Building a New Community from Scratch
This week’s column is by Lauren Spokane of the New Synagogue Project, an emerging Jewish community in in Washington, D.C.
The four propositions laid out by Sid Schwarz are clearly reflected in the community we are building in the Washington, DC region through the New Synagogue Project (NSP). Here is how each proposition shows up in our community and I offer a fifth proposition to add to the framework: Solidarity.
At the New Synagogue Project, we welcome anyone who is committed to our mission of creating spiritually vibrant, radically inclusive Jewish community that reflects a vision for a world of justice, equity, and liberation. We believe strongly that there is no such thing as a hierarchy of Jewishness based on observance, Jewish background, or parentage. Judaism and Jewish culture belong to all of us! We are an inclusive, pluralistic community of families with kids, couples and single people, queer and trans people, interfaith families, Jews of color and white Jews, religious, secular, and atheist Jews, and anyone interested in exploring and experiencing Jewish life.
As a result, we are creating a range of programs that allow people – regardless of background – to explore the wisdom of Jewish texts and culture. During our Shabbat morning Torah study, we provide participants with a diverse mix of Jewish and contemporary secular texts to put in conversation with the Torah portion. We are designing the many areas of communal activity we are building – e.g. our chesed/community care structures, our justice work, and arts, culture, and learning programming – as multiple pathways to explore and put Jewish wisdom into practice.
Members of our community are longing for a Jewish home that is authentically and unabashedly committed to social, economic, and racial justice. For many like me, this is in contrast to the experience we grew up with. And for many others, this is something they treasured from their experience in synagogue growing up (or in other communities they’ve been part of as adults) and are looking for now.
At Kol Nidre services this past fall, our rabbi, Joseph Berman, said in his sermon, “What if by next year this time, we loved ourselves and one another enough that we could be brave enough together to march out of here and shut down an ICE facility?” That’s the kind of spiritual community that I and our members are looking for.
In our community, though, this commitment to justice cannot stop at the borders of the United States. We are building a community focused on the liberation of all people. Many of the first movers of this project are people who are seeking a spiritual home congruent with their political commitments to end the occupation and to act in solidarity with Palestinians. We oppose the Israeli military occupation of Palestine and, as a community, we do not want to link our spiritual practice with any form of political nationalism.
Our members’ desire for a place to belong and call home is a key factor in how we have built the synagogue. We wanted not just a place to pray every few weeks – which a variety of independent minyanim offer – but an institution with structures to help us care for and support one another. One of our lay leaders described this as a desire to expect that if they haven’t shown up for a while, someone notices and asks if they’re OK. We created a membership structure within the first three months of gathering together as a community and six months later, we now have 135 family and individual members, 90% of whom are in their 20s and 30s. Contrary to popular belief, we have found that young people do want to join a synagogue, if it represents their values and is designed with their needs in mind.
For us, becoming a member is a spiritual and political act, a brit (a covenant) in which people enter into sacred relationship. Anchored by a web of mutual support and obligation, members share a commitment to each other, to the community as a whole, and to our shared values.
Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedusha
One of the impacts of capitalism is dehumanization. In our economic system, which also dominates our politics, we are all primarily valued as instruments of production. In spiritual community, we can re-humanize. We can be seen for our inherent human dignity, as made in the image of G!d. We can explore our deeply human desires to create, imagine, explore. I know that this is a big part of why I have felt so driven to spend so much of my life-force over the past year in building this community.
One proposition I would add to Schwarz’s framework is Solidarity – authentic relationship and partnership with communities outside our own and between members of our community that carry different identities and experiences of marginalization. We are only in the very early stages of building our community, having launched less than a year ago, but already I can see the kernels of this vision coming to being.
The day after the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, for example, we joined with friends at the Justice for Muslims Collective and the March for Racial Justice for a Solidarity Vigil for Victims of Anti-Semitism and Racism, attended by over 300 people. Together, we declared that the path to safety for all is in building joint struggles for justice and showing up to protect and defend one another from all forms of supremacy, racism, and bigotry.
On MLK Day a few weeks ago, on the coldest day of the year, thirty NSP members went across town to Anacostia, a historic black neighborhood in DC, to cheer on the MLK Day Parade, discuss the ways we want to show up for others in 2019, and advocate for decriminalizing fare evasion in the DC Metro system that impacts people of color. We see this as a first step toward building an understanding of our role as predominantly newcomers to DC and in building authentic relationships with people within and outside our community who are directly impacted by displacement. Relationships of solidarity allow us to fight together for our collective liberation and we see this as an important, central principle of the spiritual community that we are building.
Lauren Spokane is the lead instigator and founding board chair of the New Synagogue Project, an emerging Jewish community in DC that is spiritually vibrant, radically inclusive and reflects a vision of justice, equity, and liberation. She has been involved in building innovative Jewish communities and in faith-based social justice organizing for more than a decade.