On any given night, dozens of students and young adults can be found at Silverstein Base Hillel in Lincoln Park engaging in discussions about Judaism and the environment, celebrating Shabbat, or exploring the weekly parsha (Torah portion) over tacos.
Since Silverstein Base Hillel: Lincoln Park-an initiative of JUF's Metro Chicago Hillel-opened in 2016, Rabbi Megan and Paige GoldMarche have engaged more than 1,000 young adults in Jewish life.
"We thought we had a great concept, but were blown away by the numbers of individuals reached and the qualitative outcomes," said Charles Cohen, executive director of Metro Chicago Hillel. "We thought we'd reach a certain amount of people-we exceeded that by 50 percent. Immediately, the question was, 'How can we expand?' We began asking, 'How can we open a second one?'"
A second Base Hillel just opened in the South Loop. It will follow the same model: a young rabbinic couple hosts events out of their own home. Rabbi Ezra Balser and his wife, Laura, were selected to lead the new Base Loop Hillel, generously underwritten by the brothers, Bill, Ted, and Tom Silverstein. Base Loop Hillel is positioned to serve undergraduate students from UIC, Columbia College, The Art Institute of Chicago, IIT, and Roosevelt University. It will also serve the more than 1,000 Jewish graduate students in the Loop as well as the growing population of young Jews in the area.
"We want to foster an enduring Jewish life by modeling a Jewish home," Ezra said. "If we can build a warm and welcoming space for people to interact with us as Jewish leaders, and if they can feel comfortable growing in their Judaism in our home and taking that with them beyond our home, that's the dream."
In addition to being a Jewish educator at Base Loop Hillel, Laura works as an attorney. Ezra was previously the rabbi of a congregation on Boston's South Shore. Before entering rabbinical school, he taught at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, worked at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and New England, and was a youth director at Northfield's Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation.
"Working with young adults is my passion," Ezra said. "When I saw this job, it was really a lot of our interests in one place. It's intentional, it's immersive in that part of the experience is being in our apartment. You're coming into a Jewish world that we are intentionally curating for the people who come into it."
In his previous positions, Ezra found meaning in offering guidance and mentorship to young adults during a "pivotal moment in their lives."
"Young adults have an intelligence about them that allows them to ask meaningful questions about the world around them, but there are still a lot of pieces missing from their lives and they don't necessarily know what that is or how to put them in place," Ezra said. "There's a creative energy that comes with working with this population that is exciting and limitless."
Students, young adults, and community members gathered in August to dedicate Ezra and Laura's new home by affixing mezuzahs to the home's doorposts.
"If the first event was any indication of the upcoming year," Cohen said, "the new Base is going to be great."