Cheryl Pruce packs about as much into every day as is humanly possible.

By day, she is a senior research analyst at the education non-profit, National Association of Independent Schools. Meanwhile, she founded Minyan of Thinkers, a dialogue-based initiative that brings together young people to, as she puts it, “grapple with scholarly texts related to major and often contentious Jewish issues.” (Pruce also teaches cardio hip-hop dance classes in her essentially nonexistent spare time.)

Minyan of Thinkers participants have examined the topics of intermarriage and Jewish identity and are currently discussing race in America. The 2016-2017 cohort, which is called Connect and co-led by Lionel Foster, is examining the book White Rage by Carol Anderson and focusing on racial injustice and inequality. Minyan of Thinkers cohorts have typically been geared towards Jewish young professionals, but the race-focused cohort is explicitly both interracial and multi-faith.

The cohort also recently inspired Pruce to double down on her dialogue facilitating efforts. Over MLK Day weekend she organized and hosted a racial justice retreat, supported and co-sponsored by Repair the World and Moishe House. The purpose of the retreat was to create space for young Jewish people to explore the intersection of Jewishness and racial justice.

MLK Heschel

Held in Washington DC, the retreat began with Sixth & I Synagogue’s annual MLK Shabbat service, which honors the legacies of Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Over the course of the weekend, retreat participants – people that Pruce described as “open minded and open hearted young people” from across the professional and Jewish observance spectrums – attended discussions and skill building sessions led by facilitators Michele Freed (pictured at center in top photo), Suzanne Feinspan, and Avi Edelman. They also gathered informally for dinners, havdalah, and a “racial justice pillow talk” session. “There were 12 or 13 of us scrunched into one hotel room eating wine and cheese and talking openly,” Pruce said. “It was one of the highlights of the weekend.”

Pruce’s work and her seemingly tireless committment begs two questions: why does she do it, and how the heck does she do it?

The “why” part, she says, is easy and comes down to a sense of spiritual purpose. “This is the work I’m supposed to be doing,” she said. “I can’t change the whole world, and I can’t get rid of politicians. But I can convene young people who are thoughtful and creative to think about how the world should be.”

The “how” aspect is more complicated, but brings to light an exciting shift within the world of Jewish community engagement. Minyan of Thinkers and the racial justice retreat were both lay-led, DIY ventures. “The space we’ve created feels very neutral and non-hierarchical,” Pruce said. “It gives people the chance to think through things for ourselves.”

Meanwhile, innovative Jewish organizations are moving away from a “top down” model of Jewish communal engagement and finding ways to encourage and lift up the people who are doing great work on the ground. Pruce, who believes Moishe House and Repair the World are on the cutting edge of this model, worked closely with the staffs of both organizations. Moishe house provided support on the planning and retreat side, she said. Repair the World, meanwhile, provided invaluable content ideas and connections.

“In the last few years I have seen a major shift from Jewish organizations towards empowering young people to lead,” Pruce said. “I’m grateful to be a part of that wave.”

The demand is high for programs like Minyan of Thinkers and the MLK Weekend racial justice retreat, as young people – both Jewish and not – seek ways to connect more deeply to one another and to the issues that matter. “This is a form of resistance,” Pruce said.”This is what motivates me.”