All participants in the 2017 National Kenissa Consultation were asked in advance to describe the ways that they form and sustain their respective communities of meaning. Below you will find their responses, listed in alphabetical order.
Wendy Aronson (Judaism Your Way, Denver, CO)
A 1997 Metro Denver/Boulder Jewish Community study found that 60% of weddings involving a Jew were to partners from other backgrounds, and that these couples had very low rates of Jewish affiliation. Compounding the situation, there were no Jewish options in metropolitan Denver for interfaith couples who desired a Jewish wedding.
Ten years later, the follow up study found a 71% intermarriage rate and that 68% of Jews in the metro area were not connected to synagogues or other Jewish organizations. These Jews and loved ones were looking for spirituality in new ways, without synagogue dues, building fund fees, or pressure to change aspects of their identity to fit community norms.
Judaism Your Way (JYW) was founded in 2003 to provide Jewish programs to anyone seeking Jewish connection. In 2004, Rabbi Brian Field was hired to lead High Holy Day services, officiate lifecycle events, and warmly welcome unaffiliated and intermarried people into the Jewish community. Since then, JYW has become the Colorado Jewish organization for approximately 20,000 community members.
JYW’s unique contribution to Jewish life is offering Jewish engagement based on a philosophy we call the “Torah of Inclusion”. Our “Torah of Inclusion” offers flexible and diverse pathways to connect Jewishly by using welcoming language like Jews and loved ones; offering free, outdoor services; and officiating lifecycle events for intermarried families without preconditions or treating the person of another faith differently. This serves as a welcome change for many of our participants, especially those who have previously experienced estrangement from Jewish life.
Today, JYW offers a radically inclusive Judaism that meets people wherever they are on their Jewish journeys. Our flagship program is offering free High Holy Day services in a huge open tent at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In 2016, approximately 5,625 duplicated individuals attended 14 different services over four days. Other signature programs include a popular Open Tent B’nai Mitzvah (OTBM) experience for teens and an 8th Night Passover Seder. By offering spiritually and financially accessible events, JYW is both a spiritual home and a gateway for those interested in deeper involvement in the local Jewish community.
“Hineni: Here I am,” is the response in Torah when leaders are called to be present. As a Jewish outreach organization, JYW exists to invite Jews and loved ones into Jewish community by saying: hineni. We are here for you. We are here for Jews whose beloved is of another faith; who are LGBTQ; who are ambivalent about God, Torah and Israel; and for whom the Jewish community has not been a welcoming spiritual home. We are here for anyone who wants to experience a maximally inclusive Judaism on their own terms.
Hannah Kapnik Ashar (Boulder Minyan, Boulder, CO)
Each of my efforts is animated by my desire to mine torah and yiddishkeit for existing meaning and to be part of, and encourage others to be part of, a generative process in relation to torah. I strive to meet people where they’re at with meaning stemming from Jewish sources and practices. I work to curate and empower others to contribute to personally relevant, community-based opportunities to partake of our intellectual and spiritual inheritance, and to continue the tradition of adapting the tradition to our times.
I have spear-headed and collaborated on several projects with this goal:
- Come & Listen – a Jewish podcast making big Jewish questions accessible. This was an UpStart project.
- Tefilah Retreat: A weekend of Spiritual Practice for Jewish young adults – Inspired by meditation retreats, this annual project cultivates robust spiritual life and intimacy with community, divinity, and torah. It draws on greats of Jewish spiritual practice (tefilah, mindful eating, song, torah, Shabbos) and the best of what participant-facilitators can offer (five-rhythms dance, Osho meditation, acroyoga, hiking, studying Mary Oliver poetry about prayer).
- Boulder-Denver Chevre – an outgrowth of the original Tefilah Retreat, this Kevah group/independent minyan met monthly for kabbalat Shabbat, torah study, and kosher potlucks in homes of community members, intermittent text study, camping trips, and other gatherings. The retreats and Boulder-Denver Chevre were meaning-rich, non-judgmental, and community-based. They came with an expectation that each person was committed to generating meaning and fun in and for the community, that each person’s voice was valuable in a text study context, and that the torah is relevant to our lives.
