A couple of years ago, two innovation fellows at Harvard Divinity School astutely observed that many millennials were not affiliated with a religious institution. Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston gathered their findings in a co-authored paper called “How We Gather.” Their thesis, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” caught the attention of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) last spring when they came to present to CJP’s Strategic Planning team. Combining forces with ter Kuile and Thurston, CJP launched the Boston Community Leaders Cohort over the summer.

Casper ter Kuile recently spoke with JewishBoston about the genesis of this program to spiritually engage millennials. The London native, who comes from a background of climate change activism, said his interest stemmed from his own disaffiliation from a formal religious structure. He found that millennials were finding spiritual fulfillment in groups like SoulCycle or CrossFit. “Millennials were using words like ‘cult’ or ‘church’ to describe these organizations,” he said. “I wanted to know the experience of the people leading these communities. One of the big things I learned was how isolating it was to be in a position of leadership, especially if you’re performing a pastoral role.”

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Over the course of four days in 2015, Thurston and ter Kuile brought a group of 110 millennial leaders together at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. The theme of the retreat was “formation,” and each participant was asked to contemplate: “How do you become the person or leader you want to be? How do you want to be formed?” The participants were further asked to focus on diverse topics, such as how one cultivates a Sabbath practice and how they think about race—both in the communities they lead and within themselves. The diverse breadth of attendees included Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons and Buddhists.

At the behest of Harris Rollinger, a former senior program and development officer at CJP who oversaw social innovation and entrepreneurship strategy, Thurston and ter Kuile reported on the success of the retreat to CJP. From there, ter Kuile said forming a partnership with CJP was an organic process. He and Thurston had already hosted two retreats and they found that participants wanted a continued connection post-meeting. Molly Paul, a project specialist at CJP who works on strategic initiatives within the planning department, has become the organization’s point person for the Boston Community Leaders Cohort.

Paul echoed ter Kuile’s assertion that millennials are engaging with institutions in an unprecedented way. “As an organization that supports institutions in creating experiences for the next generation, CJP has a lot to offer leaders regarding networks, resources and capacity,” she told JewishBoston.

The Boston Community Leaders Cohort launched this past fall. Paul reported that these 20 leaders within Boston are all engaged in community-building work. Some of the projects are religious in nature, some are explicitly Jewish and others are secular.

CJP, Thurston and ter Kuile designed the nine-month fellowship for this first class, which began with its own gathering at the Jewish Retreat Center. “In this first group of millennial leaders, CJP created a holding container for the Boston area for those people connected to this work,” said ter Kuile. “This is extremely important—without someone holding the group together, things tend to peter out.” The group plans to meet again next May to see how these various communities have found a way to interact together and even collaborate.

Within this current cohort, the projects are as diverse as the people who lead them. Among them are founders of a virtual prayer group, the membership chair of Moishe Kavod House in Boston, a cardiology researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital who is originally from Aleppo, Syria, and a social justice activist with a focus on food entrepreneurship. Paul expects all of the fellows “will have a leadership development experience that could help [CJP] as a Jewish institution learn how community leaders are building institutions for millennials.”

The cohort meets monthly to share experiences, find points of collaboration and hear TED-style talks. Fifty percent of the participants are not Jewish, but each session, according to Paul, “has some Judaism infused in it.” Mentorship is built into the program by including five “elders”—including a congregationalist pastor and a clinical psychologist—who provide a spiritual context for participants’ work. Paul noted that “each of these elders knows the practices and belief systems of institutions in general and brings an institutional understanding of the world.”

Paul and ter Kuile emphasized that this pilot year of the Boston Community Leaders Cohort is one of education. As ter Kuile observed, this year is about information gathering and learning “to do ancient things in new ways.” Paul said she is excited to see what she, her CJP colleagues and the cohort learn in this inaugural year. “This program is truly representative of the innovative spirit, and I’m excited about the ways we can make a huge difference in the way the next generations engage with communities, institutions and the world around them,” she said.

Find more information about the Boston Community Leaders Cohort here.