At the first national Consultation for the New Paradigm Spiritual Community Initiative, participants were asked in advance to describe the ways that they form and sustain their respective spiritual communities.
Rabbi Alana Alpert (Detroit Jews for Justice, Detroit, MI )
In my work as Rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah, I think of myself less as “building a spiritual community” and more as “reviving” “reorienting” or “respiritualizing” a community. T’chiyah is a small community very committed to learning and to relationships, but spirituality comes less easily. A few ways that I have begun to move us towards a more spiritual orientation is through more singing, chanting, meditative practices, ambiance/change of scene and personal sharing. I believe the community is compelling to long-term members because it is intimate and values congregation-centered Torah learning. The community is compelling for newer members because we demonstrate commitment to social justice in a variety of ways which are more serious and integrated than any of the alternatives.
While I certainly see myself as “building” a new project/organization, Detroit Jews for Justice, “spiritual” community would not be the first adjective I would use. We are a political community that integrates spirituality as much as possible while remaining a pluralistic space. We are in the very early phases of exploring a model where the two are integrated, which would mean building a community equally centered around justice, learning, spiritual practice, culture and pastoral care.
Melissa Balaban (IKAR, Santa Monica, CA)
When we founded IKAR in 2004, our goal was to help reclaim the vitality and relevance of Jewish religious practice and reimagine the contours of Jewish community, both in Los Angeles and throughout the country. We wanted to reanimate Jewish life through imaginative and traditional engagement with ritual and spiritual practice and a deep commitment to social justice. We wanted a community that is at once pious and irreverent and would attract a great diversity of Jews and mobilize them to contribute their vast intellectual and creative resources to address real world concerns effectively. Since 2004, IKAR has grown from a handful of people in my living room to a community of more than 600 member households and hundreds of visitors.
One of the aspects of IKAR of which I am most proud is the great diversity of folks who are involved – from the most engaged and committed (ie., the deans of the Rabbinical Schools and many of their students, professors of Jewish history, Talmud, etc) to the most marginalized and disengaged (disaffected 20/ 30/ 40 somethings who have not sought out a Jewish experience since b’nai mitzvah). We’ve found that when these populations share space, all aspects of our communal life are enriched, from the davening to the learning to the justice and interfaith work in the broader LA community. Dynamic tension is built into the DNA of our community – reminding us to constantly be mindful of a number of otherwise conflicting values: everything we do should to be truly accessible, non-judgmental, pluralistic, and open, all while being deeply grounded in tradition. We want to make people feel comfortable while making sure they’re uncomfortable enough to be awake. The vibe of IKAR is casual, irreverent, surprising and joyous, and simultaneously intellectually rigorous and spiritually intense. We work to help people access very old and powerful Jewish rituals, traditions and ideas and also strive to think imaginatively about how to translate very old ideas to a new generation. Our approach is both deeply personal– a place for introspection, personal growth– and communal and political. It’s about making the case for collective responsibility and mobilizing for social change in the community, city and world.
Working and nurturing IKAR as the founding board chair and now its executive director, has been one of my most challenging, fulfilling and inspiring experiences. What started as a desire to create a Jewish community that I wanted to be part of, became a life’s journey of conversation about rethinking our Jewish institutions and ensuring that they remain relevant, inspiring and able to sustain the continuity of our rich tradition while at the same time embracing traditional ritual.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (ALEPH, Lanesboro, MA)
I serve a smalltown shul founded in the late 1800s. During that time it has identified as Orthodox, Conservative, Independent, and Reform. (It’s now affiliated Reform and as part of the Jewish Renewal movement.) Along with the denominational identity shifts have come major demographic shifts in our town, which reached its peak around 1910 and has been fighting steady economic decline ever since. We face the same challenges as any liberal congregation, e.g. the trending decrease in congregational affiliation. But to me the most interesting challenge is weaving cohesive spiritual community out of disparate groups of people.
My members of longest standing are nonagenarians who were born into the community when it was Orthodox. Their parents immigrated to an up-and-coming milltown where the Jewish community was extremely insular, and (as our cemetery headstones reflect) everyone wound up related to everyone else. My newest members are mostly intermarried artists or academics who have migrated to an entirely different economic and social landscape, and who may or may not put down roots.
I want the people I serve to feel that there’s a reason to be part of this community beyond simply keeping alive the only synagogue in the area. I use the wheel of the year in service of my goal of getting people in the door, whether for Kol Nidre, or a Sukkot potluck, or a Tu BiShvat seder. And then I try to create an experience which will open up how that holiday or its liturgy or its traditions speak directly to who and where we are. My goal is for them to walk away feeling that something — a sermon, a poem, a melody — was meant just for them. And then I work to create places and spaces where they can talk with each other about what they’ve experienced.
For example: there’s a small cement wall behind my shul with regularly-spaced finger-shaped holes in it. One Shabbat morning in late summer, as we davened outside, I realized that when we turned east for the bar’chu some of my members were facing the wall. I had a vision of our little wall as a variation on the Kotel.
This year on Yom Kippur morning I invited my kahal to write down the messages they most needed to send to God, to roll them up, and to tuck the kvitlach into the holes in the wall. At havdalah at the end of the holiday I burned the notes and sent the smoke upwards.
I heard enough people talking excitedly about it at the break-the-fast that I’m going to do it again next year. I’m already thinking about what kind of similar personalizable communal experience I can offer the next time I get a big crowd in the door, which will be the second-night community seder. If an innovation speaks both to my new members and my members who were born here, I know I’m on the right track.
Helen Bennett (Aynie Institute, Boston, MA)
I’ve been working on building spiritual community as the foundation of my life’s work, knowingly and unknowingly, since high school. When I think about spiritual community, two kinds come to mind. One kind of spiritual community comes together for a special occasion – like a shabbaton, retreat, or conference – brought together and built in a specific time and place. An example of this kind of community that I co-created is the Lefty Shabbaton. A second kind of spiritual community meets regularly and its members are consistently in each other’s lives. The Moishe Kavod House in Boston, a community I’ve been working in over the past 5 years is of this type. In my experience, the special-occasion community context can occur within the regular-and-rooted community, but not vice-versa. I believe a special-occasion community is successful when connections are made that develop into regular-and-rooted community offshoots.
What makes both kinds of spiritual communities more than just a network of people with a shared mission is the relationships at the core and foundation of each. In the context of Moishe Kavod House, a community of over 600 progressive Jewish young adults now in its 10th year did not emerge because Moishe House National offered to supply funding, nor because there were compelling social justice actions to show up to in greater Boston. It’s a community because the residents of the house and core leaders work as community organizers to do the delicate and deeply personal work of getting to know each and every person in order to help them grow as member-leaders. The work of listening, sharing, visioning, and then following-up again and again is what makes it work. Moishe Kavod House is a thriving community because we pay attention to each other and notice when a member is absent, reaching out to one another offering encouragement and lending support. We are invested in each other as individuals as a basis for our community.
The special-occasion type takes more work to build into a rich interpersonal community. When too much attention goes into building new systems or structures for what people are imagining the community might become, the result is often a lack of investment leading to at best an email list. I have seen Jewish community projects rush into building infrastructure instead of relationships, and this is where I think a lot of community leadership is making mistakes. For the first three Lefty Shabbatons, which gathered over 100 Jewish young adults who identified as “lefty” and who came with various religious/ritual observances and race, gender, and class identities, getting to know each other’s stories and perspectives and finding common ground set the foundation of the community. Radical shabbatot, rosh chodesh circles, and gatherings of lefty Jews in different cities have been growing over the past 3 years. Personal relationships between young Jews who thought they were alone in their radical politics and desire to practice Judaism are deepening. The Lefty Shabbaton has facilitated this exciting growth through fostering relationships.
Ross Berkowitz (Tribe 12, Philadelphia, PA)
I have been a community builder and connector for many years—as a professional, a volunteer, and in my personal life. Not necessarily the face (although oft times put into that role) I often play the facilitator, the peace-maker, the bridge. The sociologist in me looks at community as a necessity for people—with the common bond each one is built upon as a construct to aid in the connection—religion, nationalism, band/author/TV show enthusiasts, sports fans…all could be given a spiritual label. Yet for me, some of the most satisfying have been the ones built on diversity bordering on schism rather than shared values. The inherent value is shared intellectual curiosity and respect regardless of differences. Whether it was forming a “chevra” with Habonim Dror groups from around the world, initiating Limmud in Philadelphia, or the constant development of Tribe 12, the method and motivation has remained static. It must be remembered that a community is made up of individuals—each one with their own motivations. To build community, I utilize a combination of one-on-one on-boarding and follow-up to get to know people and build trust, small intimate gatherings to create bonds, and larger events to fuel excitement. Each community has shared commonalities of purpose, but what I want to inject to ensure that it is compelling is an atmosphere where people positively challenge each other. Above a fixed end point, it is important to have a shared process where all feel invested, have a role, and have a voice. Voices do not need to agree. They do need to be active participants who feel they are not just speaking—but also being heard—and challenged to expand and grow.
Mariel (Michal) Boyarsky (Selah, Seattle, WA)
When I move to a new place, there are two things I look for immediately in order to ground myself in my new home: queer community and Jewish community. When I moved to Seattle, I organically began to investigate these spaces: I tried a few different shuls; I checked out the queer dance parties; I started meeting with folks to get a new independent minyan off the ground; I began to get more involved in organizing for racial justice. After a few months here, it dawned on me how compartmentalized my new life was. In Seattle, unlike parts of the east coast, the Jewish community and ritual space that I found myself in contained few queers or people with radical politics; and the radical queer spaces I inhabited seemed to have little room for Jewishness or Jewish ritual.
The spiritual community that I have been building over the past few years is multifaceted, diverse, and city-wide. I have been working with others to push the two communities I described above to embrace anti-oppression politics, nuance, ritual, and spirituality in new and exciting ways. I have been a bridge for these communities, showing up as my full queer radical self in Jewish spaces, and as my full Jewish self in radical queer spaces. In one grassroots Jewish community where I am a partner and a regular Torah reader, I insisted that the newsletter to include information on Chanukah candles from Narrow Bridge Candles, an anti-Zionist candlemaking collective based in the Bay Area. Together with visionary friends of mine who are also interested in integrating radical politics and Jewish ritual, we started and sustained Radical Shabbat here.
What makes this work special – and difficult – is that this commuity is inherently not a network with a shared mission. The spiritual work that we have been doing here includes bringing people and communities together who differ substantially in how they see their place in the Jewish world. For example, I pushed our newly formed independent minyan, Selah, to participate in Human Rights Shabbat two years in a row – even though many of the people on Selah’s leadership team and others who attend the monthly Kabbalat Shabbat and Potluck Dinner events were hesitant and did not see themselves as belonging at a Human Rights Shabbat. In Selah’s third year of existence, after I had stepped down from the leadership team, the minyan’s new leaders decided on their own to participate in Human Rights Shabbat again.