- Girls in Trouble Curriculum – an adult-ed curriculum about women’s stories in Tanach using art, midrash, and Alicia Jo Rabin’s poetry-song cycle. This curriculum welcomes learners into women’s stories and others’ creative interpretations of those stories, and invites learners to participate in creating visual or written midrash.
- Director of the Boulder Jewish Goat Milking Co-op, a totally embodied Yiddishkeit which was a primary Jewish affiliation for several members
- Contemplative niggun singing circles – bringing an unprecedented level of intimacy and spiritual practice to my shul community
- “Engendering Judaism” – cultivating a new paradigm of women’s spiritual practice by gathering women-identified community to read and respond to modern feminist literature, and visioning and experimenting to integrate a more feminine experience into personal and communal tefilah and practice.
I am currently most animated by and curious about this last project. The participants find the initiative compelling because it 1) gives language and expression to concerns they identify with but have often not yet articulated, 2) allows participants to relate to possibilities in religious experience offered by modern feminists and liturgists where they are more likely to see themselves reflected, 3) allows community members to envision and experiment with religious experience they imagine will make tefilah and practice more enlivening, in 4) an environment where we suspend our disbelief in the authenticity of the new and in the accessibility of the Divine.
Back in 2007, with the help of several great Jewish organizations such as Livnot, Present Tense and Pardes, I founded Bible Raps, an organization that uses Hip Hop to teach Torah to otherwise unreachable children and teens. When I started, I was one of only a handful of hardcore Hip Hop pedagogues. Teaching the Bible with rap was startling to many and downright incongruent to a few. I mean, the one is lewd, misogynistic, full of killers and concubines and the other is Hip Hop. Ba-dum-bum-CHING!
Some people even doubted that Hip Hop had legitimate staying power; like disco, a passing craze. Nothing was further from the truth. Spearheaded by superstars like 50 Cent, Lil’ Wayne and Drake, Hip Hop dethroned Rock n’ Roll in 2018, becoming the most popular music genre in the United States after Rock’s 70-year reign. As far as Rap education went, however, the tipping point of zeitgeist proportions was the Broadway Rap musical Hamilton. Suddenly, old people understood what I did. “Like Hamilton… but with the Bible.”
Elsewhere in Hip Hop during 2015, the three future co-founders of Rappers and Rabbis (R&R), Rabbi Adam Mayer, Ali Richardson and I, began creating a community of educators who joyfully explored and developed the synergy between Hip Hop and Judaism.
In 2018, Bible Raps, along with four other Hip Hop Educators and a Rabbi (of course) officially teamed up under the non-profit umbrella Rappers & Rabbis. In February 2020, we were thrilled to win an innovation prize from the MetroWest New Jersey Federation in order to “foster meaningful Jewish connections with people who do not feel engaged with live events.” I blush at how bushy-tailed and naive we were while planning all the fun open mics, concerts and retreats! I must say, I reveled in the innumerable spit particles we were going to accumulate to breathe and bathe in.
When Corona hit, we had to completely reimagine our community building strategy. The new anthem became: “All I wanna do is zoom a zoom zoom zoom in a zoom room!” The most comprehensive of our virtual offerings to which we pivoted, was a Fellowship consisting of 12 Hip Hop pedagogues, mostly from the Greater Metrowest, New Jersey area. As a month of covid became six months, the 12 members became a tight knit group that created content that grew in quality and focus. As one of our participants said, Rappers and Rabbis became a thing that gave purpose to our lives in these strange times.
