Jewish Spiritual Community: Filling a Need

Rabbi Bridget Wynne

This month’s post is by Rabbi Bridget Wynne, founder and director of Jewish Gateways, an open community in the San Francisco Bay Area, for wondering and wandering Jews and their family and friends.

Jewish Gateways, the community I founded, grew from my experience of the disconnect between what synagogues offered and what many Jews and their families wanted. I first noticed this in rabbinical school. Rabbis were supposed to plan and offer activities and then try to get people to come. This seemed backwards.

I’d been a community organizer, seeing people as co-creators we could learn from rather than as consumers that we, as rabbis, would serve. I was trained to ask questions about my peoples’ lives and concerns, listen to their responses and what might be beneath them, look for common values that brought us together, and create from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

As a synagogue rabbi I experienced this disconnect more deeply. I met many people outside the synagogue who would discover that I was a rabbi and say, confession style: “I’m Jewish … sort of” or, “I’m a bad Jew.”

Asked what they meant, they often said they felt both connected to and alienated from Jewishness. For many this was uncomfortable, even painful. They spoke about not knowing much about Judaism and feeling embarrassed in Jewish spaces. They spoke about finding Jewish rituals boring, or not believing in God, or having negative experiences with Judaism. Many felt unwelcome because of who they were – the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother; in an interfaith relationship; a person of color; LGBTQI; not having the “right” sort of job; having a disability.  

I knew that Jewish tradition can be more open and meaningful than the people who spoke with me realized. What had alienated them was not Judaism. It was the narrow ways Judaism had been presented – as something you do because “that’s what Jews do.” Clearly, there was little appeal to join a community that focused on the car you drove or the college you went to. Many, especially those with little Jewish experience, also felt that people on the “inside” treated them as if they didn’t belong.

I could picture what might be helpful to these people – a place where they would be met ”where they were,” with no assumptions about their knowledge or identity; where all questions were welcome; where they could explore Judaism at their own pace and discover what was meaningful, alive, and real for them; where Judaism was seen as a way to address deep human needs – for meaning, purpose, experiences of the sacred, authentic community, wisdom for life’s challenges, and more – rather than as a means for Jewish survival.

It was a compelling vision. I decided to go ahead and try to create it. I started Jewish Gateways outside my synagogue work and was amazed by the many people who showed up saying, “I wish I’d known about something like this sooner.”

Wisdom and community were the k’nissot, entrances, that most people came seeking. I worked to create an open, non-institutional environment, connecting with people where they were, as individuals who mattered. I encouraged them to connect with one another. We had Shabbat dinners with Jewish learning, workshops, classes of with up to three sessions, and “My Jewish Journey” groups in which participants explored how they wanted to bring Judaism into their lives.

I thought that people would learn, explore, and understand more about what they wanted Jewishly, and then be ready to find a permanent “destination” elsewhere. I intended to fill a specific, limited need, not create an ongoing Jewish community. In addition, this was not my “real” job. I was serving a congregation over and above my work with Jewish Gateways.

But I found that most people didn’t want to move on. They wanted more of Jewish Gateways. So, with participants who took on leadership roles we began to expand, creating what seemed most needed. Jumping ahead several years we have grown from a “gateway” into an open, non-membership community that blends three of the “propositions” Rabbi Sid articulates in Jewish Megatrends: wisdom/chochma, community/kehilla, and lives of sacred purpose/kedusha. People come seeking the first two, chochma and kehilla; the third, kedusha, they often discover. The intermingling of these three has happened organically as we discover what participants want and choose to help create.

Schwarz describes chochma as the “wisdom of our sacred texts put into the context of the world’s religions and in the language of contemporary culture.” The people who come to Jewish Gateways are not seeking to learn about Jewish wisdom in the context of other religions. They are excited to discover that Jewish wisdom can connect to their real lives, that responses to classical rabbinic texts are varied and ever-changing, and that they can be part of this sacred conversation.

Kehilla is part of how we draw on chochma. Schwarz writes about kehilla that “the Jewish community must offer places where people can find support in times of need, communal celebration in times of joy, and friendships to make life fulfilling.”

We explore Jewish wisdom in small groups, often in people’s homes. Over time, these groups become kehillot, micro-communities, in which people can be vulnerable enough to reflect on big questions like: What is my purpose in life? How can I make a difference in the world? What perspectives can I draw on, and how can I create hope when the world seems to be a mess, when those I love or I face loss? How can I be more of the person I want to be? How do we talk about, or experience, the sacred?

Connecting with others about these issues in an environment in which each person is listened to and respected helps create relationships that feel “real.” We create settings where our people can get past the superficiality that is so typical of most social conversations. People are hungry for these opportunities. They create the community that, in turn can provide the support, celebration, and friendship that Schwarz describes.

These experiences of chochma and kehilla lead into kedusha, which Schwarz describes as “provid[ing] holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose.” Kedusha is rarely what participants were seeking, but they are moved when they discover it.

It was the disconnection I experienced that started me on this path. Truly connecting with people, and helping them to connect with one another, has guided me, and us, forward.

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Rabbi Bridget Wynne was ordained by HUC-JIR. Before attending rabbinical school, she worked as a community organizer, which gave her the perspective and skills needed to meet people where they are and help them create the Jewish lives and connections they choose. She founded and directs Jewish Gateways, an open community in the San Francisco Bay Area, for wondering and wandering Jews and their family and friends.