I am accountable to my communities and I show up– as a Torah reader, to help form a minyan, or to coordinate a direct action in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’m also someone who is never fully satisfied with community: I always see ways that we can be pushed and challenged, ways that we can stretch and grow. My mentors here have taught me many things, chief among them that if the community that I yearn for doesn’t quite exist, I need to step up and make it happen.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg (Beth Am Synagogue, Baltimore, MD)
Years ago, I worked for University of Chicago’s Hillel. Hillel’s moto back then was “Jews doing Jewish with other Jews.” I liked the approach since I’ve always believed relevant Judaism is, at its heart, experiential and communal, ideas and texts playing an essential but supportive (but not subordinate) role. It strikes me now that Beth Am’s moto (and probably Hillel’s too) could be something like “Jews doing Jewish with other Jews – and sometimes with (but always near) non-Jews.” The challenge of Jews and otherness is nothing new but has become more explicitly relevant of late. Beth Am, founded in 1974, benefits from our location. We are a relatively young, midsize Conservative shul in an historic building, in a majority black but historically Jewish neighborhood of West Baltimore. Due to this nexus of space and time, geography and history, we can scarcely ignore the opportunities and challenges that accompany our address. So, when it comes to building spiritual community, rather than point to any given program or initiative (like any vibrant shul we have many), I find myself focusing on the all-important question of spiritual posture. That is to say, spiritual relevance at Beth Am has become increasingly about reframing the creative tension between particular and universal. Predominant Jewish paradigms suggest two modes or stages. On one hand we learn, pray, eat, celebrate, mourn, etc. in a bubble – subconsciously aware, at best, of the broader world around us. And when we talk in shul about national political rhetoric or societal challenges like racism or gun violence, we often do so in the relative comfort of stately buildings or around our Shabbos tables. To borrow a metaphor from developmental psychology, this is “parallel play,’ the mode of doing near the other without relating directly to him/her. This is developmentally appropriate for young children, but maturation inevitably points toward more interaction. The second Jewish developmental stage, then, is to play “with” the other, and Jewish institutions most often do so through service or dialogue. Our approach, instead, is to be differently mindful of otherness in our midst. For example, when Baltimore’s racial tension exploded in April, 2015, our instinct that Shabbat was not to hunker down; it was to daven Musaf on the front steps or our shul, hundreds of Jews swaying and praying in talliot just blocks from Mondawmin Mall where the rioting began. When we bring a marquee speaker to discuss the issues of the day, we often do so with an eye toward partnering with community stakeholders and other neighborhood institutions to create experiences of interest to our collective community. This “third-way” posture pushes us beyond parallel or inter-communal play toward radical empathy – not with some distant or nebulous other, but with our neighbors. This is surely not a new idea. We are simply applying, in a world where identity is increasingly fluid, Torah’s wisdom, to “love your neighbor as yourself,” more honestly. In doing so we force ourselves to ponder: Who is my neighbor? Who am I? Who are we?
 This is not to say Jews at Beth Am are unique in encountering difference within and beyond our membership. It’s just a bit more obvious here.
Kohenet Sarah Shamirah Chandler (Jewish Initiative for Animals, Brooklyn, NY)
Some friends of mine and I gathered a few dozen folks for shabbat services in a friend’s apartment. Some of us had met at the Havurah Institute and wanted a havurah of our own; many of us found Congregation Bnai Jeshrun too big – many of us attended Kehillat Hadar on Saturday morning, but wanted to also be together on Friday evenings.
There was lively singing, full Hebrew, and instruments. By our second meeting, we had over 50 people and moved to a basement meeting room. We announced an email address for people join our list. Within a few months, we met monthly followed by a potluck. In between each meeting, the core committee met to divide up tasks and do some long term planning and policy making. We called the group “Kol Zimrah” – it began around 2002 and still exists today.
What made it more than just a network of people with a shared mission?
–> Because it was an independent minyan that only met once a month, we were weaving our other communities with this one core community. We had people who went a different place the rest of the month and people for whom this was the only time they observed any aspect of shabbat. People from a Reform background would say “This service is all in Hebrew, it must be Orthodox” – people from an Orthodox background would say “There are instruments and women leading and no mechitza – this must be Reform.” The nature of the services was so unique that it was welcoming of a wide range of participants.
What were the one or two most important elements that made the community compelling to its members?
–> Rotating leaders – no official rabbi/cantor – non-affiliated
–> monthly potluck – easy way to connect with others in person
Stosh Cotler (Bend the Arc, New York, NY)
I participated in a weekend long Shavuot retreat in 2000, hosted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Rabbi Arthur had seeded two other cohorts before ours- both of which included a number of young Jews who were fairly plugged into Jewish life. Our group- which unlike the others only had funding to meet for one weekend- included a number of self-identified Jewish outsiders, either because we hadn’t experienced any meaningful Jewish engagement growing up, we had been harmed by the Jewish community in some way, or we had left at an earlier age- as so many do- and never looked back. I am still amazed that he found us and we found one another. Despite our complex relationship to our Jewishness, we all strongly identified with social justice.
The weekend was nothing less than transformative. By Sunday afternoon when it was time to leave I felt like my heart was being ripped from my body.
A sub-set of us decided that we needed to meet again. It felt imperative. Because we were community organizers and activists, we spent the next year raising money and designing our own program without Rabbi Arthur- we gathered for a reunion in 2001 and again it was like soul medicine.
And, it also was flawed. As all communities are.
We realized that we had a vision for a spiritually experimental and justice-centered Jewish community, but our current configuration wasn’t representative of the Jewish world we wanted to be. So over 7 more years we deliberately morphed into a politically radical, racially diverse (almost a half of our group were Jews of color), culturally queer (almost half of us queer with the two first out future trans rabbis in our mix along with another trans non-future rabbi), and mixed class community where we put our political beliefs into practice through things like cost sharing (some people would pay $100 and others would pay $1,800 for our weekends together), democratized ritual making, shared leadership and a serious commitment to deeply loving one another because we knew how worn down so many of us felt from our social justice work in the world.
While beautifully imperfect, it was one of the most formative communities of my life. When I think about transformation within the Jewish community this experience has given me a model for what is possible. Together, we experienced a profound answer to our yearning (and that yearning was often not even conscious for many of us when we arrived that first weekend)- a longing for a community that would embody our shared commitments to justice, to iterate on an ancient tradition and make it our own, and a community which valued- and lovingly demanded- to bring our whole selves in. It was gorgeous. It changed me forever.
Jacob Feinspan (Jews United for Justice, Silver Spring, MD)
A decade ago I was part of the founding leadership of Tikkun Leil Shabbat, a lay-led Friday night Minyan that continues to meet in DC.
First and foremost, we created a minyan that we wanted to pray in. Most of the leadership team had experienced other spiritually meaningful communities that we were trying to replicate in some way. The National Havurah Committee Summer Institute and affiliated Havurot/Minyanim were particularly influential as models that we could adapt from, without having to create from scratch. The leadership team used a deliberative consensus decision-making process to create the parameters for the minyan, starting by creating shared goals, values, and culture.
Tikkun Leil Shabbat succeeded in creating a spiritual community, and not just a network of people with a shared mission, because one of our core goals was to build a spiritual home that we’d want to be part of. We envisioned each part of the evening –welcoming, the service, the dvar torah, announcements, eating, benching, and cleaning – to be part of a unified experience that was conducive to spirituality.
And the key choice that made the community successful and compelling was being laser focused on doing what we did well, and avoiding anything else. We were creating a songful, high-quality, full-liturgy prayer experience, with an opportunity to learn about and be connected with local efforts for tikkun olam, and with a social dinner afterwards. We were willing to move things around within that framework, but not to alter it in significant ways. That meant that the community worked incredibly well for many people, and not at all for many more. Which was fine – we felt that we were creating one unique part of a complex ecosystem of religious/spiritual spaces in DC – and if what we created didn’t work for someone there were other options for them. But by creating a place that people knew what they were getting, and doing it in a high quality way, we built a powerful and lasting community that clearly served the needs of many in the area.
Shir Yaakov Feit (Kol Hai: Hudson Valley Jewish Renewal, Ulster Park, NY)
The Ramchal wrote “people are the beings created for the purpose of experiencing God.” Not thinking about god, not talking about god, not wondering about him/her/it/not it — experiencing that transcendent, ineffable, unique Something. People are inspired by modeling the not-knowing, the vulnerability and willingness to be in contact with the divine. It’s mostly about just showing up — being really fully present — and then improvising. Making the best meal possible with the ingredients of the moment. Acknowledging, then traversing hierarchies; dropping competition. Collaborating. Experimenting with embodied spiritual practice; bringing curiosity; honoring a willingness to sense, feel, and be moved. To be moved out of a comfortable place. Music, and the essential silence that surrounds and infuses it, help to shift us out of our strong self-identification (neo-cortex) and downshift into more foundational states of being (limbic). Breath, and sensory awareness more broadly, to opening to trans-personal connection and experience.
I have developed these approaches as co-founder of the Kol Zimrah havurah (2002), member of the Elat Chayyim Residential Community (2006-2009), Music and Creative Director of Romemu (2008-2013), founder of Kol Hai: Hudson Valley Jewish Renewal (2014), and as a freelance teacher, performer, designer and composer.
Rabbi Jacob Fine (Abundance Farm, Northampton, MA)
Over the past year and a half, I have organized a gathering of parents to engage in Torah study together at our synagogue. We meet most Shabbes mornings, for an hour in the library. The material we learn together varies—sometimes focused on the weekly parshah, holidays, timely happening in the world or anything else that has come up in a previous week. We always begin and end with niggunim and some moments of silence. Most of the parents in this group have never learned traditional Jewish texts before and have little to no exposure to rabbinics. A number of the parents are the non-Jewish partners in an interfaith family. We have self-described atheists, etc. It is an eclectic group in many respects.
When I proposed the group, I was very uncertain as to how it would be received. There was no communal clamoring for this and no recent precedent within the community. From the outset, I was happily surprised by the warm response. It turned out that there were many parents who despite, or perhaps because of, their weak Jewish literacy were interested in, at least curious about, Jewish study. Our study group’s numbers have grown steadily and we now consistently have between 12-25 participants each week. Most of the participants return each week.
There are a few aspects of this gathering that make it special and which, I believe, account for its being experienced as compelling by a diverse group of participants. Firstly, I am quite intentional and explicit about approaching this class as a spiritual practice. I select themes and material which invites our community of learners to reflect on, and wrestle with, their own individual beliefs and behaviors. And, most importantly, I work hard to facilitate the class in such a way as to invite individuals to share personally, drawing from their own experiences. The tone of the class is a serious one—I want to convey that this is not simply a time to kibbitz—that we are here to engage in holy texts and holy work. At its best, what makes this weekly gathering feel like more just a network of people gathering with an interest to learn Torah together, is when over the course of our discussion our learning moves from a head centered place to a heart centered one. It is palpable when this happens. A number of group participants, often academics by profession, have remarked on how spiritually satisfying our learning community is to them. My sense is that, in large part, this satisfaction comes from the powerful experience of using traditional Jewish texts as a platform from which to explore and share of our inner lives—all in the context of community. I do not believe that the class would be well received by many if it were simply a traditionally taught parshah class. Our participants appreciate having a space to share their personal struggles and triumphs with one another.
Rabbi Laura Geller (Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills, CA)
In 1994 when I became the senior rabbi of a large Reform congregation, the majority of our members joined for bnai mitzah, other life cycle events, high holy day tickets and a religious education for their children. My goal, shared with talented colleagues, was to transform the synagogue into a place where meeting those needs would be enriched by a sense of spirituality and community. The first innovation was a Shabbat morning service separate from the b’nei mitzvah which had become a private family event without an ongoing congregation. This alternative service became a space for experimentation, with a creative but traditional prayerbook (created over several years by the congregants,) interactive serious Torah study, time for contemplation, and different kind of music. This alternative service has become the main Shabbat morning service; innovations there have seeped into the culture of the congregation and led to a transformation of the more formal high holy day and Friday night services. Part of that innovation has been an intentional connection to spirituality though the IJS. Over the years we have had more than 40 congregants be part of IJS lay leaders training which created a longing for more contemplative prayer. Now we offer a contemplative service alternative on the mornings of the High Holy Days. We have been also involved in other synagogue transformation efforts, each of which succeeded in some ways and not in others. Adult learning was enriched through the ECE, the Bar Mitzvah experience is undergoing change through the Bar Mitzvah revolution, and community organizing (CBCO) has led to different notions of social justice work.