The big challenge we currently face is how and when to pivot back to live-community with full gusto. It has not been easy to navigate. Our 2022 Artist Fellowship was set for a big start with a 3-day retreat for 20 people at a mansion in the Poconos mountains of Pennsylvania. About ten days before the retreat, omicron hit the mid-Atlantic region. There were a lot of tense moments in our leadership team, deciding whether or not to go forward with the retreat. For better or worse, it became evident that a retreat in early January was not possible. We were able to arrange with the venue to move the retreat to the weekend of March 25-27th. We then pushed back the 2-month Fellowship, which was supposed to begin with the retreat, to March 12th – May 6th.
Looking on the bright-side, if you are reading this and have already thought of someone you know who is Jewish and loves Hip Hop there is still time to apply at our website which also has more details about the program. In brief, Rapper & Rabbis 2022 Fellowship has two tracks: The Beat Kenessit – for prayer/song leaders interested in Hip Hop, and The Beat Midrash – for Hip Hop artists interested in Torah. The two tracks are a playful nod to the two houses in classical, rabbinic Judaism: the Beit Midrash (house of study) and the Beit Kenneset (house of prayer). We follow this rabbinic rubric – but to the beat! Go to: https://www.rappersandrabbis.com/fellowship for more.
As a young organization, a great deal of R&R’s organizational culture formed in the midst of all of this covid-related uncertainty, which has made us more like a family than like work colleagues. Personally speaking, I remember Purim of 2020, when it was announced that virtually all in-person programming would be canceled, my day to day was upended. As the pandemic stretched and weeks became months, the isolation began taking a toll. My idiosyncrasies slowly became idiosynCRAZIES. Fortunately, I learned to lean into this great team of Hip Hop educators as we became one another’s support system. Looking back, this reaffirms the importance of community building which we are trying to build with our fellowship and events.
As we move back to live-events in the spring and summer of 2022, Rappers & Rabbis aims to build local chapters (chavurot) that explore Judaism with Hip Hop, led by graduates of our fellowship. Our Greater Metrowest New Jersey chapter will be headed by two graduates of last year’s fellowship; both are from the area with a great network from which to draw. They will facilitate bi-weekly live-events in their area which will be supplemented by our virtual community events as we continue building connections and deepening content.
Prayer was transformed in the 20th century by the introduction of classical music compositions and later, folk and even rock music. It is now time for a new watershed moment led by Hip Hop rebbes and songleaders, drawing people back into thriving Jewish community and helping them become happier, wiser, deeper people connected to each other and to their Jewish spirituality. If you would like to get a feel of our approach to Jewish life, please join us for our weekly, Hip Hop havdalah service and Cypher every Saturday night.
Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum (Congregation Shir Hadash, Milwaukee, WI)
I have been blessed to work with Congregation Shir Hadash for the past four years. I am sad to be leaving, but am looking forward to my next venture. When I arrived at Shir, the rabbi was becoming emeritus and the little volunteer-driven shul was experiencing burn out. The same people were doing the same things. My mission these past years has been to cultivate lay leadership and encourage members to bring their passion, what nourishes their spirit, to their Judaism and share it with our community. Having spent much time in creative circles at Hebrew College and Isabella Freedman, I believe passion is a key to engaged Jewish spirituality. My efforts have led to people thinking outside of the box of what synagogue “is” or “should be” and allowed members to creatively define it for themselves. The two most compelling elements of Shir Hadash are its size and the passion of the members. Shir is about 80 families, so people are really able to get to know each other. We have been doing relational Judaism for years! New people do not feel new by the end of the night and I often personally follow up with them, a luxury I am afforded because of Shir’s size. But, our passions are really what draw people to Shir, our passion for music, for social justice, for being in thought-provoking and supportive community. I have surveyed the community in the past and those are the reasons why they continue to choose Shir as their spiritual home and that is what I hear from people who are just discovering Shir. Our members bring their full selves and there is no pretense. By pushing the community to essentially take ownership, I aimed to create stability and I believe I succeeded. Most of the programs are now developed and led by members and they are doing amazing things, like an evening at a member’s home who is an alternative doctor and a member who produces fermented foods talking about the benefits of fermented foods of Shabbat dinner. I am looking forward to becoming the rabbi at Temple Har Zion in Mt. Holly NJ this coming summer and using my experiences from Shir and my resources and networks to continue the spiritual work that Rabbi Simon has been doing for 30 years.
