For generations, Jews have thought of synagogues as the institution that nurtured their religious and spiritual lives. But as growing percentages of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, synagogues that do not nourish souls are suffering from a loss of relevance and declining membership numbers. This is happening at a time when trends in American society (e.g. effects of internet culture, the erosion of social capital, partisanship replacing the “public square”), are making the need for spiritual community greater than ever before.
American Jewish life is in a time of transition that calls for bold, new thinking and the development of new models for identification. Membership and affiliation patterns that have sustained synagogues and other legacy Jewish institutions for more than a century are eroding. At the same time, we see a dramatic growth of interest and energy in new expressions of Jewish community. Some are focused on learning. Some are focused on social justice. Some are focused on contemplative practice and spirituality. Some are focused on food and environmental sustainability. Some are focused on prayer. Some look like synagogues; some do not. Each sector has seen one or more organizations emerge that have either seeded the phenomenon or have created a network to sustain and support the phenomenon.
What the sectors have in common is that they utilize a particular idiom unique to contemporary American culture that attracts other Jews with similar interests. The richness of the Jewish heritage is literally being re-invented in our time by the way in which Jewish wisdom is being applied to the challenges that confront our world today. If properly nurtured and encouraged, these “communities of meaning” can form the nucleus of an American Jewish renaissance. Communities of meaning are networks of individuals that are inspired by an idea or a practice that enrich the lives of participants and/or significantly improve conditions in the world for others.
The Kenissa Network provides a forum where the people leading contemporary efforts to re-define Jewish life and community for themselves can come together, learn from each other and be supported in their efforts to create communities of meaning. Kenissa is the Hebrew word for “entrance-way” and we use it because so many of these emerging communities of meaning provide a portal into Jewish life for many who might be otherwise averse to Jewish engagement with more conventional Jewish institutions.
The Kenissa Network gathers together individuals whose work and/or thinking can advance an understanding of this phenomenon from many different sectors of the Jewish world. Participants benefit from seeing their particular endeavors in the context of a changing socio-political landscape and a rapidly changing Jewish community. We also engage significant thinkers and practitioners beyond the Jewish world that enrich and broaden our conversation.
Over the course of the next five years we intend to build and collect a body of knowledge and broaden the universe of participants. It will eventually incorporate thinkers and practitioners from other faith communities in America. The Initiative is being led by Rabbi Sid Schwarz, author of, among other books, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community. Co-sponsors of the Initiative are Hazon, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, JOIN for Justice, Mechon Hadar and Upstart.
Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network is being supported by lead funding from the William Davidson Foundation. Additional support is provided by the William and Audrey Farber Family Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. Kenissa is fiscally sponsored by Hazon.
Note: The articles below were written in the first year of the project and so they use the original name, The New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative (NPSCI).
- Click here read theNew York Jewish Week cover story by Gary Rosenblatt about the inaugural NPSCI Consultation
- Click here to read project director Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s observations about the importance of NPSCI in eJewish Philanthropy
- Click here to understand the rationale for the name: Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network