Currently the most important transformation effort relates to congregants who are baby boomers and slightly beyond. Several years ago we began an organizing effort which engaged more than 250 congregants between the ages of 55 and 75 in intimate house meeting to reflect on what we have called “the next stage,” the new life stage between maturity (building career and raising family ) and frail old age. We learned that people are interested in spirituality, community, giving back and have concerns about people they love, especially around caregiving and end of life issues. Temple Emanuel organized a major conference around these issues for the Jewish community and brought Wise Aging training to LA. Most exciting is a new effort called ChaiVillageLA. Supported by a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, we have reached out to two other Reform synagogues to partner in the creation of the first ever synagogue based Village. It is loosely networked with the burgeoning national Village movement which is revolutionizing the notion of aging in place. From the mission statement: “The vast majority of Americans want to remain in their homes and neighborhoods as they get older and that takes a supportive community. Chai Village is a multi synagogue community that enables congregants to “Age in Place” by providing assistance to one another and enriching each other’s lives as part of a self governing village supported by Jewish values.” The potential for this Village to model a new paradigm that could transform synagogues into powerful “communities of meaning” which will both enrich the lives of participants and significantly improve conditions in the world for others is very exciting.
Cara Gold (Grassroots Shabbat, Boston, MA)
While living in Toronto I founded the Grassroots Shabbat ritual community. My primary vision for the community was to create a truly low barrier, accessible Shabbat gathering space for the downtown Toronto Jewish community. In downtown Toronto, there are many Jewish folks, but few opportunities to engage Jewishly. I have found that ritual can oftentimes feel inaccessible because it frequently requires high levels of knowledge, an already-existing community and four walls. Community buy-in has always been easy because it offers a unique model of communion in a city which makes it hard to connect through ritual. What makes it more than just a network is that it is fully run by the community. Community members plan, organize and host the events and there is no financial cost because it is run completely voluntarily. As a result, buy-in is high. Since getting off the ground over three years so, Grassroots Shabbat has grown completely through social media and word of mouth.
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein (Institute for Jewish Spirituality, New York, NY)
At the Institute we form laboratories of spiritual communities through our cohort programs, particularly for clergy and for lay leaders. These communities are formed during 18 month-long programs that include four five-day retreats along with regular interim study and consultations. The participants come from across the country and from abroad, as well. They come from varied backgrounds (especially the lay leaders) but are all interested in pursuing their inner journeys. These programs are transformative for the participants and the impact lasts long after the program is over, for the individuals, the group and often, their home communities.
The two most important elements of the community are the creation of a safe space and a commitment to excellence. The creation of safe space is accomplished through the use of silence, which facilitates the ability to go deep into one’s own experience without worrying about what others are thinking, as well as through careful instruction and teaching about compassionate listening. These instructions include the usual rules about speaking from the “I” and noticing how much space one is taking, but also noticing judgment arising and trying to cultivate curiosity in its place; an unusual “double confidentiality,” which means not only do people not share what they heard with others, but they also don’t circle back to the person who originally spoke; no forced sharing; and refraining from “fixing, advising, saving or setting straight” (Parker Palmer). The staff and faculty also model a loving care and concern for each of the participants and their needs.
The commitment to excellence is also crucial, because things “spiritual” can easily get pretty mushy. Our teachers are the best in their fields and are rigorous in their thinking and the depth of their learning, as well as models of the practices they teach. The authenticity is unmistakable. We demand a great deal from the participants and expect their full engagement. Every element of the program is carefully thought through so that it fits seamlessly into the other elements. In some ways the excellence of the program also contributes to the creation of safety since the participants can easily recognize that the staff and faculty have deep experience which can be trusted.
Rabbi Brad Greenstein (Moishe House, San Diego, CA)
Moishe House will host over 45 Jewish Learning Retreats around the world in 2016. Our Immersive Jewish Learning retreats are the centerpiece of our Jewish education agenda for Moishe House residents and community members and have become the premier medium for young adult Jewish education around the world. The Moishe House model works and has gained significant traction because it trusts not only that its constituents know best what is relevant and compelling for their own Jewish needs, but gives over the power for them to execute their own programming.
There is however one organic flaw to the model: many young adult leaders did not grow up trained in Jewish ritual and program skills. Therefore Moishe House has developed training retreats to teach young adults how to lead an innovative Passover Seder (when they find 100 people rsvp’ing to their Pesach event), how to facilitate Havdalah and Shabbat Kiddush, how to create and execute programs that demonstrate the cutting edge expressions of modern day Jewish life such as Jewish food justice, outdoor adventure, and mindfulness/meditation programs. And yet we have also found that even at these training retreats which feature credentialed serious Jewish educators, the most valuable and lasting learning comes about through peer to peer learning. Therefore, we have expanded our retreat training program to include Peer Led Jewish Learning Retreats. This year we piloted a model that brought together young adults for a retreat training on how to facilitate retreats called “Retreatology.” This training is followed up with a mentorship that ultimately leads to participants crafting and executing their own Jewish learning retreat for their peers within their local community. We are currently planning to scale this model as it falls in synch with the Moishe House vision of peer to peer learning. I have worked to weave within all of our retreats the idea of the “Moishe Moment” that expresses a sense of transformation, transcendence, and belonging. The “Moishe Moment” has become one of the three areas of educational focus for our Immersive Learning:
- Immersive Experiential Training/Education: The hallmark of the Moishe House experience is pluralistic experiential learning. Participants not only study what a sukkah is, but they actually build a sukkah Residents not only discuss how to enliven a Passover Seder, they sing and study joyously during their own mock training Seder. Each Learning Retreat contains transformative experiences that put into practice our learning and train residents with a specific ritual skill set that they can hold on to for the rest of their lives.
- Text Study that is Inspiring, Relevant, and Accessible: First-class Jewish educators who are well-versed in the Jewish cannon and skilled at bringing excitement to their discipline join Moishe House’s educational team on each Learning Retreat. Experts in Mishnah, Gemara, Jewish Arts and History, Jewish Prayer and Practice who come from cutting-edge partner organizations activate participants’ comfort and skill sets in engaging Jewish text.
- Moishe Moments: The Moishe House experience is comprised of moments where participants feel part of something greater than themselves (Havdalah under the stars, banging on the Shabbat dining room table in song, studying together with a newfound friend, etc.) During each retreat we devote time to articulate how these Moishe House Moments are Jewish Moments. Incorporating classical and modern theology, our educational team inspires participants to express in a pluralistic way how their personal and communal transformative experiences fall within the Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann (Mishkan Minyan, Chicago, IL)
How did I create Mishkan? Being born and raised the city of Chicago I had a sense of personal investment and stake in the Jewish future of this city. It is a city known for its strong Federation and storied, established legacy institutions, and is not known for being a hub of innovation. Having studied at the Ziegler School, which began ordaining Conservative rabbis in contravention of what the Conservative movement wanted at the time, and then apprenticing as an intern and then rabbinic fellow at IKAR in Los Angeles, which was established to the chagrin and fear of the local synagogues… I was trained by places that took big risks in their inception, for the purpose of living out a vision of Judaism they felt they could do uniquely and differently than it was being done elsewhere. Disruptive, authentic, passionate and new. I knew it was possible. Because Pastor Rick Warren advised in his Purpose Driven Church that a person who intends to make an impact should be willing to commit their life to the place they want to “plant a church,” I knew it had to be Chicago for me, and I knew, based on my experience in LA, that it could be done. With social media, with great graphics, with a website I conceptualized months before Mishkan actually launched and had help from a friend to create… with a small group of people who I catalyzed around the idea that Shabbat could be beautiful, rhythmic, ecstatic, and spiritual; with bolstering from periodic meetings in my living room to jam around music and teach bits of prayer… and with buy-in from Rabbis Michael Siegel, Michael Balinsky, Shoshannah Conover, Asher Lopatin, and other rabbis in Chicago who worked with synagogues and therefore knew the great challenge that synagogues face engaging young adults… with an eagerness to collaborate with other groups in the city doing work with young adults and spiritual seekers, including Moishe House, Kehila 20s-30s, Federation YLD, PresenTense, Upstart, and others… with optimism and a sense of commitment to the city of Chicago, we launched Mishkan in a living room in Lincoln Park with borrowed siddurim, a kinko’s printed sign, and a hunch we might be onto something.
Four years later, the staples of the community are 1:1s, our teams (a justice team, love team, family team, and groups that take on tasks as needed), as well as workshops, classes, and events, often in collaboration with other groups in Chicago, and finally, our signature services– Shabbat and events around the city at cool and unconventional venues. We keep things fresh, interesting, and young feeling by traversing the city and finding the hotspots for events, while maintaining the spiritual integrity of what we’re gathering for. We remain committed to inspired, down-to-earth Judaism as our primary mode of engagement for Jews who have been disenfranchised and marginalized, including young adults, LGBT Jews, Jews in interfaith relationships and of all religious backgrounds and persuasions, and finally spiritual seekers of any age who want to be close to Torah and not shut down the other parts of what makes them great.
Rabbi David Jaffe (Kirva, Sharon, MA)
I build micro-spiritual communities in the form of Mussar, or Tikkun Middot groups. Each group of 7-12 people is itself a community with its own personality. Some groups are made up of adult spiritual seekers, others are teens or teachers in a school setting and some are teens together with their teachers. Among adults, different types of cohorts will form a group. Some groups are made up of social justice activists, others are young adults. The adult groups are the ones that function most like a community so my description will focus on these. People come to these groups because they want to grow and they want this growth to be in a Jewish context. Many have experience with Buddhist meditation and they are looking for something that integrates their own ethnic, cultural and religious background. I screen students before accepting them because of the personal nature of the discussion in these groups. I want to make sure these are people who can uphold guidelines that create the kind of safe and non-judgmental environment necessary for deep spiritual exploration.
Community forms as people realize they need each other to succeed in the practices. While there is personal practice between bi-weekly meetings, people also meet in chevruta on the off-week and use the group for accountability and inspiration. Often there is shared food at sessions and people show up for each other’s celebrations and times of mourning. The combination of Torah study, personal sharing and meditative practice that takes place in the group setting encourages a bonding that doesn’t happen in a purely cognitive study session. While some participants are members of traditional, synagogue-based communities, these groups become an alternative community of meaning. For others, these groups are their primary Jewish community. The two most compelling elements for members are the ability to grow as a mensch together in a Jewish context and the confidence that they can rely on each other for mutual support.
These type of groups are multiplying throughout the country, particularly as a result of The Mussar Institute’s (TMI) work and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s (IJS) Tikkun Middot Project. TMI particularly is investing in training and support of facilitators for Mussar groups and their annual Kallah is a meeting place for practitioners to feel part of a larger community. While I would not yet call these groups a movement, the ground is being prepared for Mussar and Tikkun Middot to be an important feature of the North American Jewish landscape.
Rabbi James Kahn (Jewish Social Service Agency, Washington, DC)
I had the great privilege of being part of the first class of Boston’s Hebrew College Rabbinical School. While Hebrew College had been around since the 1920’s, the addition of a rabbinical school represented a radical change of course. Until then, Hebrew College had defined itself as a purely academic institution wholly committed to the secular study of religion and culture. However, the rabbinical school’s founders knew that shaping future rabbis requires immersion in deep spiritual community. The question of how to create that community (and indeed it was created!) was left to the dozen students who comprised the first class, and the teachers who guided them.