Carrie Bornstein (Mayyim Hayim, Boston, MA)
On the surface, Mayyim Hayyim is a community organization that houses a mikveh – a small pool of warm water used to mark life’s transitions, and an education center for all who wish to learn.
On a deeper level, however, Mayyim Hayyim is a model for the best in Jewish life. It is resource that is explicitly and intentionally welcoming and accessible. It is beautiful, and it validates the full diversity of Jewish life in the 21st century: people from all different denominations and those who are unaffiliated; Jews-by-birth and Jews-by-choice; black, white; gay, straight, and transgender, people with disabilities, and those from interfaith families.
Mayyim Hayyim hosts more than 1,500 immersions each year because our visitors know they do not have to check part of themselves at the door, that they will learn something new, be validated and supported for who they are, and that in our hectic and frenzied lives, there is something to be said for pausing, reflecting, and moving forward in the world.
Rabbi Sara Brandes (Or Halev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, Hannaton, Israel)
I serve as the Executive Director of the Or HaLev: Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, a Jewish organization that convenes silent Jewish mindfulness retreats around the English speaking world. Since our founding in 2011, we have engaged 1,500+ practitioners in 60,000+ hours of Jewish spiritual practice, and counting. We work to build a world where Jews of all ages are passionately committed to Judaism because it helps us to be the people we want to be and shape the world we want to live in. It is a world where people are more connected and more fulfilled, able to act as better partners, professionals, parents and children; human beings who are more present, more joyous, more loving, more committed to healing, and less lost in our worries, thanks to our Jewish practice.
We articulate our mission in the following way:
Or HaLev offers Judaism as a change agent in the lives of human beings and in the world. Our focus is avodah, the doing of Judaism, in meaningful and transformative ways. Through Jewish mindfulness and other modalities, we help our practitioners to cultivate lives that are more rich, passionate, inspired and vital. By repairing ourselves, we aim to repair the world.
Or HaLev combines several recognized best practices in Jewish engagement in our programming:
1) Our retreats are immersive. Like Jewish summer camping, we meet our constituents outside of the rhythms and pressures of their daily lives, creating a powerful, inspiring Jewish experience.
2) We are pluralistic. Or HaLev convenes gatherings that welcome Jews of all stripes. Our retreats make space for the halakhicly observant, the JuBu, the non-Jew and everything in between. We succeed in building a supportive, rich community that reflects the true richness of the Jewish world.
3) Our priority is the end user. Therefore, our goal is to present Judaism in a manner that is both accessible and useful. Our goal is not information, but transformation.
4) We embrace the fact that other traditions also have deep wisdom and tools, which can benefit our students, and sometimes incorporate those spiritual technologies into the Or HaLev experience, acknowleding the traditions from which they came.
Before joining Or HaLev, I served as California Director at Moving Traditions, and continue to serve as Rabbi-in-Residence at Camp Alonim of the Brandeis Bardin campus of the AJU during the summers. While still very involved in the US Jewish community, I make my home on Kibbutz Hannaton in the north of Israel, where I live with my husband and two children.
One of the key questions that animates my work and the work of Avodah is what kind of leadership do we need to create a more just world? At a time when the world is changing fast, when information comes at us at a warp speed, when people are more and more connected to our devices, how do we create leadership who can not only adapt to the new realities, but help create a more just future?
At Avodah, we’re building Jewish leaders for social change. Our vision is inspiring Jewish leaders to commit to a life of social change, promoting a vision of Jewish life rooted in justice, and engaging the broader Jewish community in some of the most pressing issues facing our country at a local and national level. We’ve had close to 1000 people participate in our immersive service corps and fellowship programming, and thousands more annually who have been served by our community engagement initiatives.
