held at various locations across uptown including museums and parks.
Huge auto plant for the Triangle: (News & Observer) A Vietnamese car manufacturer plans to build a $4B plant south of Raleigh that could employ as many as 7,500 workers by 2027. VinFast would have a total economic incentive package of $1.25B for the project. It plans to build a new line of electric vehicles. The site is in Chatham County, 30 minutes south of downtown Raleigh.
Huge Macy’s distribution center: (Biz Journal, subscriber-only) Macy’s plans to build a 1.4 million s.f. distribution center in the Rowan County town of China Grove that will employ 2,800 workers. The center will help the department store giant modernize its supply chain, and it will account for 30% of the company’s digital supply chain capacity. It’s the biggest economic development project in Rowan County history.
NCAA Tournament: Duke and UNC Chapel Hill face off tonight in the men’s basketball national semifinal game in New Orleans. Sports talk radio has had a busy week, The Observer told the story of a Duke fan and UNC fan who happen to be getting married on Saturday, and The Ledger disclosed that Blue Devil Drive and Tarheel Drive intersect at a Gaston County industrial park.
Myers Park forfeits football games: (WSOC) Myers Park High School will forfeit all of its 2021 football games and pay a $250 fine due to having ineligible players on the team last season. Myers Park leaders said they were made aware in January that some players had falsified residency documents, and after investigating the situation the school turned itself in to the N.C. High School Athletic Association.
Nursing home investigation: (Observer, subscriber-only) Covid put tens of thousands of vulnerable nursing home residents across North Carolina at risk, because residents lost protections like visits from inspectors and family members as facilities were dealing with nursing shortages. In a typical year, inspectors evaluate more than 400 of the state’s 425 nursing homes, but in 2020, state regulators conducted just 93 standard inspections and they completed only 257 in 2021, according to federal data analyzed by The Charlotte Observer.
Sue sells suits: (Ledger) Sue Chanthakhot is an institution in the SouthPark mall Belk store, where for the past 22 years she’s helped transform men and teens into snappy dressers. “She takes boys and men from their track pants-wearing lives and sends them out into the world as prom dates, job candidates, polished wedding guests — in short, as guys who deservedly get second looks and raised eyebrows of admiration. Mothers have been known to send their teen boys in to Belk with firm instructions to ‘see Miss Sue,’” writes Amber Veverka for The Ledger.
From the Ledger family of newsletters
Tolls rising on I-77: (Transit Time) Traffic has been returning to the I-77 toll lanes in north Mecklenburg — and the private company that runs the lanes has been raising the tolls.
Barber to Charlotte’s A-list: (Ways of Life 🔒) Gene Buchan spent decades making men look their best at his uptown barber shop, Gene’s Master Cuts. His well-known Charlotte clients over the years included longtime Charlotte politician Parks Helms, disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker and former Wachovia CEO Ken Thompson. Buchan died in February of Covid.
The Croatian sensation: (Fútbol Friday) Charlotte FC’s 29-year-old Croatian goalkeeper, Kristijan Kahlina, is fast becoming a fan favorite after several exceptional games stopping shots. “He is showing now that he is an amazing goalkeeper,” coach Miguel Angel Ramirez said.
Tammy Faye role wins an Oscar: (Wednesday 🔒) While the nation was fixated on The Slap, the big local news coming out of the Academy Awards was actress Jessica Chastain winning Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Tammy Faye in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a movie about the rise and fall of the former PTL leader and her husband, Jim Bakker.
CLT airport lounge review: (Wednesday 🔒) A new airport lounge opened Wednesday on Concourse A at the Charlotte airport. The Ledger, which has previously covered the other three lounges at CLT, reviewed the spot and laid out the pros, cons and how to get in. It is called The Club CLT.
Lawsuit could drag on: (Wednesday 🔒) Legal experts say the libel lawsuit by a well-known Charlotte restaurant group against a journalist and ex-employees could be long and costly.
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Contributing photographer/videographer: Kevin Young, The 5 and 2 Project