Looking back, I am not completely sure how it happened, but the following 3 elements surely contributed significantly:
- The creation of a playful environment, fueled by curiosity and risk-taking. Students were required to take turns leading both the ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ minyanim. This rule ensured that nobody remained in their comfort zone for long and that moments of vulnerability were commonplace. Minyan was seen as a laboratory not a performance hall. Community members were both researcher and lab rat.
- A community composed of smart, dedicated, passionate students drawn from diverse backgrounds (w/ regard to age, class, career, sexual orientation, gender and religiosity)… all devoted to pluralistic community and education. Of course, by nature of being a school, the community’s make-up was not left to happenstance. Teachers and students applied and were selected to participate, thus ensuring a consistent level of depth and commitment.
- A conscious attempt to shape an informal environment that maintained reverence and kavod for teacher, text and purpose. The element of informality was crucial to creating a safe and inviting space that welcomed newcomer and veteran alike. Community members were recognized as having Torah to share, and were empowered to develop and teach that Torah. Students and teachers addressed each other by first name, rather than honorific title. Both recognized they had much to learn from the other.
Rabbi Andrew Kastner (Leichtag, Cleveland, OH)
One of my most recent experiences building a spiritual community was in Southern California – an area with little Jewish institutional infrastructure, affiliation rates around 7% and interfaith marriage in the high 70’s. Residents desired connection with other Jews and Jewish tradition, but wanted the tenure of the experience to reflect the cultural values of the region. Initially our team focused on developing a deep understanding of what defined local culture, and from there how to share Jewish wisdom in a way that both had fidelity to tradition and intersected with local culture.
As an early experiment a group of colleagues decided to create a Shabbat experience to engage a diverse guest list from across the denominational and religious spectrum. The evening was adults only, to provide guests with children the opportunity to mingle unencumbered. The menu was an organized pot luck, allowing all of the guests to contribute in some way. A small handful of guests, both Jews and non-Jews were identified in the weeks preceding to help play a leadership role in facilitating a re-imagination of the ritual elements of Shabbat.
As guests entered the courtyard for cocktails and mingling, one of the collaborators had created a visual and audio re-imagining of the days of creation. On a large white sheet projected images and music were woven together to demonstrate the experience of void, chaos, creation, cacophony, rest and restoration. This “front door” of the event, communicated that this Shabbat experience was something different, using familiar cultural/religious references as a foundation to bend towards the funky. Between the courtyard and the dining area guests passed “self-discovery” elements to offer additional cues to help them transition into the space at their own pace. Some of these elements included quotes describing rest and renewal, an empty fish bowl to place their cell phone for the evening, bouquets of fresh flowers and dried botanicals to engage the senses.
The evening continued with framed rituals, a Kiddush meditation as well as unstructured time. In concluding the dinner we knew that for most of our guests, a traditional birkat hamazon would be unfamiliar and may alienate some. Instead, the conceptual basis was framed and guests were invited to share something for which they were grateful. Guests shared a range of gratitude including one who initiated an impromptu call and response song.
Some of the principles we gleaned from this experience that contributed to its success include:
- Organizers are educators, artists and cultural curators
- Invite participation and co-creation
- Look to tradition and local culture as a muse
- Create spaces of comfort and familiarity
- Create opportunities for vulnerability – the most rewarding growth comes from discomfort
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (Hadar, New York, NY)
In 2001, I started a minyan called Kehilat Hadar. It grew out of an intense desire to combine a fully traditional liturgy, men and women in equal roles, and the possibility of accessing the Divine in a spirited fashion. I had studied community organizing in college under Marshall Ganz, and I think that underlay a lot of the success of the early years – reaching out to people one by one and exciting people about a vision. Also we displayed an attitude of: we are not desperate; we want you to come because this is great. There were many opportunities for ownership among the people who came, but the service leaders and Torah readers were chosen with great care to project a certain level and style. I think people came because they understood the leaders cared about davening and had a very clear vision of how they wanted to see that in the world; people knew the givens and knew where potential creativity would peek through. That combination was grounding for a lot of people who, it turned out, were looking for the same thing.
M. Dove Kent (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Brooklyn, NY)
For the last 4 years, I have had the honor of building Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. While many from the outside may not understand JFREJ as a spiritual community, the feeling within is one of beloved community — the cornerstone for a collective with the ability to move as one body to create the world our ancestors dreamed for us. At JFREJ, people are in a practice together of learning new ways to belong to each other.
People come to JFREJ searching for a home. Many have had difficult journeys through other institutions, organizations, and communities, when they found some parts of themselves matched and fulfilled, while other pieces of themselves left alone and outside, or even abused. They come to JFREJ wary, afraid of being let down yet again, with their defenses up and their armor on. The process of welcoming them into the organization is, in effect, a de-armoring process.
It requires showing evidence of care and investment in each other. People need to experience firsthand that people around them are being respected, seen in their full dignity, and genuinely cared about, in order to open up for that kind of care in return. They need to see a structure strong enough to hold their aspirations and a leadership flexible enough to respond to their needs. They need a beautiful vision, larger than any one person could create, to believe in a future worth committing to. And they need to see the potential to be individually transformed, in the service of building a transformed world.
Idit Klein (Keshet, Boston, MA)
I was surprised by the community that sprang to mind for me in response to this question: a support group for lesbian and bisexual women in Jerusalem that I cofounded and facilitated for a few years in the mid-90s. The women in the group ranged in age from 14-70, spanned Jewish identities from secular to Orthodox, and included political affiliations from Hadash and Meretz to Likud and the National Religious Party. At its height, 60 women came together for biweekly discussions and monthly social events, including on the rooftop of my Jewish Quarter apartment overlooking the Kotel and the Dome of the Rock. Even the secular Israelis were filled with awe that evening.
The intent was never to create a spiritual community per se; the group’s purpose was to provide a community of mutual support. At the time, nothing like it existed in Jerusalem. Many of the women who joined the group needed it acutely, but every single member talked about how nourished she felt in our space.
Even though I didn’t see it at the time, in retrospect, the group became a powerful spiritual community. The dynamics I sought to develop among us – empathic listening, courageous sharing, and tenderness with vulnerability – these dynamics created a space in which people felt fully seen. Many of these women felt they had no choice but to be closeted in the rest of their lives. Yet even those who were openly out commented on the depth to which they felt understood in the group. The profound affirmation of feeling fully seen opened up space for the women in the group to ask other existential questions beyond issues of sexual orientation. These essential questions of self led the group to transcend our initial charge of mutual support to encompass spiritual nourishment as well.
Aharon Ariel Lavi (Garin Shuva, Shuva, Israel)
My most relevant, and significant, experience in building a spiritual community was the establishment of the Garin Shuva community on the Gaza bordering, of which I am the founder. It was conceived while I was participating in a Beit Midrash in Jerusalem that dealt with Jewish environmental thought. At a certain point, one of the other colleagues and me started wondering where we, as ba’aley teshuvah, will find our place? Haredi community was not an option due to is seclusion, and Religious-Zionists looked nice but lacked the zest we were looking for. “So why not start our own community?” we figured.
We wrote a comprehensive vision and mission statement, titled “Hassidut Eretz Israel” that spoke about connecting Torah with life in a profound manner in all possible aspects: arts, culture, family, education, economics, nature and more. We started circulating it between our friends and on the web, and before knowing it we had seven families relocating to Moshav Shuva in 2009. We had a long-term gradual growth plan, but what actually happened is that within three months we grew from seven families to 21, with another 100 on the waiting list. At this point we realized we were on to something, and took the community forward.
Garin Shuva is a full-fledged residential mission-driven community, which means we live together, build our homes together and next to each other, educate our children together and create social ventures together. On all fronts we strive to realize our shared mission and goal, bringing Torah and Jewish wisdom and spirituality into everyday life in whatever way possible.
In a survey we held recently among members of the community (now encompassing almost 30 families, waiting for more plots to open up) we saw clearly that the most important element that made, and still make, the community compelling to its members is its members themselves. It seems that the vision document we published attracted an impressive and fascinating cohort of people, and almost everybody feel they gain something spiritually unique just from meeting all those people on a daily basis, together with the mutual support and challenge they produce. The other thing we saw was that despite the fact we were not able to actualize each and every idea we had when we started this long voyage, our successes in the fields of education, social action and community development make people feel more and more compelled to stay part of this community.
Hart Levine (The Beis, New York, NY)
I lived in Washington Heights after college and was part of a traditional, monolithic Modern Orthodox synagogue, which wasn’t quite compelling to me although it was quite familiar. I soon found others in a similar mental and spiritual space, and we started gathering to talk about what was missing in our spiritual lives and what sort of ideal community we envisioned for ourselves. We went on a journey that included eating, singing, and learning together and a few group retreats, but what helped propel us forward was identifying a need in the neighborhood, namely a large number of Jews who weren’t part of any Jewish community. From there it developed from a group of friends into a community that began reaching out and providing community for those in search of one.
Our activities centered around prayer, song, Jewish learning, and ritual celebrations, and the religious and spiritual nature was explicit, but the two elements that tied us together were intention and inclusion. We stumbled across the language of “intentional community” and found it useful in describing and prescribing how we did things – specifically with prayer, using explanations, kavanot, meditations, and sharing exercises. It started on Rosh Hashanah when we introduced those tools for attendees new to prayer, but found it heightened everyone’s spiritual experience and a core reason why people come back, and so it continued. The other element was inclusion, which included two aspects: one was that we made a point of reaching out to people who were definitely not Modern Orthodox (as was most of the core), ranging from egalitarian, to post-Orthodox, to totally unaffiliated, to spiritually searching but not observant. That diversity made our community attractive to ourselves as well, as people who’d mostly until then been parts of monolithic Orthodox communities but were interested in something else. The second aspect, which helped with the first, was a sense of welcomeness that pervaded our gatherings. This took the form of greeters, and greetings during prayers, and thoughtful seating and ice-breakers, and remembering the name of everyone who came, and the way we ran learning events.
Spatial paradoxes also played an important role: we were living in an isolated and close-knit neighborhood in the middle of NYC; us young folk ‘inherited’ a large, old, dying synagogue which was outside our geographical comfort zone but which led to it being more intentional; and even with the synagogue we elected to keep doing things in each other’s small apartments, and calling ourselves a community and not a shul. We’re still struggling with the physical space and organizational structure, but the spiritual cohesion has helped us feel like a community.
Daniel Libenson (Institute for the Next Jewish Future, Chicago, IL)
Spiritual communities come in different forms. We typically think of them as involving music, passionate prayer, or meditation, but my spiritual sense isn’t most heightened in those experiences. A few years ago, when I was a member of a new Jewish education task force at my synagogue, we were meeting with the new education director, who was a “touchy-feely” kind of person, and she started the meeting by going around the circle and asking everyone to talk about what kinds of experiences at the synagogue made them feel most spiritually uplifted. I felt stressed as my turn came close. I didn’t feel very spiritually engaged by religious services, nor did I generally like the ecstatic or meditative opportunities that were available on occasion. I realized that coming to meetings was my spiritual practice, and I said so. Not just any meeting, of course, but when I was part of a project that was trying to do something truly new that required creative thinking, collaboration, and a willingness to stretch the bounds of what had happened in the past, I experienced that tingling feeling that I imagined other people felt in prayer or in song.