What makes Avodah compelling to our members? There’s many answers, but I’ll summarize by saying that it’s our model of proximity, it’s our education and reflection as an organization and it’s our incredible and growing network of people who care deeply about creating a better world.
We believe that leadership development starts by putting people in proximity to many of the key challenges of our country. As Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative says, “…it is important that people… get close to the problems and the people who are experiencing them. We cannot make good decisions from a distance. If you are not proximate, you cannot change the world.” In all of Avodah’s programs, we get people engaged from the start who work with some of the most vulnerable people in our society – working on issues of immigration, health care, domestic violence, education, housing and much more.
We invest deeply in education & reflection, and we spend time and resources creating curriculum, trainings and experiences that integrate Jewish tradition and social justice from workshops on learning to be a strong ally to vulnerable communities, to Shabbat as a radical practice, and much more. When we face challenges, we believe in engaging our wider community of stakeholders to help us think out our challenges and come out stronger. For example, we recently convened a racial justice task force to help us define our role in showing up for racial justice work.
And everyone who comes through an Avodah program joins our thriving alumni network. We have an incredible network of activists, rabbis, not for profit leaders, board members and more who not only get support from Avodah, but support each other. We believe that one of the keys to long term sustained commitment to social justice is being part of a community – and Avodah has been able to create a national community of Avodah alumni around the country both virtually and in person.
Jessica Deutsch (Jewish Artist, New York, NY)
The motivation behind my work is to create a new understanding of how relevant Jewish spirituality can be created and felt. I’m primarily a freelance visual artist, but have experience working with groups from diverse Jewish backgrounds experimenting with new ways to express and connect to our heritage. Jewish art too often gets a negative rep for being simply ‘bad’. I don’t believe this is a critique on technique or craftsmanship, but a disconnect with the content. Judaism goes so much deeper than symbols and holidays, and it’s time we give our community credit for the capacity to understand and appreciate complicated and innovative Jewish art. This statement is a deeply spiritual plead for new challenging content to be created. In my studio practice my primary concern with translating a Jewish teaching into an art piece is that the piece must visually look like it can be appreciated in all sorts of settings, not just Jewish ones. This litmus test also lends itself in bringing attention to unaffiliated Jews with a sense that Jewish spirituality can exist in all spaces, and areas of their lives. My first book, an illustrated Pirkei Avot, will be available in print this spring, with the goal of recreating the traditional sefer layout. A goal of this project is to create introductory study groups with the hope that it can act as a springboard for people to dive deeper into their tradition.
We live and exist as somatic creatures and many of us are engaged in physical activities for our health and well-being. Embodied Jewish Learning (EJL) offers workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, and online seminars so that participants can experience how practices for well-being infused with Jewish wisdom can serve as an essential resource for living balanced, joyful, flourishing lives.
“Because in truth every person has a unique knowing in the Torah” (Sefat Emet, commentary on Korach (1890)), our intention is to facilitate for every person a uniquely experienced, internal understanding of the relevance of wisdom teachings to their lives. We provide a framework to explore the questions ‘What is this text saying to me?’ or “How is this relevant to me in my life?” through the lens of kinesthetic learning and the body.
What is unique about EJL is the way in which we are in relationship with the text. We take a close look at one word, phrase, line or teaching from Torah and offer creative ways to embody the language. We offer access points to the texts so that the texts can live and breathe inside of each learner via bodily practices such as yoga, dance, art-making, creative expression and movement. “The Jewish teachings are conceptual and applicable, not lessons from the bima, but guidance in movement that are applied immediately. Here we can experience hesed (loving-kindness) inside of us and bring it out into the world from that place.” -Mara Langer, Yoga and Wholeness Classes, Peninsula JCC, Foster City, CA As a result of our programs, our learners report that they discover their bodies are holy. They walk away with deeper whole-being connections to themselves and to Judaism. They experience more fully expressed and integrated lives, and more calm and serenity. In our public workshops, 92% report that they experience a way to engage in Jewish life that resonates with their personal practices for well being. In our teacher trainings, 100% report increased understanding about how to prepare for Yoga and Jewish Wisdom classes.
