When a group of young men began meeting for weekly shiurim at Rabbi Yehoshua Weber’s house two years ago, they never could have imagined that it would grow into an Orthodox young professionals group that has already reached hundreds.
NextJen – founded by Clanton Park’s Rabbi Weber, Cambrian Springs entrepreneur Simcha Cohen, and business student Hillel Bierbrier – has evolved from a weekly learning group into a grassroots community organization that also offers a weekly shiur for 20-something women, lectures given by some of the Canadian Jewish world’s biggest machers including Warren Kimel, Eli Rubenstein and Mitch Shore, Shabbatons, holiday singles parties that attract about 500 people each, as well as trips to Israel that facilitate meetings between young professionals and Israeli political and religious leaders, including former chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Deputy Minister of Defence Eliyahu Ben Dahan.
“We’ve had two trips to Israel to meet political, community and business leaders across the spectrum to gain a deeper understanding of the questions and challenges of Israel,” said 28-year-old Bierbrier, one of the NextJen leaders.
He said they explored topics such as Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora, the startup culture, and Israel’s future.
“This trip opened us to the complexity of Zionism and how we are able to relate to our homeland and the potential strategic partnerships that can be formed as we try to accomplish our mutual shared goals and hopes, even when we see it through the prism of fractured light,” Bierbrier said.
He said that connecting the Orthodox community with Canadian leaders is also a priority.
In July, NextJen hosted an event during which York Centre Liberal MP Michael Levitt fielded questions from members of the community about “the cost of education, supply chain management affecting the prices of kosher food, helping young professionals and recent graduates find jobs, and the future of the Canadian economy.”
Bierbrier added that since Levitt – who is Jewish – represents an area with a large Jewish population, he wanted the MP to be made aware of the Orthodox community’s concerns, and for the community to learn from him.
“We went through topics affecting the Jewish community, foreign policy, discussing how the Jewish community can be a part of the wider Canadian mosaic. We wanted to understand how he planned to represent those who voted for him and those who didn’t and the role our community has in the wider arena in the province and on a federal level,” Bierbrier said.
NextJen organizers also have plans to take a delegation to Ottawa in the coming months to bring Jewish community and young professional concerns to the political leaders in the nation’s capital.
In addition to bringing the concerns of the Orthodox community to the attention of Canada’s leaders, Bierbrier said one of the main goals is to connect separate Orthodox communities with each other.
“For people outside of Orthodoxy, it might look all the same but within the community there are groups that don’t really have that much to do with each other, and by creating these events and opportunities, people are connecting on a broader spectrum of relationships and opportunities,” he said.
Having spent six years studying at an Israeli yeshiva, Bierbrier said when he returned to Toronto and enrolled at York University, he didn’t feel like there was a community identity with which he could relate.
“There were a bunch of individuals floating around, everyone doing their own thing… I thought something like [NextJen] would be something valuable to a lot of people… What we can accomplish when people feel like a part of something – it is important for young professionals who are in the beginning stages of their careers.”
To that end, NextJen invites successful entrepreneurs and community leaders to act as mentors for those who are looking to forge their own careers.
“It’s not just about personal success, it’s about personal development, community involvement and leadership. The point isn’t just to help out the individual, it’s about creating the opportunity for them to become leaders, for them to connect and get some guidance from the person above them.”
He said when one of the NextJen participants launched his startup company, he sought the advice from a NextJen mentor. “And now he’s giving others advice. It’s all about a pay-it-forward structure.”
All the initiatives organized by NextJen are framed within the lessons learned through their Torah study.
“It’s not just about studying the pages of the Talmud,” it’s about real world application, Bierbrier said. n
Email [email protected] for more information.