Meetings are generally seen as means to an end—perhaps the meeting will produce some kind of new program that might provide spiritual communities for people—but not as spiritual experiences in their own right; most people see them as boring and mind-numbing obligations that one has to endure every once in a while. But that was precisely how I experienced Shabbat services! I realized that spirituality is in the eye of the beholder and that part of our problem as Jewish leaders is that we fail to take seriously the vastness of the differences between people and that, in our time, when people can find others like themselves easily through the Internet, it isn’t realistic to believe that Judaism will be able to hold on to people like me who simply don’t connect with the dominant forms of Jewish life, even if we do expand our sense of what “counts” as we have in recent years. We need a vast expansion so that even people like me, whose spiritual needs are fulfilled in meetings, can feel like respected members of the spiritual community.
Following that meeting, I shifted my thinking about my own work as a Jewish leader. Rather than trying to build a community, I decided to build an idea—which might manifest as an organization or not—that would demonstrate the need for the widest possible definition of spiritual community (and whatever other terms we use for we are trying to achieve through Judaism). As I put this idea out into the world in one way or another, I have slowly but surely begun to find and attract like-minded people, whose spiritual needs are met through meetings and creative thinking about how to radically expand Judaism’s definition of the good life. Sometimes just being yourself is the best way to build community.
Jakir Manela (Pearlstone Center, Baltimore, MD)
Since we moved to Baltimore nine years ago, my wife and I have been deeply inspired by our prior experiences at Isabella Freedman in the Teva and Adamah programs. Meanwhile, many young families, singles, boomers, and others have told us after visiting Pearlstone that they just don’t want to leave! And so, in an effort to create a new paradigm of Jewish communal life, we have dedicated ourselves for over seven years to the goal of establishing a pluralistic Jewish ecovillage here at Pearlstone. In service of that goal, we have hosted multiple large conferences as well as many smaller meetings, shabbatonim, and relationship building efforts with families, individuals, staff, funders, and partners. It has been a slow process, very challenging. Yet we have stuck with it, yearning deeply for our kids and others to grow up within a pluralistic Jewish ecovillage experience that fundamentally redefines what Jewish communal life can look like in North America today. Today we find ourselves closer than ever to seeing that vision come true:
- We are embarking upon a master planning process for the Pearlstone Campus, which may integrate communal housing as well as a retreat addition, barn wedding venue, u-pick organic berries, ecosystem restoration, amphitheatres, supporting infrastructure, and more.
- Benefitting from the writings, teachings, and consultation of Diana Leafe Christian—a nationally renowned expert and author focusing on ecovillages and intentional communities—we are exploring various legal and financial models for what it would look like to establish a Jewish intentional community here on the Pearlstone Campus, which is owned by the Baltimore Jewish federation.
If we succeed in launching this Jewish ecovillage here at Pearlstone, we will have created a groundbreaking model of Jewish intentional community happening on community-owned real estate, enabled by mainstream Jewish institutions and funders. The potential for replication, and the implications for new paradigm spiritual communities, are profound. Stay tuned! We aim for master plan approval in fall 2016.
Yavilah McCoy (Ayecha/Visions, Newton, MA)
As a diversity practitioner, I offer educational resources and tools that help strengthen the capacity of spiritual communities to embrace and speak to a wide spectrum of human diversity and potential for spiritual connection. I have utilized text, music, narrative and relationship based skill-building to add dimension to Jewish ritual space and open doors to increased participation by Jews of Color and other Jews of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many Jews of Color that I have built community with have, at times, expressed feelings of being marginalized within traditionally organized Jewish spaces. My invitation to those that I gather in community to broaden their understanding of ritual and community to include the specifics of their own particular journey and the journeys of others that they may have not yet imagined to be included in “Jewish community” has been described to me as “life-changing” for many participants in sessions and workshops that I lead. The introduction to “Jewish Gospel” as an authentic expression of “Jewish soul,” cultivated within an African-American family over three generations, has also been noted to me as the experience of a significant paradigm shift for many Jewish explorers looking to find their own unique space/style/path within Jewish ritual practice and community.
Avram Mlotek (Base Hillel, New York, NY)
In the Fall of 2013, my friend Jon Leener and I submitted a proposal to Birthright Next for Base. Base is the home of a pluralistic rabbinic family which is open to Jews in their 20s and 30s for living the Jewish calendar, learning and community service. The grant was for 10K and we were flatly rejected with BirthrightNext claiming “this model already exists.”
Depleted, I went on searching for rabbinic alternatives interviewing at synagogues and Hillels. I was finishing my rabbinic education at the time and none of these options felt particularly compelling. In the summer of 2014, Jon and his wife, Faith, had been in Israel and bumped into Rabbi Dan Smokler at a cafe. Smokler was about to start a new position as Chief Innovation Officer at Hillel International and was looking for new projects to steer. He invited our team to send him a proposal.
Over the next few months, the proposal was tweaked (albeit very limitedly), and with Dan’s shepherding through the UJA, Base was awarded a grant to fund their work over the next three years. We have two sites; one in Williamsburg with Faith and Jon, and the other near Union Square, with Yael and myself.
We moved in July and just celebrated Chanukah with about 400 young Jews at our office space in midtown Manhattan. We open our home almost every night: Sunday nights we prepare a home cooked meal for our neighbors at St. Xavier’s Homeless Shelter, Tuesday nights we learn the weekly Torah portion over a bottle of wine, Wednesdays I teach an introduction to Judaism seminar for young people interested in converting or learning more about Judaism 101, Tuesdays we have various guest speakers. Friday and Saturday we host Shabbat meals which can range from intimate to loud and party-like. We’ve partnered with local organizations like Moishe Houses of Murray Hill, Wiliamsburg, Avodah House and local shuls on events as well. With God’s help, we have plans to bring Base to other cities.
I believe what made and makes for the success of Base is the grassroots spirit. Base is about couples opening their home to other people in their community, serving those in need in their community, finding like-minded partners within their community. It is not about a particular brand of Judaism being pushed onto anyone; it’s about us opening our home, inviting folks to take what they like, leave what they don’t. I believe the real success of Base lies in the building of more Jewish homes, in all their diversity, plurality, breadth and depth.
Base is about people, not programs; it is about fostering relationships and believing change happens on an individual level, from heart to heart, person to person, one community at a time.
Rabbi Lee Moore (Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Kent, OH)
In late June of the year 2000 I helped to fuel the Jerusalem Kitchen at the annual US Rainbow Gathering, a temporary intentional community. Upon reflection, and in my humble opinion, the four elements that made the community compelling to its members were choice, song, food and Shabbat. Amidst a larger gathering of alternative folks from every walk of life, the Rainbow organizational system encourages individuals to align with particular kitchens – otherwise, one might not be around at a time when food is not being served and thus not eat. The only Jewish camp at this gathering, we felt a common purpose to produce an amazing Shabbat experience, knowing that an unknown number of hundreds of people would be showing up to have Shabbat dinner with us.
Compelling: the rhythm of cooking food in huge pots with spring-fed water (and a need for the utmost hygiene) each day, and singing the songs of inspiration we knew at night. Recognition that no one had to be there, we all chose to put our tent near the kosher kitchen, among hundreds. We were living by the sun, moon and whims of the weather each day. Understanding we were one (Jewish) voice among other thousands who care about spirit, the earth and decent human interactions (love). The element of choice governed not only where to put one’s tent, but also every action – Rainbow culture encourages people only to cook if they feel like cooking; only to work if they feel like working. This destroys the hierarchical assumptions of what it takes to accomplish tasks, and the sensations of being a part of something extremely productive that was also entirely optional was powerful and transformative for many of us. Yes, the experience was ‘temporary’ but there I forged some of the strongest bonds in my life and out of our kitchen emerged at least two eventual marriages/families that are still powerful organizing forces. How did I do it? Truthfully, ‘I’ didn’t do it; rather, ‘we’ did it. What I did was to show up, and attend to what was necessary — taking care of myself as needed, and then reveling in the ways I could help care for the collective – in the kitchen, emotionally, through song.
Blair Nosan (Pickle Torah, Detroit, MI)
The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue was the only free standing Jewish Congregation left in the city of Detroit when I moved there in 2009. It was a shrinking community in the early 2000’s, but when I got involved in 2009 the city of Detroit and the Downtown Synagogue were both slowly growing. I got deeply involved in the shul’s ritual life – and though I was at a place in my own Jewish journey where I felt woefully inadequate as a ritual leader, I put my energy where I knew I could make a difference. The kitchen. I showed up every week for shabbos. I sometimes led services. I always sang with my whole heart. And others began to do the same. I watched the community grow and connect as our meals became a space where we celebrated the local harvest and where we experienced abundance and beauty. I watched services grow and spirit grow – more and more people were coming every week, our song grew louder, our table fuller. But we had underlying tensions over ritual identity, a largely hebrew illiterate community, and a total lack of resources being put into education. One of our core strengths was that everyone felt needed. Our weakness was that we didn’t know how to serve, celebrate, and grow our volunteers in their own spiritual journey.
When I left town to get a graduate degree in Jewish education in 2013, the synagogue began to falter. People kept cooking but the spirit slowly left the place, and by the time I arrived back in 2015 we were, essentially, back where we started in 2009. Only this time around, we felt we had a name that we had to uphold, so we found ourselves resorting to hiring people to cook and coordinate services, roles that had once fed off of volunteer spirit. Everyone was saying that the soul had gone out of the place.
Why would I share a story about the loss of community when you ask for a success story? Because I have learned, and continue to learn, so much about what makes a community strong through watching the community I helped build struggle for life. Because the real success story is not in the fall, but in the rebuilding. The Downtown Synagogue can no longer sell itself on our food or our sparkle. This time around, it’s got to be our Torah, our throbbing spiritually alive heart. Our values.
My expectations for what community looks like have changed since the electric days of new growth in an old institution. Now I feel success in the tiny group of friends I’ve gathered together to study the parsha every Monday night in my own home. I feel success for every single person who learns to say and, ultimately, to lead a new prayer. These literacies are the bedrock of Jewish community. They are not what gets people in the door, but they are what keeps them coming back. So as I work to build community today I reflect on what I’ve learned – knowing that, simply put, the commitment to good Torah has to be as strong as the commitment to good food.
Nati Katz Passow (Jewish Farm School, Philadelphia, PA)
While I have been involved in helping to create numerous short and long-term, Jewish communities, ranging from weeklong immersive service-learning programs, to summer camps, to my own neighborhood in West Philadelphia, rarely have I held the spiritual space. I think this is namely because my own spiritual practice is incredibly personal and I don’t necessarily feel like my ideal role is one of a spiritual leader. I tend to be the person overseeing the big picture and thinking through the details that have allowed the community to function and thrive. I love creating and holding the space for others to fill with their gifts and talents, and I have learned that this is an important part of a successful recipe for sustainable community building; different people playing a variety of roles, all of which should be honored.
There are several key components that make true community more than simply a network or collection of people. First, is having some sort of shared practice. This could be a daily morning minyan or yoga class, weekly celebration of Shabbat, or sharing intentions before meals. This brings people together on a level that is deeper than pragmatism alone, and bonds people together in a more profound way.
One of the most important communities I was a part of was as a staff member at the Teva Learning Center in the fall of 2002. In addition to working together throughout the week, we also lived in tight quarters and needed to figure out how we, as a diverse group of Jews, were going to keep Shabbat, kashrut, and shalom bayit. Despite having gone to a pluralistic Jewish high school, I really felt like this was my first time building truly pluralistic community. There was a real sense that everyone’s needs were respected on the same level (as opposed to the all-too-common frummest common denominator approach that often defines pluralistic communities). There was little judgment being passed, while we were still able to hold each other accountable on our collective mission.