Although deep wisdom teachings about the relationship between body and spirit exist in our tradition, most people do not know how to access them. We provide a clear methodology for bringing Jewish wisdom to embodied practice. From our work with IJS in bringing mindful embodied practice to Jewish Day Schools and Camps, to our Jewish Wellness Initiative at the PJCC in California, main-stream institutions are beginning to embrace embodiment as a meaningful expression of Judaism.
And in our public workshops, we connect mind-body-spirit seekers to their Jewish roots. Most (70%) of the participants in these workshops name mind-body-spirit practice as their primary mode of expressing themselves Jewishly. For many of them, yoga or dance are the primary ways in which they experience prayer and spirituality. When they discover ways to connect Jewish wisdom to these practices for well-being, they feel relief at not having to segment off the ‘Jewish’ part of themselves from moving, dancing part of their beings. They experience shlemut (wholeness).
My work has been focussed on returning Jewish learning to a central place in communal Jewish life. The Jewish Learning Lab bills itself as the only Independent, nondenominational adult Jewish learning in Montreal. What that means in practice is that we are committed to teaching the big ideas in Judaism without needing to promote any specific brand of Judaism. We are not using adult learning as a method to round out an activities calendar; rather it is the central mission of our organization.
Historically, Jewish Learning was a niche enterprise, reserved for a select few. One element that resonates with people who come to the Learning lab is that we are providing them with tools to make informed decisions about their Judaism. Once people have been provided with autonomy in life they are no longer satisfied with going to a Rabbinic authority and being told how to be Jewish. The idea that they can learn about Judaism with the explicit goal of learning more in order to shape their own Jewish path, whether Halachic, Theological, or obtaining the tools to learn on one’s own is something that resonates with students.
Ultimately my goal is to reshape Jewish learning into a regular practice and not just as an occasional nice thing to do for Jews across the spectrum. Our community has more knowledge than it ever has before and we promote secular learning to youth and adults alike. We also valorize the individual’s right to choose their own religious paths and yet we do not promote regular Jewish learning outside of niche institutions in major metropolitan regions. The Jewish Learning Lab is hoping to position itself as a force for change in this field. I hope to become a go-to source for organizations seeking to be part of this new way of thinking about learning. I hope that I can provide solutions that are geared towards bringing serious learning to many segments of the Jewish communal landscape.
Rabbi Dan Goldblatt (Beth Chaim, Danville, CA)
I am in the process of reshaping my synagogue community by building a Jewish Healing Center on our campus and reconstituting the community around the work of Jewish healing. Inspired by Mayyim Hayyim in Boston, the Jewish Healing Center will contain a contemporary mikvah to spiritually enliven Jewish rite of passage rituals. It will also be a creative spiritual laboratory for the development of new Jewish rituals. It will be a sacred space to explore new dimensions of experiential and embodied Jewish spiritual practice. The Healing Center will have a strong Jewish educational component for adults, children and families focused on the rich tradition of healing practices in Judaism.
The Jewish Healing Center will be a safe space to experience and explore diverse modalities of Jewish spirituality, community, and learning for the Greater East Bay and Bay Area Jewish community as well as those who are becoming Jews. The Healing Center will be a project of Beth Chaim Congregation and be located on the Beth Chaim campus. It will maintain its own non-profit status and independent operation and administration.
The Jewish Healing Center will be home to a variety of embodied Jewish practices including Rabbi Diane Elliot’s “Embodying Spirit” program, and plans to work with other innovative Bay Area Jewish organizations such as “Wilderness Torah,” “Urban Adamah,” and “Jewish LearningWorks.” It will be home to a Sacred Storytelling Training Program, Interfaith Couples Support, Renewal of Vows, Jewish Parenting, and an array of grief support and end of life programs.
The two most important elements of the Jewish Healing Center will be its rootedness in Jewish wisdom and spiritual aliveness and its commitment to experiential learning and transitional and transformational ritual, and offerings. It is intended to be a new model for Jewish Spiritual community in the contemporary moment.
