Megatrends: Born in the Counter-Culture of the 1960’s

The lead essay in Jewish Megatrends by Sid Schwarz is a very important analysis of American Jewish
Life.  It reminded me of other, much earlier, analyses of Jewish life by Mordecai Kaplan, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Charles Silberman, Arthur Waskow and many others.   It effectively synthesized much of the sociological data of the past decade and provides some important ideas about the way the Jewish community can and should move forward.

Much in the essay resonated with me as someone who has been intimately engaged in creating new Jewish communities since the late 1960’s.  Already, at that time, the “Megatrends” identified in the essay were beginning to emerge.   Many young Jews, influenced by the Civil Rights movement, the counterculture, the Vietnam War, liberation movements, Jewish feminism and the aftermath of the Six Day War, created new Jewish responses to the longstanding challenge of shaping a relevant American Jewish identity. And while the framing of a divide between “tribal” and “covenantal” Jewish identity in the Schwarz essay was new to me, the phenomenon that it describes, was not. As early as the 1960’s, many of us felt the struggle between competing streams of Jewish identification.  Many of us challenged the way that the organized Jewish community positioned Israel as central to any expression of diaspora Jewish identity. This was one of several reasons why many of us became increasingly alienated from mainstream Jewish life.

In the 1970’s, those of us with strong Jewish educational backgrounds from places like Ramah, Young Judaea and Habonim, created the Havurah Movement. Those of us with a love for the arts composed new Jewish music and new or revived older Jewish art forms. The power of the Jewish Catalogues and the work of people like Mae Rockland were so important.  I was involved in the creation of the Fabrangen Jewish Counter Culture Center in the early 1970’s.  Located in DuPont Circle section of Washington D.C., it created a true community that incorporated the four elements mentioned in Rabbi Sid’s Megatrends essay: kehilla/community; tzedek/social justice; chochma/Jewish learning; all infused with kedusha/offering a path of sacred purpose. Fabrangen also was also strongly driven by an engagement with music and the arts, a theme that was not given much attention in the Schwarz essay. In sum, our mission was to transform the larger Jewish community, its institutions and its stagnating culture.

I was also involved in the founding and development of The Kosher Kitchen (1975-1978), a not-for-profit restaurant and community center in Montgomery County, MD, just outside of Washington D.C. It was run as a collective by a dozen or so Jews in their 20’s. The Kosher Kitchen was not only a restaurant but something much more. We were a covenantal Jewish community that cared about Judaism, Jewish learning, Jewish culture, Jewish arts and justice. The entire enterprise was our response to the injustices of capitalism. For Jews, justice must be at the heart of a true covenantal community.  

All of the themes mentioned in Rabbi Sid’s essay have been at the core of ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.  The critical work of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shlomi, Arthur Waskow, Judith Plaskow, Art Green and Michael Lerner (and many others) has been so important in creating new ways to think about Judaism and American Jewish life.  ALEPH continues to serve as an incubator movement for so many new trends in American Jewish life that have revitalized many synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

For many years, I have served as the rabbi and leader of two communities in the Greater Washington DC area that have served hundreds of Jewish households– Kehila Chadasha and Am Kolel.  Not only have these kehillotprovided platforms for worship on shabbat and holidays, all Jewish life cycle ceremonies and an array of programs that one might find at American synagogues, we have been deeply committed to some issues that might be a bit too progressive for some mainstream congregations. That includes interfaith, intercultural bridge building, gender inclusivity and environmental activism. I take pride in the fact that these ventures have been supported by the people who we serve. We have not been supported by major funding from the organized Jewish community. It has been a struggle, but we find satisfaction in knowing that we have made an impact and are still engaged in pointing the way.   

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Rabbi David Shneyer is a Jewish educator, musician, organizer based in Rockville, MD.   He is a co-founder of the New Brunswick Havurah (1969); Fabrangen Jewish Free Culture Center (1971); the founder of the Jewish Folks Arts Society (1977); a founder of Kehila Chadasha (a havurah,1978); YACHAD; Am Kolel Judaic Resource Center and Jewish Renewal Community (1990); the Maalot Seminary (1990); Jews United for Justice (1998); and Sanctuary Retreat Center (2006).