There are two somewhat obvious yet noteworthy reasons why this community was able to thrive. First, it was incredibly small, consisting of roughly 15 educators and staff members. Second, we had a defined process that we were operating within. Even though many of us were new to Teva, there were rituals and patterns that were already established; Thursday afternoon community meetings, Monday morning communal time, and a framework for Shabbat and kashrut that had been figured out by previous generations of Teva staff. This allowed us to bring our unique individual needs and wants, while not starting entirely from scratch.
Eden Pearlstein (Darshan, Brooklyn, NY)
My most relevant experience in helping to build spiritual community would probably not be immediately recognizable as a “spiritual community” per se. My primary experience in this regard has occurred in the realm of cultivating creative and collaborative partnerships (for instance the “Saints of Everyday Failures”, Olympia, WA 2000-2006). These were most often in the form of small groups of dedicated individuals who shared both common and conflicting passions and perspectives who were brought together through a shared medium or method of exploration and expression of those passions and perspectives in a group context. These groups formed bonds that exceeded the boundaries of the projects we were working on and tended to lean more into the realm of family or tribal networks, units or support systems. This might include social, emotional, familial, or monetary support shared by the various members as needed. Also, often there would be shared living situations giving these groups more of an organismic feel to their functioning.
The purposes of these partnerships were both inwardly and outwardly oriented. Meaning that there were benefits for the individuals involved that emerged in the form of friendship, mentorship, opportunity to explore passions and areas of interest, support in developing a skill or craft relevant to the projects being worked on, and space to work out one’s own values regarding the relationship between spirituality, creativity, community, commerce and consciousness.
Additionally, these processes and projects were outwardly oriented in as much as their fruits or manifestations were meant to be shared and presented to the public, both self-selectively and more anonymously and randomly. In other words, the results of the inward facing work were meant to be shared with others outside the group to partake in and benefit from. In this way, the more internally oriented processes became forms of service to the larger public. This included expressions of values, visions, artworks, music, forms of prayer and other “practices,” as well as facilitated “experiences” and “spaces.”
I refer to these collaborative communities as “spiritual” because the content that we focused on in our projects was predominantly “spiritual” or even “religious” in character, and because the context that these processes happened within was self-consciously engaged with the transformative potential of creative and collaborative work. That is to say that the participants were all aware that when we were working on a project we were also working on ourselves as well as on each other. Each collaboration became a kind of laboratory in which internal states could be externalized in various creative and supportive ways, and conversely, in which external expressions could be internalized and digested deeply and meaningfully.
My roles in these processes and projects has consisted of seeking out individuals to collaborate with, responding to calls for collaboration, facilitating large scale projects, administrative support, organizational support, inspirational support, interpersonal support, big-picture visioning, fund-raising, and amicable disbanding.
Rabbi Scott Perlo (Sixth & I, Washington, DC)
I work in outreach. I love it.
The most appealing part of kiruv is that I experience much less inertia than in other work I’ve done. Things have a tendency to get stuck in Jewish life – I suppose that’s always the challenge of religion and community. We end up doing things not because we get their why, not because we understand what they mean, but because that’s the way we’ve done them.
There are great benefits to a l’dor vador mentality. Newton described it best, “objects in motion tend to stay in motion, ” It is very hard to get the wheel of communal life – of shared knowledge and experience – spinning, and much easier to find your way into a world that is already turning.
But sometimes what gets sent tumbling along, passed from one hand to another, is boredom. Sometimes the link between what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is lost, yet the ritual continues on, unmoored from purpose, floating in the nebulous unknowability of tradition.
These days, if I find myself giving the reason for any ritual as “tradition,” I consider it as if I have not understood the point of that practice. My students have taught me this. Because they are new to Jewish life, or have little exposure to The Way Things Are Done, they have a great gift for asking, “why do we do that?” at precisely the right time – that is, when we’ve done something for so long that no one remembers why we do it. A Jew like me, raised to shul, would never accept such effrontery; “tradition,” we’d yell, and go back to counting the pages left til we were done.
So I think the most important tool I’ve found in creating a spiritual community of learners is: find the why; over and over again, find the why. Find every why. Not the why of Judaism as a system, not the why of Jewish continuity, or the why of endogamy – it’s the why of these two candles, the why of rectifying each injustice, the why of fringes attached to cloth, the why of every ethical demand, the why of every Shabbat. Not an explanation of why, but a search to find out why. Not a why of the head, but a why that pumps from the heart.
To find the why in every Jewish moment is a battle fought by inches, but the result over time is that our students (so I believe) find purpose at every step. The great engines inside of us, built to reach out and form community with others, wrap themselves around purpose. To get, in your bones, why you are here is to want to connect with other people in the sweetness of your endeavor. The most valuable tool I have in building spiritual community is: find the why.
Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh (Adamah, Falls Village, CT)
Adamah works because of the integration and interplay of farm and food work, specific community building activities (listening circles) and ritual (morning prayers, Shabbat). To help Adamah become a spiritual community we combined elements of experiential education, intentional community, Jewish renewal, community organizing, small farm DIY culture, and the overall Isabella Freedman vibe. A DIY, non-hierarchical approach to leadership is crucial. There is no rabbi on staff. We actively encourage those with little Jewish background or confidence to speak up in class or to lead morning services. We staff try hard to model an open, flexible and vulnerable kind of leadership. The staff are on our own journey of discovery and transformation. We are fellow travelers at the same time that we are mentors. This makes the community more authentic. Welcoming of all kinds of Jewish and gender and political identities is crucial. While we do hold to some structure (kashrut and Shabbat, the basic structure of morning prayer) there is a lot of room for creative leadership. The relationships the Adamahniks and apprenti and staff build here is, I think, unique to intensive residential settings. The comfort and openness we cultivate balanced with the challenges of farm work, group living and spiritual practice can lead to deep personal growth and close bonds. The experience is central. We have great opportunity on the farm and in the woods to experience awe and gratitude, and to make that experience (and not an idea) the starting point for the spiritual community. Living, working, learning and praying together makes the shared experience a powerful bond and makes the community compelling. And we are a community made of up of a consistently shifting constellation of young people who join for 3 months (minimum) or 3 years.
Beth Sandweiss (Jewish Meditation Center of Montclair, Montclair, NY)
For the past decade, I have helped seed the ground for integrating multiple spiritual communities within my home synagogue and the larger Jewish community of Montclair. Drawing on my chanting practice, I established two chant groups in 2007. Each group has developed into a spiritual community that continues to meet, and express itself in distinct ways. In the first group, chanting now infuses my synagogue’s prayer service, and a sacred chant group formed for the purpose of accompanying the ill and dying, and joining with the chevra kaddisha throughout the ritual of tahara. The second group serves as a source of healing and transformation within the group.
Two years later, I co-founded the Jewish Meditation Center (JMC) of Montclair with two friends, both graduates of the IJS Jewish Meditation Teachers Training. By then, we were attending silent retreats, at Buddhist and Jewish retreat centers, with increasing frequency and sought community with whom to share and support our meditation practice. Mindful of the challenge of maintaining the momentum and continuity of awareness that grows during a silent retreat, we recognized the need for a sangha.
We envisioned our JMC as a way to bring together likeminded people, Jewish or not, who were interested in exploring meditation and other embodied practices through the lens of Jewish text and teachings. We were each invited to house the JMC at our own shuls, but chose to host our drop in Shabbat sits at a yoga studio. We felt it was important to avoid association with any denomination and to feel free to experiment without oversight by a synagogue Board.
Our center was modeled on the JMC in Brooklyn; though our community was more graying, 40’s-50’s, rather than 20’s-30’s. For the first couple of years, we guided the group in meditation, and over time a core community formed. These included regular shul goers, secular and unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews and people curious about meditation. We invited people to share what they had come for- and we heard versions of the following: “I had a bad, uninspired or meaningless experience in the synagogue I grew up in/raised my children in”; “this is the first place I feel authentically connected to my tradition”; “I feel I have come home”; “this has become my Shabbat practice”; “it is novel to sit in silence with other people (especially with other Jews) and to experience such deep connection in the silence”.
As my development as a Mindfulness Meditation teacher progressed, I sought further training as an MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) instructor and in other MBI’s (Mindfulness Based Interventions). I collaborated with Rabbi Rex Perlemeter, founder of the Jewish Wellness Center of Northern Jersey, to develop multiple entry points to introduce mindfulness practices within and outside of synagogues. Together, we developed and led mindfulness trainings for groups and institutions including Jewish summer camps, NY and NJ Federation, synagogues, clinical staff of JFS, and an on-line course for the CCAR. Graduates of our trainings can meet bi-weekly at the JMC which is now housed at B’nai Keshet.
Over the past 2 years, Bnai Keshet has participated in the IJS Tikkun Middot program and I partnered in teaching there with Rabbi Elliott Tepperman. As a mindfulness teacher, the inclusion of Mussar/Tikkun Middot into my spiritual tool box has enhanced the building of spiritual community significantly. As in MBSR, the Tikkun Middot curriculum emphasizes daily, incremental informal practices to change habitual behavior and mental activity. Training ourselves to “turn toward” our experience, with kindness, rather than distracting, numbing or judging is a radical stance. The Tikkun Middot program offers language and guidelines for doing that in a context of safety. One quarter of the BK congregation has participated in the Tikkun Middot and almost unanimously report that even years long relationships among participants have deepened – in large part, because of the guidelines pertaining to wise speech and deep listening.
Nigel Savage (Hazon, New York, NY)
I was just at a wedding in St Louis – one Hazon staffer was getting married to the sister of another; the bride’s brother was the shadchan. I got there and bumped into my former assistant and her fiancée – they both worked for Hazon and met at Hazon. And another former staffer and his fiancée – when they met he (I think) was working for Hazon and she was learning at Hadar. Then someone from St Louis (a town I’ve never been to) came up and introduced himself as an alum of both Hazon’s New York and Israel bike rides and his daughter had studied at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Then I bumped into a guy I know from NY; he and I have a mutual friend, a 20-something in NY; we met at her parents’ house at Friday night dinner. Then someone waved at me – a woman I know from the shul I used to go to in London in the 1990s; I knew her parents from that shul, and I know her as the friend of kids of my other friends from that shul. Turned out she was at the wedding because the bride had been a roommate of hers in Cambridge.
This is how we live: the interlinked chains of Jewish life, through weddings and institutions, shuls and schools and camps (and, yes, now farms and bike rides) is the bedrock of Jewish community. It is not a new paradigm; it’s an old one. It’s not necessarily spiritual.
I almost never use the word “spiritual,” a word which makes me thoroughly nervous. Nor do I feel fully conscious of having ever helped to build “a spiritual community,” even though I do sometimes talk about, inter alia, “the Hazon community” (which I have played some role in building) or “the Isabella Freedman community” or “the Teva community” or “the Adamah community” – each of them communities or networks that I consciously strive to steward and to think well about.
I was at Pardes in the mid-90s, and that felt like a strong community: there too there are strong ongoing chains of connection. I wouldn’t myself have called it a spiritual community – but clearly one might have done.
So… these are interesting questions. The primary relationships of community – the establishing of community – I think always comes from contiguity; from living with people, learning with them, working with them, spending real time together. But how does that evolve in our over-mobile world? How do we see more of the people we care about, or care more about those whom we see? What is the relationship between contiguity and community, between living together, working together, learning together or davening together? The answers are unclear, but the questions are interesting and important.