Rishe Groner (Gene-sis, Brooklyn, NY)
Since founding The Gene-Sis exactly one year ago, I’ve been focused on creating spaces where Jews can come together and practice spirituality in an embodied way – moving past the text and the laws to truly take in a fully immersive, all-encompassing experience of the Divine. Using the sacred texts of Chassidic and Kabbalistic teachings along with the soulful niggunim and self-improvement practices of these sects, I’m able to leverage the strength of these mystical traditions to create something that is fresh, modern and attractive to people from all elements of the Jewish community. I’ve created events at festivals like Burning Man and in the midst of the Chabad community in Brooklyn, but despite the variation in audience, they all center around the theme of creating embodied experiences – like dance, music, mindful eating, and open discussion – while being based on traditions that are older than the classical synagogue Judaism people are running away from.
My mission is to bring the feminine back into Judaism, to create a spiritual experience that doesn’t just uplift, but can be applied to every minute of every day, even on the streets and in the car with the kids crying and while carrying groceries up four flights of stairs. Shaping Judaism to create a feminine consciousness isn’t just about enabling women to participate more fully in ritual, it’s injecting full-bodied presence into rituals and allowing the ecstasy of spirituality to come back into a world that’s been linear and abstract for so long.
The Gene-Sis attracts people because it’s real. Because you can come as you are and experience it on your own level, but you’re always encouraged to take something out of it, to make it into something real that you will apply in every day life. We connect to very ancient traditions – I use niggunim, traditional Chassidic prayers and a lot of mystical teachings – but the practical applications are for the here and now.
Rabbi Jill Hammer
The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute is a training program in embodied, earth-based, and feminist spiritual leadership for women on a Jewish path. We are also a sisterhood and a movement. Kohenet celebrates the sacred in the body, the earth, and the cosmos, and holds the world to be an embodiment of divine presence. This vision powerfully connects our students and graduates as well as the communities they create and serve.
Through training retreats and other gatherings, Kohenet revitalizes traditions of Jewish ritual and spiritual culture, particularly those of women, that have been diminished or lost over time, and re-imagines these traditions for use in the contemporary Jewish context: chanting, amulet-making, altarcraft, dream interpretation, visualization, healing ritual, sacred dance, and drumming. Our sources range from kabbalistic works to Jewish women’s oral healing traditions, from biblical and talmudic-era archaeology to Yiddish and Ladino prayers. Kohenet pioneers Hebrew and English liturgy that is multi-gendered, inviting a vision of the divine feminine into Jewish prayer. We have produced a siddur that is now used by many, as well as a book: The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership. Our graduates serve in many ways: as sacred artists, chaplains, activists, ritual leaders, educators, rabbis, scholars, healers, and midwives.
Kohenet is seeking to integrate the spiritual gifts, practices, and contributions of women into contemporary Jewish practice, and in doing so, to provide a compelling vision of Judaism. Students and participants who come to Kohenet frequently tell us that it is the first place that has fully engaged their Jewish identity. Kohenet shares community with other Jewish groups who resonate with earth-based practice and transformative ritual life. By offering the Jewish world trained practitioners of powerful, inclusive ritual, Kohenet engages Jews that the rest of the Jewish world is not engaging, and improves Jewish life for all. Kohenet is creating a paradigm of earth-based, embodied, feminist, Judaism.
