Lisa Kaneff is the kind of millennial the pearl-clutching writers of “millennials ruin everything” think pieces should meet. She runs her own successful copywriting consulting business for socially conscious organizations while finding time to be active in her community — as a member of Adas Israel and founder of the group Jews on Bikes.
WJW caught up with the 35-year-old Montgomery County native at one of her favorite Arlington haunts (shout-out to The Java Shack) to talk Jews on Bikes, the importance of institutional and non-institutional Jewish life and building community.
Like any good journalist, I Googled you before this and saw the recent profile of you in Forbes. That must have been cool.
It was really cool! I’ve been working for myself for three and a half years. It has been the most validating and fulfilling work I’ve ever done and it feels like a natural fit. It gives me the time to have all these other, smaller projects. I’ve been developing communities on the side, from Freelance DC, a network of freelances from the DC area, to Jews on Bikes, which now has a sister organization in Baltimore.
How did Jews on Bikes get started?
So this is the ultimate DC Jewish story. [Laughs] I was part of GatherDC’s Open Doors Fellowship and as part of it I was doing these conversations with different Jews in D.C. [and] one I talked to worked in a bike shop and I thought, “I bet there are a lot more Jews who ride bikes.”
All the social activities for Jews focused around drinking. After talking to him, I thought what it would look like to do something like Bike Party, but more tailored to the Jewish community. But there isn’t really a space in Jewish life in D.C. for a lay-led, community-driven organization to sit. We’re in this new, evolving space of bootstrap, lay-led, community-driven programming that I think could be a model for passionate young professionals.
But the truth is, we don’t need money to have meaningful Jewish experiences. D.C. Jews on Bikes is totally selfish — it’s everything I love — but I had a hunch other people would love it too. We ride together, so we have shared experience, we do Havdalah together, which is everyone’s favorite service, and then we drink.
The difference is we have a shared experience to build from. It’s not just, “You’re Jewish, I’m Jewish, our moms are glad we’re here.” I used to tell my mom, “Mom, Jewish is not a hobby of mine. It’s not something I can naturally spark a conversation with someone else about.” I’d rather be in community with people with whom I share a common interest who happen to be Jewish. And for me it’s been biking.
I think, right now, millennials are seen as wombs that are going to push out the next generation of Jews. But I think what they’re missing out on is how much we have to offer the community now. Instead of telling us to meet Jews and have Jewish babies, show us the value of Judaism. Tell us what Jewish life can look like. Inspire us to have Jewish babies.
Are you seeing that people want to have the Jewish experience outside of traditional institutions?
I think it’s a “Yes, and.” I firmly believe in institutional Jewish life. I’m one of those few millennials who belongs to a synagogue. I love it. I pay dues, I go to services, I have friends who miss me if I’m not there. But institutions don’t exactly know what to do with adult Jewish people who don’t have kids. I don’t need a wedding. I don’t need a nursery school or religious school. I don’t need a bat mitzvah. What I need is a place I can go to grow my whole self. And I think we’re filling in the gaps where we can.
So, do I think these outside groups are the future? No, I just think they used to evolve within institutions and are now outside it. Because we don’t meet each other in shul, we meet each other on Facebook, we have to find new ways to make those meaningful connections. But I certainly wouldn’t want to replace institutional Jewish life.
What do you see as the intersection of cycling and Judaism?
I don’t think you have to reconcile it. Rabbi Shira [Stutman], on a ride from Sixth & I to the Georgetown waterfront, talked about when we were all riding together, we helped each other. There was this natural desire to be in relationship without saying it. When you do something together there becomes this mentality of connection, which is Jewish, which is supportive and connective.
You’ve mentioned doing a lot of community-building. What about that so appeals to you?
Oh, so much. I was really an outcast, like in high school. I realized it’s hard to build community. I mentioned this to Rabbi Shira and she said to me, “Here’s the thing: everyone says they want community until they find one. Then they’re done.” And so, from that moment on, I’ve focused on not standing in a circle, but standing in a semi-circle — always leave space for another person.
If I can help create the communities that make people feel good, then I’m just going to do it. I can’t fix Jewish life for single women in their 30s. I would love to. I would love to stand up in front of whoever I can get to listen to me and say, “Trust us. Give us more than a mandate to have babies. Give us more than a happy hour. Gives us more.” Can’t fix it. So, I do what I can where I can and I participate in the rest.
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