Rabbi Sid Schwarz (Kenissa, Rockville, MD)
I had already served as a rabbi of a congregation in suburban Philadelphia but moved to Washington DC to take a job as head of the JCRC. We joined a liberal Conservative congregation and I was not a happy camper. I decided to try to seed a new Reconstructionist congregation by doing an outreach High Holyday service which I organized with a few close friends. We attracted a little over 100 people and invited everyone back to our home for break the fast. The energy after the services was sky high and the buzz over bagels was: this has got to continue. A month later there was an organizing meeting to see where “this” might go. I didn’t push hard. I was about to launch a national social justice organization that became PANIM and I let the conversation take its course. A few people wanted to know from me if I would be willing to serve as their part time rabbi if they did the work to start a new congregation,. I said “yes” and Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation was born (1988).
We agreed on a small stipend for me, some dues were set and 19 households signed up right away. Two months later we started holding Shabbat morning services twice a month, renting space in a church. I pretty much set the ideological tone: we wanted spiritual seekers who were also committed to social justice; no passive membership, everyone had to contribute; pot luck lunches followed every service; worship included a lot of music and serious Torah discussion; people were encouraged to share their spiritual journeys from the bima as part of our services.
After one year, our membership had grown to about 50 households and we became a destination synagogue, with some members driving more than 50 miles to attend. The cantor was a volunteer as was a parent who ran a 1-room Torah School concurrent with our services for children. We “starved” the group for program so that Shabbat morning services was virtually the only thing we did for almost two years. Because people were hungry for what we were offering, even though almost noone was shomer Shabbat (even in the liberal sense), we typically attracted 70-80% of our membership to every service. Very soon the community was every bit as much of the draw as what happened on the bima because we created opportunities for people to share deeply about their spiritual journeys in sacred time and sacred space.
Over time the programming expanded and our numbers grew. Today the congregation is 500 households with a lovely, eco-friendly building that we built. At the core however is the ethos that every person feels like a co-owner of the community. People are challenged to craft a serious Jewish path for themselves and for their families. They are also expected to have an equally strong commitment to all the other members of the community.
Sara Shalva (DC Jewish Community Center, Washington, DC)
In a fairly recent article in the New York Times, David Brooks suggests that stressed out, time-short American adults are simply not so successful at building friendships in modern America. Spot-on! If young Jewish families are not joining synagogues, how do they succeed in building Jewish community? Other than connecting with other parents in their kids’ preschool or elementary classes, how do they form lasting friendships that support their identity? If these preschools and elementary classes are secular, how do they form Jewish identities at all for themselves and for their families?
In 1985, people tended to have about three really close friends, according to the General Social Survey. By 2004, according to research done at Duke University and the University of Arizona, they were reporting they had only two close confidants. The number of people who say they have no close confidants at all has tripled over that time. This is a major problem in our society.
And yet, Brooks in the same article envisioned some partial solution for the isolation of the “leaning-in” American society where work and family are barely kept in balance:
So I envision a string of adult camps or retreat centers (my oldest friendships were formed at summer camp, so I think in those terms). Groups of 20 or 30 would be brought together from all social and demographic groups, and secluded for two weeks. They’d prepare and clean up all their meals together, and eating the meals would go on for a while. In the morning, they would read about and discuss big topics. In the afternoons, they’d play sports, take hikes and build something complicated together. At night, there’d be a bar and music.
Lev B’Lev creates exactly that type of retreat environment — albeit for a shorter interval — three or four days rather than two weeks to expand access and affordability. With LBL, we create a weekend retreat program designed to build community through gently exposing and educating young families in the rituals of Jewish home life out in nature. LBL specifically targets young families and emphasizes building communities of parents with young children. With babysitters and family educators, the program is an immersive weekend Jewish experience for young families to explore big ideas about Judaism and parenting, about identity and education. LBL is built from the ground up to be transformational for body and soul. In addition to helping participants wrestle with intellectual ideas, LBL invites young families to do yoga, to sing, to hike, to meditate.
Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu (Rabbis Without Borders, New York, NY)
Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) is often referred to as a network of rabbis who have a shared commitment to pluralism, innovation and service to all. It is indeed all of those things. However, it is also more than that. It is a spiritual community for the rabbis who are involved. You might ask: Do rabbis need their own spiritual community? The resounding answer is “yes.” They need their own sacred community. Precisely because rabbis are often seen as leaders in their own communities, they need a place where they can go to nourish their own spirits, recharge, re-energize and then return to a leadership position. RWB provides them with this opportunity.
For me, community is defined by the bonds that hold people together. I have a created a space where the members of RWB can form deep bonds with each other. This begins in the First Year Fellowship where 20 rabbis representing different ages, denominations, and kinds of jobs come together in a safe space to learn together and challenge each other. I make clear from the beginning that this is a pluralist space. Everyone’s views and opinions are welcome. Any borders someone has are their own and cannot be applied to someone else’s situation. Bonds are then made across differences since they are open to hearing each other without judgment. This then grows as the rabbis enter the larger RWB Network, now 180 rabbis strong. In a caring and respectful manner, the rabbis ask each other hard questions, share reflections on personal and professional struggles, and challenge each other to think differently and more broadly.
In addition, I created a space that welcomes experimentation, and thus welcomes failure. You cannot have one without the other. This creates an atmosphere where the rabbis can share their struggles without the need to claim success. The success is in trying something different, not in whether or not it works out. Everything is seen as a learning opportunity and this makes for a safe space to share.
After our last retreat, one rabbi posted in his Facebook wall. “RWB is where rabbis go to have the conversations they can’t have anywhere else.” Many other attendees commented on the truth of his statement. The bonds between the rabbis are deep, emotional, and spiritual. This community nourishes them in ways they need. They learn, sing, pray, laugh, cry, and experiment together. We know it is working because 60% of RWBs are in touch with each other at least once a month. Almost 50% come to our Annual Retreat. The rabbis are also now self-organizing to serve others in new ways. Small groups pursuing similar interests and innovative projects work together focusing on a variety of new ideas. For these rabbis, nourishing their creativity is a form of spiritual expression, one that not all of them can do in their home communities. I feel blessed to lead this spiritual community of rabbis and look forward to seeing how it grows in the future.
Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman (Rimon, Housatonic, MA)
Rimon is a radically inclusive community, welcoming all, regardless of one’s historical or current faith tradition. We communicate this in multiple ways, but especially through our interfaith projects. Rimon is a non-tribal community. We successfully reach out to the unaffiliated, both Jews and non-Jews by physically positioning ourselves outside the established Jewish community and collaborating with non-Jewish organizations. We hold nearly all classes, services and events in non-Jewish spaces. This aspect of our identity has been a strong draw for those who do not resonate with Jewish tribal identity.
We began our work in the community by offering many learning opportunities. Our classes, focused on Jewish mysticism and spirituality, drew in seekers of all kinds, forming the first foundation for the growth of Rimon as initially, a Resource Center for Jewish spirituality. With a base of dedicated learners and a growing curiosity about Rimon, we launched our first project; the South Berkshire Community Hevra Kadisha.
Located in the rural Berkshires, there is no Jewish Funeral Home in the region. Rimon offered a series of classes in a variety of locations to those interested in learning about Judaism’s views and practices related to death. These classes, focused on mystery, spirituality and the concrete ritual practices that anchor us during profoundly challenging times, drew a large group of people interested in Jewish learning and practice. The classes were so compelling that the first group of Hevra Kadisha volunteers emerged. The signature quality of hesed, embraced by the Hevra Kadisha and put into direct practice by this initial fledgling group formed and continues to form the true spiritual foundation for Rimon. Through caring for the deceased and their families, forming profound bonds between its members and communicating hesed through all the worlds, the HK supports and embodies the essence of Rimon as a compassionate community.
Rimon’s ongoing classes picked up many students/ seekers, who over a short period of time requested more opportunities for Jewish practice and experiences. After one year of classes, we began offering monthly kabbalat shabbat services. Every service is followed by a pot-luck vegetarian dinner. These dinners create opportunities for relationships to grow. We quickly discovered that Rimon had become a community. After two years we changed our name. We dropped “Resource Center” as a descriptor and became Rimon: A Collaborative Community for Jewish Spirituality.
Overall, a combination of several factors supported Rimon’s growth as a spiritual community including its culture of radical inclusivity and non-tribal identity; excellent educational experiences that weave together learning with spiritual practice; emphasis on hesed as a guiding middah; the work of the Hevra Kadisha; innovative and spiritually compelling services; opportunities for socializing and having fun together. Let’s not forget fun! – Music Jams, Bonfires, Hikes in the beautiful Berkshire woods. Rimon consistently offers multiple ways to connect with one another, with the Divine in all her forms.
Ilana Sumka (Center for Jewish Non-Violence, Bruges, Belgium)
“I can’t believe how much I love her!” Rebecca, a 20-something year old Jewish self-identified radical Palestine liberation activist told me.
She was describing Marion, a 50-something year old supporter of a relatively mainstream Jewish position: A negotiated two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Marion told me the same thing, how impressed with and fond of Rebecca she was: nothing like the stereotyped ‘self-hating Jews’ that she had been led to believe was at the heart of Jewish Palestine-solidarity activism.
They met a year ago replanting trees on a Palestinian farm in the West Bank to replace the hundreds uprooted by the Israeli government on May 19, 2014. The Center for Jewish Nonviolence organized a week for Jews from around the world, from all different backgrounds, to affirm our Jewish identities and to say that Israeli bulldozers, destruction, and theft do not represent our Jewish values.
We worked the land – not because any of us could till soil better than the Palestinian farmers who do it for a living, but to affirm their right to live on their land, free from displacement.
We sat in a circle and sang ‘hinei matovu manayim shevat achim gam yachad’ with Daoud Nassar, the Palestinian farmer who owns the land, and considered him one of our brothers, achim. It was the first time in years that some sang such an explicitly Jewish prayer, more often than not feeling pushed out and unwanted in so many Jewish spaces that tie Judaism as a spiritual practice to unwavering support for Israeli government policies. More than a few tears were shed. We discovered that we all loved each other, not just Rebecca and Marion.
Here was our spiritual Judaism: On a Palestinian farm threatened with demolition by the Israeli government. Here was our community: Jews and Palestinians in meaningful partnership in a struggle for dignity and equality.
Our core group meets weekly and our expanded group meets monthly using the best virtual tools available. We live in Chicago and Jerusalem, London and Pittsburgh, Washington and Brussels. We also convene in person, in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in retreat gatherings. This is one version of what communities today looks like. For many of us, it is the truest, most authentic, spiritually meaningful community we are a part of.
I’ve extracted three principles that I think apply to building all kinds of spiritual Jewish communities:
- Be active – the act of doing is important – even as we integrate times of ‘being’ into our doing.
- Stand up for what you believe in and base it on your vision for the future.
- Positively affirm Jewish identity in a way that is authentic and relevant.
It’s worth stating the obvious: Do it all from a place of love. Love of self, love of neighbor, love of the other. Love is contagious in the best possible way. “V’ahatva et…V’ahavta l’reacha…” Love is central in Judaism and deserves to be spoken about and acted upon much, much more often.
Casper ter Kuile (Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA)
Singing has always been central to my work in building spiritual community. When a group of people knows the same songs (without word sheets or hymnals etc.), and can start singing them when the moment calls them to – that’s when I count it as a real community.
