Rabbi Shelly Barnathan

Or Zarua, an emerging community of meaning located in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, focuses on the spiritual needs of empty nesters/baby boomers who are engaged, socially responsible Jews searching for alternatives to the “traditional” synagogue model. Our name, Or Zarua, comes from Psalm 97:11, or zarua latzadik, “light is sown for the righteous,” exemplifies our mission to access the or/light in each one of us. To accomplish our mission, Or Zarua focuses on a blend of the four areas that Rabbi Sid proposes as the “key to a renaissance of Jewish life.”

Kehillah – Or Zarua was created to provide deep, spiritually relevant, supportive Jewish community in which each member is authentically known and cared for. Or Zarua is not a “top-down” model in which wisdom is “delivered” from the rabbi to congregants. Rather, Or Zarua is a relational, co-constructed community in which each person’s skills and talents are lifted up. As rabbi, I spend much time, over many cups of coffee, discovering the background, interests and spiritual goals of Or Zarua members and participants. I love to hear people’s stories and I find joy in connecting participants to one another to facilitate their self-organization and co-leadership of Or Zarua offerings.

Our community is multi-talented. We are blessed with musicians, artists, actors, writers, poets, yoga and Qigong leaders, Jewish storytellers, chant and mindfulness guides, Mussar teachers, and prayer leaders. We honor one another, with great appreciation for the terumah – the contribution of the heart – that each person makes by sharing his/her talents and gifts.

Kedusha – Holiness is the centerpiece of Or Zarua. Our goal is to live lives of kedusha both individually and collectively. We open every conversation, every offering, even our coffee meetings, with the bracha, la’asok b’divrei Torah, “engaging in matters of Torah” so that we are always mindful of the holy purpose of our work together, from the loftiest of goals down to the most minute, tachlis details necessary to plan well-designed, meaningful offerings.

In our community, we aim to access the or/light in each one of us through living our Jewish values. Each Hebrew month at Or Zarua centers on a thematic Jewish value – our themes have included hakarat hatov – noticing the good; nedivut – generosity; shtikah – mindful silence before speaking; and other Mussar related values. These themes connect us to one another, reminding us to bring holiness into our week and binding us again in kedusha as we join in prayerful community on weekends.

At Or Zarua our prayer life is an expression of both personal and collective kedusha.  Our prayer is grounded in the traditional roots of Judaism, with the addition of creative practices such as chant, mindfulness, and movement, in order for our prayer to touch the deepest and truest places in our souls. We focus on accessing our emet – our authentic truth – so that we can bring our holiest selves to each other in our relationships, and thus, to the world. We focus on appreciative language with one another, naming and honoring the holiness that we see in each other.

Chochma, Binah, Da’at – Wisdom comes in many forms at Or Zarua. At each of our Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning offerings, we focus on the parashah of the week, looking both at the original Torah text and also at commentary. A signature piece of our community is our learning through group discussion, allowing each person to be both learner and teacher. As rabbi, I feel blessed to serve as both facilitator and guide, seeking out commentary/reflections that honor the original text, while also offering space for interpretation, questioning, and opportunities to make relevant meaning in our lives. In this way, the chochma/mind level of learning expands to binah and da’at, touching our hearts and our souls, allowing us to “soak in” Torah, deeply and fully. In addition to Torah study on Shabbat, we offer weekday classes that address “whole person learning,” of particular relevance to the needs and interests of the baby boomer/empty nester generation. “Wise Aging,” “Composing Your Further Life,” Mussar groups, and Women’s Circles are core Or Zarua offerings. What is shared and learned in these safe, confidential and supportive groups is holy.

Tzedek– Our community is highly committed to serving others in the greater community and world, and our members demonstrate generosity through gifts of both material items and time. Our tzedek work reflects the “co-constructed” nature of our community, with members creating, self-organizing, and implementing our tikkun olam offerings. We feel fortunate to be a “nimble” community in which ideas of members can be enacted in an organic and timely fashion without the necessity of standard committee procedures. Members of our community research different tzedakah causes, making sure that they align with our core values of interfaith understanding, equal rights, free speech, and aid for those in need. Our members then create hands-on tzedakah projects and offerings that help us to build holy community.

In addition to tikkun olam support to those in need in the greater community and world, the practice of gemilut hasadim, supporting one another in times of joy, sorrow, and challenge, is core to our Or Zarua community. As baby boomers/empty nesters, we are sandwiched between generations, providing care for our elderly parents, adult children and grandchildren, while trying, at the same time, to keep ourselves healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

Through the blend of Rabbi Sid’s four areas, we feel that we, at Or Zarua, can become a deep, spiritually relevant, supportive Jewish community, allowing us to leave a legacy of authentic meaning to our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.


Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, a second career rabbi and 2015 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is a child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household. Shelly loves to blend the traditional with the creative and spiritual in Judaism in order to make the deepest, most relevant meaning possible with her fellow community members of Or Zarua.

Is this post useful and interesting? Please consider sharing it with your social networks, and leave a comment below telling us your thoughts!