A Conceptual Framework for 21st Century American Jewish Life

The conceptual framework for the Kenissa initiative comes from the theme essay from Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. In that essay Schwarz argues that any organization that hopes to speak to the next generation of American Jews needs to advance one or more of four key value propositions. They are:

  • Chochma – engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage;
  • Kedusha – helping people live lives of sacred purpose;
  • Tzedek – inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world; and
  • Kehillah – creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission.

At the first national gathering of the Kenissa initiative in March 2016 a fifth value proposition was added based on feedback from the participants. That value was:

  • Yetzira – the human ability to imagine/invent/create ideas, science, art and culture.

What emerged quite organically at that first gathering was a Venn diagram that attempted to represent the five value propositions and how they might overlap. Increasingly the value propositions came to be discussed as themes or “portals”, representing the doorways through which Jews might enter into Jewish life. That is how the project came to be called Kenissa, the Hebrew word for “entrance-way”.

Every organization/community invited to the first gathering was able to see their work through one or more of the themes. Most saw one as primary. Part of the conversation that has taken place over the first three years of the Kenissa initiative is how emerging Jewish communities of meaning might integrate one of more additional themes to the one that was their original focus.

In the original Venn diagram, the all-encompassing theme was kehillah as it was felt that all the other themes were experienced on the platform of the larger “community”. At our first Cross-Training in December 2016, one of our participants, Meir Lakein of JOIN for Justice in Boston, argued that kedusha should be the all-encompassing theme since every portal represented a “sacred purpose” to those who were drawn to each respective theme. We liked the case that Meir made (you can read it here) and adopted it as Kenissa’s basic Venn diagram. Of course, there is no one “right” Venn diagram. The conversations that the alternative models generated reflected the fact that the entire phenomenon that Kenissa is supporting, is “emergent”. It seems appropriate that the Venn diagram is also “emergent”.

The conversation about Venn diagrams was fascinating and pregnant with possibilities. It led the organizers of the Kenissa Consultation to begin inviting participants to create their own Venn diagrams with their own commentaries on how they saw the respective themes relating to one another. In some cases, participants even added additional themes to their respective diagrams. We believe that this exercise represents the very vitality of 21st century American Jewish life as we begin to re-imagine how an ancient tradition can bring meaning and purpose to our own lives.

We invite you to join in the conversation for that is how Jewish life will remain vibrant and relevant.

Gallery of Alternative Venn Diagrams by Members of the Kenissa Network

Scroll forward to see all ten diagrams

  • Guy-Austrian-

    As a spiritual community we are supposed to be a kehillah kedoshah. This diagram gives equal prominence to kehillah and kedusha, with lots of overlap but some not. They mutually reinforce each other, and each needs the other. As an halachic, egalitarian congregation for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, our egalitarian ideals (tzedek) interact with the wisdom of our tradition (chochma) and the creativity of our lived lives (yetzira), and all of these three influence one another and fuel the sacred fire at the heart of a spiritually alive community.

    Rabbi Guy Austrian
    Fort Tyron Jewish Center
    Washington Heights, NY

  • Deborah-Fishman

    In my Venn, the community (kehillah) is the level of reality and of people, represented by a rectangle (which could stand for a communal building, or home, or other real structure). Holiness (kedusha), is represented by a cloud above the community. It is the level of spiritual potential toward which the community aspires. Then, there is a never-ending cycle which exists to connect the people’s reality to the aspired spiritual potential and back again. Wisdom (chochma) comes from the holy tradition and comes down to the level of the community. Creativity (yetzira) comes up from the community and becomes holy. This cycle between wisdom and creativity feeds on itself, on the real people and on holiness. Finally, justice (tzedek) is the cog in the middle of the wheel which holds it together and centers it.

    Deborah Fishman
    New York, NY

  • Carla-Friend

    I originally thought that kedusha (Sacred Purpose) did not fit directly into Tkiya’s work but I then realized that our work is grounded and rooted there, giving us a basis on which to grow. Kehilla (community) is what we are continuing to build and grow through our work, branching off in all different directions for the many diverse communities that we serve. I picture the inner rings of the trunk building upon themselves, strengthening the foundation, and each branch is a new direction that we try, not yet knowing if it will grow to be a permanent part of the tree, will get overshadowed by another branch, or eventually fall off altogether. The leaves are different programs and experiences that we create on these branches. Any given program includes aspects of yetzira (creativity), tzedek (justice), and/or chochma (wisdom). Just as leaves fall off a tree and grow anew, we are constantly prototyping, adjusting, and giving new life to the experiences we share with our communities.

    Carla Friend
    Tkiyah: The Jewish Community Music Initiative
    Brooklyn, NY

  • Stephanie Levin

    When thinking about the larger Jewish experience, for me, kedusha and kehillah are always linked. Judaism is lived in community by design and, being in a community – the connection to it, responsibility for it, and the joy of it – cannot be separated from each person’s sacred purpose on some level. To illustrate this, I have intertwined kedusha and kehillah and created a large ring with them to hold everything. Chochma, yetzira and tzedek are all central and all are all connected to each other as they are to kedusha and kehillah, so I created spirals for each of them that all intertwine together. I see kehillah and kedusha both as the container that holds everything as well as the central meaning/destination so I created an additional spiral of both of them in the center of tzedek, yetzira and chochma. Kedusha and kehillah hold everything together and also draw us into the center of ourselves and the community. Every element touches every other element because we are incomplete without all of them.

    Stephanie Levin
    Peninsula JCC
    Foster City, CA

  • Naomi-Malka

    Everything is rooted in Holiness.
    The tree trunk represents the Community, growing and strong.
    The branches and fruits of the tree are the Creations of this Community. Clouds of Wisdom hover above, providing shade and moisture.
    The Dew of Justice reaches into the branches and touches all Creation.