Angie Thurston (Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA)
Along with others around the world, I study a spiritual text called The Urantia Book and try to live by its teachings. There are not many young adult Urantia Book readers in the United States (likely under 1,000), and as of 2009, none of us knew each other. In 2010, three of us met at a conference and decided to create a Youth and Young Adult committee. In the six years since, we have grown to many more members and have had a conference call (now via Zoom!) across at least four time zones, every week for 90 minutes or more. For the first year or two, we talked constantly about trying to “form community.” Not really knowing how to tackle that nebulous vision, in the mean time, we started holding semiannual gatherings in different parts of the US, built a blog-style website, started a peer mentorship program, and took on a host of other projects that kept us busy. None of us had preexistent relationships, much less friendships. But in the process of working together consistently across months and then years, we got to know each other and came to love each other. We also began to change as individuals. Our committee work was guided by such high ideals, and we worked toward them so avidly, that for many of us, the work of our daily lives began to pale in comparison. Slowly but surely, we all began orienting more and more of our lives toward the same sorts of ideals. In my case, that meant a journey that has now led to and through divinity school and a full-time commitment to ministry. I still have those conference calls every week, which always open with a prayer and personal sharing.
I remember the day I realized that, in the process of doing a bunch of other work because we couldn’t figure out how to build a spiritual community, we had built one. It was small and geographically diffuse – maybe not the big fat in-person community we might have envisioned – but it was deep and strong and had the kind of bonds where when someone was in need, someone else was always there. I think the most important element was that we were united around spiritual goals – around doing something, together, in the effort to bring about the greatest possible good for others. It was in our united striving to serve God and other people, that we came to know and love each other. In the process we not only grew spiritually as individuals, but also attracted others to our side. Other important ingredients included strong and loving servant leadership, consistency combined with flexibility, and an ethos of people first – in particular, people before agenda.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner (Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn, NY)
I was grateful to be part of the Shabbat morning minyan at Leo Baeck Temple for six years. The minyan was small and met only once a month when I first became its rabbi. Over the course of time, the group grew and met more frequently. More importantly, the minyan became a place where people took risks with one another, and a place where people held each other through those risks. The minyan attracted a number of Jewish scholars and rabbis in the community. It also attracted business people, writers, thinkers, others. Two factors were essential in the success of this spiritual community: shared ownership and humility.
The minyan was designed as a partnership between lay people and rabbinic leadership. Everyone had a role to fill and everyone knew that the quality of the experience depended upon every member taking a risk – whether learning to leyn Torah for the first time or giving a first d’var Torah. It also depended upon the more knowledgeable and experienced members being willing to learn from every person. The minyan service always ended with a 20-30 minute interactive teaching with a text sheet. The key there was the foundational idea that every person has something to contribute and every person can learn from every other. In that atmosphere and spirit, we had retired writers riffing off of midrash scholars, over to businessmen and lawyers, who were building from the Bible scholars. Everyone felt that their voice added, and everyone listened with profound respect. The conversation built, the insights deepened. The room became more and more full and alive. There is a nuanced form of facilitation that lifts up every voice and honors the collective learning experience. This was key. The singing, the learning, the leading, became entirely shared. Of course, the test of what you’ve built is not just in the davenning and learning, it is in the hospital and hospice. That’s when you see how people are showing up for one another and what kind of trust and love they have built together.
Karla Van Praag (JOIN for Justice, Boston, MA)
As a training entity, the primary purpose of JOIN for Justice is to teach leadership. We do this with a deep-seated belief that meaningful community is a human necessity. Yet building a meaningful community that transcends the institutions we have become accustomed to requires skilled leadership, intentional learning, and much practice and failure. At the center of our work is building relational power.
We dream of a Jewish community that is both vibrant and powerful: not one made up of atomized individuals paying a fee for service; not one where people do things by rote until they realize that they can’t give their children a compelling reason to be part of the community. Members of our ideal community attend to and struggle with how broken the world can be – they experience it in their own lives as they try to make ends meet, support their families, and work and volunteer, and they see how even more broken it can be for other communities as well. We don’t want to be satisfied with Jewish institutions that can offer them comfort about that brokenness – our institutions are sources of power than can enable us to act as the heroes that will make the world better. A compelling Jewish community is where:
- People have real relationships, where we know not only what others do but who they are and who they strive to be; where we share our stories with each other and work together to construct a communal narrative;
- Our communal narratives present people with a common mission, a common purpose, and a shared set of values and interests;
- Rather than waiting for others to do for them, people step up and take leadership;
- The community comes together to build the power needed to realize that vision and takes collective action to be the community that we dream of and to create a more just world that reflects our common values.
In this community for which we strive – the world as it should be – we are not known for our laundry list of programs and activities, but rather for how we came together to collectively live out our values, both when we built our own community and when we acted in the world around us.
That sort of community won’t just happen; it requires dedicated, trained leadership. Leading a community means focusing on the development of people and their relationships, how to help one’s community develop a common mission and act on it, and how to work to bring about social change that reflects Jewish values and the interests of the community. The most important elements include: learning how to uncover the stories, talents, and interests of the people within a community. Additional concepts we find essential: understanding and building power; recognizing and articulating common values and interests; learning to conduct successful, strategic campaigns and taking effective action.
Rob Weinberg (Experiment in Congregational Education, Evanston, IL)
I have been involved for nearly 20 years, first as a consultant and then, for nearly 15 years, as Director of the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), a national project whose mission is to strengthen synagogues as critical centers of Jewish life in North America by developing—and helping congregations to apply—methods through which they become Congregations of Learners and Self-Renewing Congregations. Our primary pathway has been through transforming Jewish learning and education in the congregation and the work we have done has often had significant ripple effects throughout these spiritual communities. Our work has affected hundreds of congregations directly and indirectly; it’s difficult to point to any one community given that my role directs the entire effort and only occasionally involves working directly with a particular spiritual community. The way we help to build and strengthen these communities is by helping them innovate structurally, pedagogically, and educationally in ways that speak to their constituents in a deeper, more engaging and authentic way. And also we do that work in ways that develop and nurture Jewish change agents, rooting their leadership capacity in Jewish values and text.
In my experience it takes more than one or two important elements to make a community compelling to its members; elsewhere I have identified six. If I had to lift up two elements, based on the ECE’s work, I’d say first is an authentic and empowered encounter with Jewish text and—through it—our tradition as it applies to people’s own lives. Second is the formation of ongoing and substantive—not just surface and social—relationships that form community. When combined, these two factors begin to describe a community of meaning in which what is taught and learned is actively practiced. Such communities help individual Jews live meaningful lives by: connecting them to others by giving and receiving g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness); structuring and sanctifying time through prayer, holy day, and life cycle observance; and deepening their understanding through substantive Jewish learning and grounding their practice in Jewish values and tradition.
The best examples are communities that also incorporate into their ongoing cultures self-reflective habits and adaptive capacities that enable them to continually re-examine, re-interpret, and renew their responses to the human condition and the realities of our times through the lens of our tradition (rather than simply replicating a formula once happened upon). These communities remain alive and ever-evolving which also helps them remain compelling.
Larry Yermack (Center for Jewish Spirituality, San Rafael, CA)
Building Spiritual Community is the extension of building a Spiritual Life. For me the reason to build community was to strengthen my own practice and then to share it with others. My growth over the last 15 years, in both Mindfulness (MBSR) and the work of The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, has been my foundation.
I’ve had training in teaching MBSR and I’ve been through several cohorts at IJS including Jewish Meditation Teacher Training. When I moved to Marin County California 3 years ago I joined Congregation Kol Shofar and was interested in starting a meditation group. With support from Rabbi Susan Leider I offered a Shabbat Sit. She was courageous because I was new and she didn’t know me well at all, nor did the community, but over the past few years the Shabbat Sit has grown to a regular group of about 25 folks each week.
Kol Shofar was not new to Jewish spiritual practice. Rabbi Chai Levy was leading a monthly Kol Neshamah Minyan on Shabbat and led a wildly popular spiritual Musical Meditation Service on the High Holidays between the Sit and the Services there was an audience for this approach. What we needed to do was bring it all together under one roof with some programing consistency, which we did in the creation of the Center for Jewish Spirituality a year ago.
Year one was about branding and trying out new programing including guest speakers. This year is about creating intentional community, where we bring people together to move from “I go to the Center programs” to “I belong to the Center”, thus the work that we are doing parallels the work of this consultation.
Critical elements for success were: a community that was already predisposed to spiritual work (after all this is Marin), a baby boomer age cohort turning in this direction and supportive and educated rabbinic staff. We are a work in progress.
Zahara Zahav (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, New York, NY)
I’ll categorize a number of my past experiences building spiritual community as creating a space for politically active Jews to explore Shabbat, prayer, and other Jewish practices without judgment or pressure and to gradually and deeply develop personal relationships to a holistic Jewishness. The people involved were/are people I meet while organizing in Jewish and non-Jewish contexts, but never with unapologetic religious lenses.
I meet a lot of people who either had explicitly bad experiences in religious community or who were never given the tools they need to access religious community. In both cases, we guide connection to deeper relationship to G-d and Torah by necessarily building a strong sense of trust partly through showing our own real “It’s complicated” relationship to those things. Being honest about the powerful love that binds me to my tradition as well as the pain it can contain. In this space of not-pretending, I’ve found that the people I meet are able to also safely and bravely try for connection. That trying is vulnerable and sacred, and I’ve seen it seed incredible commitments to lead a life of trying for connection through Torah and ritual.
There is healing to do for Jews who hoped and tried for Judaism to be meaningful and transformative and came up short or even with nothing. There is much work to do for Jews who experience rage that they can’t understand or relate to Jewish spaces because they never learned how. Judaism in the U.S. has been co-opted in parts by Christianity, capitalism, and a dominating culture of whiteness. Many politicized Jews with whom I am slowly building community feel that something has been stolen from them by way of assimilation, internalized antisemitism, appropriation or otherwise, though that feeling is sometimes very difficult to articulate especially considering the power that Jews in this country hold.
The spaces I help to create are devoted to uplifting a Judaism that is anti-Empire, that is conscious of Christian hegemony and its affects on our people over time, and that yearns for a G-d who transcends the corrupted systems of which we are a part and is fighting alongside us to uproot their hold. Ritual, Torah, G-d, Judaism – these serve many purposes. For me, they are life saving. I think that feeling, that these things exist in part to save our lives and the lives of others, is a piece of what permeates the communities I help create. This is a slice of my understanding of covenantal community – the stakes of our relationships are elevated because we feel how desperately we need a different world and know we won’t make it there without each other.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit (Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia, PA)
I have helped to start a number of spiritual communities and organizations, as well as consulting to dozens over the years. Most recently I was involved with helping a community revitalize itself through a 6 month leadership program and now into my third year as rabbi of a Reconstructionist community, Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.
I came into a community that had been shrinking for a period of years and whose infrastructure, spiritual leadership/lay leadership/membership dynamics had eroded and potentially were dissolving. We have come through a period of healing, transition and now growth and re-energizing including creative governance restructuring, a new self-assessed covenantal membership structure, re-engaged membership, staff and board and the first modest growth in many years. A combination of emphasis on relationship and networking, opening up silos and strategic -visioning connected to the founding statement of principles, balancing tikkun hanefesh v’olam and intersection between spiritual practice/social justice/gemilut hasadim/life-long-learning have all been part of the re-building of spiritual community.
All these and other models and approaches have been based on faith and prioritization on relationship and meaningful and mindfulness in Jewish life- informed by Jewish religious peoplehood and maximal inclusivity of mutli-racial/faith/socio-economic/gender-sexual orientation identities. Embracing our particular Jewish path in service of the greater needs of our planet and society are part of the particular/universalistic continuum in all matters. God, as experienced in diverse ways, is in this place and we can know it and live it.