    Naomi Malka
    Adat Israel Community Mikvah
    Washington D.C.

  • Jakir-Manela

    Perhaps the pillars form a kind of cyclical process:

    • Chochma — Jewish wisdom and values — give us the shared foundation upon which we can build community, holiness, and action;
    • Kehillah — community — are the relationships we weave with those with whom we share values and shared resonance for particular articulations of Jewish wisdom, chochma;
    • Kedusha — holiness. Once we are personally and communally inspired and imbued with resonant expressions of Jewish wisdom and have built strong relationships into a resilient web of community, kedusha – holiness can be felt at its deepest level through ritual, prayer, Shabbat, holiday celebrations, etc.  Without real chochma and kehillah as the foundation, kedusha is felt at a more superficial level
    • Tzedek — justice. Coming from a cup overfloweth perspective, once we have ritualized and sanctified and strengthened/bonded our community, we need to take the ultimate step in embodying our values as individuals and as a community by bringing justice into the world. We do this most effectively when we are acting with a sense of holy purpose, when we act collectively, and when we are deeply informed by Jewish wisdom.
    • And we don’t stop with tzedek. Rather we continue the process of continually engaging in the Jewish learning process, building community, creating sanctity, and then acting towards justice in the world. An ongoing upward spiral, aspiring to greater heights at every level.

    Jakir Manela
    Pearlstone Jewish Retreat Center
    Reisterstown, MD

  • Millspaugh

    Since we have direct relationship to G-d/Mystery/the Ground of Being, as did our ancestors, and creation’s interplay is ongoing, this creative interchange is more active in some places (synagogues, communities, organizations, elsewhere) than others, I added “Emergence/Revelation” as a fourth circle. After adding this, another conference attendee noted that this category is central to Judaism.

    Having “community” completely surround the three circles (in the current “official” iteration) implies to me that the inner three concepts only manifest in community, or that community is the sole focus of Kenissa (excluding nonprofits other than communities, of which there are many, and many here). So rather than community being a circle, it is here drawn as a flower — to note that some legacy and new communities have nothing to do with tzedek, chochma, or kedusha (to use only the three categories of the original sketch), and some portion of these three have existence outside of — but next to — community.

    Some intersections show up in more than one place — for example, at the top of the diagram, I’ve labelled two spaces with a small “A” and “B.” Each represents intersections between three areas: sacred purpose, justice, and community. Though each area represents legitimate expressions of that intersection, they are separate. This depicts and emphasizes that this combination legitimately occurs in entirely distinct ways.

    This feature (noted in #4) applies to all intersections between all elements in the diagram — each intersection of 2, 3, or 4 elements, as well as each individual element. The white space outside of the diagram represents interdependence, as this world and this work must exist in the duality between independence and interdependence. This white space would better be depicted by a presence (perhaps radiating lines) rather than the current white space.

    Rev. John Millspaugh
    Better Food Foundation/Jewish Initiative for Animals
    San Diego, CA

  • Jon Adam Ross 1

    I started with Justice and Creativity. Those are the driving forces of my approach to building community. Once community is established, we can begin the work of digging into collective wisdom. The deeper we dig, the closer we get to finding our sacred purpose and determine what art we can make to express what we’ve discovered through the journey.

    Jon Adam Ross
    The In(heir)itance Project
    New York, NY

  • Irene Sandalow 1

    The drawing is both what I think what we should be and what we are. We are first and foremost a community with a shared narrative and a sense of mutual responsibility (kehillah). I meant to make circles all around the page, not just the top left.

    Jewish wisdom is foundational to who we are. Our Torah, our shared narrative is based on the stories we tell each other year after year, week after week. Our interpretation of Jewish historical events and milestones denote what we think we ought to do or believe. (For example, we say that the destruction of the Temple was due to baseless hatred, which means we need to commit ourselves achdut. We tell the story of tanur shel achnai (Achnai’s oven, a famous Talmudic story, because we want to believe in a Judaism that empowers the people close to the Torah to define our way of life. Not a voice from Heaven etc.)

    Kehillah and chochma creates kedusha, a sacred purpose. You can’t have kedusha without kehillah or chochma. Yetzira, the creative side to Jewish life, is sometimes in sync or inspired by communal values and wisdom; sometimes it sits outside of it. That’s a good thing. Art and creativity should challenge communal norms and conventional wisdom. Sometimes yetzira enhances kehillah and kedusha.

    Tzedek is sometimes inspired by Jewish wisdom and communal responsibilities. However, a significant portion of the tzedek work is done by Jews because we think it is the right thing to do and we therefore attempt to make a bridge into kedusha, kehillah and chochma. Ideally, we would have more tzedek circles inside chochma, kehillah and kedusha. We grow our community of Jews who are motivated to justice work because they were first immersed in kedusha and chochma (not vice versa.)

    Irene Lehrer Sandalow
    Chicago, IL

  • Misha-Shulman

    The diagram is centered on a triangle: Religion/Truth – Politics/Justice – Art/Creativity, corresponding to their deeper elements in Judaism: emettzedekyetzira. While each of the elements can exist in its own right, they often overlap, reflect and enhance each other. The most potent and holistic spot, which I believe many of us aim at, is the eye in the middle, where the three overlap and co-exist. The triangle is contained within the rectangle of wisdom / chochma, a backdrop for the three elements, which finds expression through them. In the School for Creative Judaism, for example, learning is the vessel through which religion, art and politics are explored and expressed.

    Misha Shulman
    School for Creative Judaism
    Brooklyn, NY

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