David Jordan Harris
As Jewish communities seek new ways to re-energize themselves and give voice to rising younger generations, Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council lifts up the work of the creative sector throughout the Jewish population. Once overlooked or simply marginalized, artists are beginning to be recognized as crucial leaders within contemporary Jewish life–building bridges for social engagement within fragmented communities, reaching beyond differences of religious affiliation and economic status, connecting American Jews to Israel through the arts, and using the tools of the imagination to fashion bold, transformative visions of today’s emerging Jewish experience. Rimon does not have members but is a resource for all who wish to participate in its programming and community initiatives. Many participants in Rimon (whose main source of financial support is a broad base of grassroots philanthropy) are not otherwise engaged in normative Jewish life (synagogues, Federations, JCCs) but find their bridge into Judaism best channeled through the arts
David Zvi Kalman
My life, currently, is a dense cloud of projects. I am completing a dissertation on Judaism and technological progress, working for Mechon Hadar as Publications Associate, and running the two media companies which I co-founded: a non-profit podcasting platform (Jewish Public Media) and a for-profit publishing house (Print-O-Craft). These projects result in text, audio, and video. I have no preferred medium.
Though many of these efforts can be described as attempts to make Jewish thought accessible through the development of better resources, in truth I see my mission as only incidentally pedagogical. I believe that powerful Jewish ideas teach well—and so my direct mission is not to teach well, but to create more powerful Jewish ideas: not just to discover how to teach God better, but to revive American Jewish theology from its stalled state encouraging the production of key new treatises; not just to make prayer easier for families, but to rethink what Shabbat morning can look like from scratch; not just to discover how to teach tefillah better, but to create a siddur racked with self-doubt; not just to teach Torah better, but to expand what it is that Torah can be.
In practice, this means growing the common understanding of what Jewish wisdom can look like. Print-O-Craft does this by bringing both academic and artistic experience to bear on liturgical texts; Jewish Public Media does this by using the emotional power of podcast to transmit religious ideas which would fall flat on a page. Crucial to both is my conviction that the products of these workshops not simply be gawked at as odd yields of a late-stage American Judaism; it matters very much to me that these products be useful and frequently used.
We have had success. Print-O-Craft products have been purchased by every rabbinical school in the United States. Jewish Public Media has a listenership that ranges from non-Jewish to ultra-Orthodox, and its programs have been sponsored by every denomination—sometimes simultaneously. If this ecumenism has an origin, I believe it is in the unifying power of beauty and reverence.
As a community organizer, my mission is to organize the metropolitan Jewish community in Chicago to play a meaningful role in local racial and economic justice struggles. In my two and a half years at JCUA, I have organized Jews from across Chicago to act on their Jewish social justice values in a way that’s strategic and accountable to the people most impacted by systemic forms of oppression. We organize in coalition with other community organizations on an array of campaigns, from police accountability reform to domestic workers’ rights to health equity and south side trauma care. All of these campaigns address a broader structural problem, and offer a tangible way to fix it. For example, JCUA and the broader trauma care coalition won a commitment from the University of Chicago to open a trauma center on Chicago’s south side. This campaign resolved one way in which resources are segregated in Chicago. Our work has tangibly made Chicago are more just city, and has given Jews across Chicago a meaningful way to harness their values and passion into impactful change.
JCUA is a member-based organization. We organize through empowering individuals across the Chicago area to take leadership roles in building a Jewish voice for social justice. Our members find our work compelling because it is an outward manifestation of Jewish social justice values. Our members see tikkun olam and lirdof tzedek as inherently connected to ending structural racism and economic inequality. While there are many outlets for community organizing in Chicago, we are the only one that organize with a focus on harnessing Jewish values and community resources to make an impact. Our members find great meaning having a community that builds a powerful Jewish voice for social justice.
I have directed Joshua Venture Group since 2009. Our mission is to support a reinvigorated Jewish community by providing tools and resources to talented, entrepreneurial leaders to help them launch new ventures. We have funded and nurtured groundbreaking and important initiatives such as Keshet, Sharsheret, Matan, G-dcast now BimBam, Wilderness Torah, Kavana Cooperative, Challah for Hunger and many more.
Our alumni have been at the forefront of leading the Jewish community to engage with Jews who have traditionally participated at the fringes. They’ve created hundreds of opportunities to engage with Judaism in more relevant ways that reflect contemporary values and practices.
Joshua Venture Group’s programs have given voice to these initiatives. They’ve lifted them up, amplified their impact, and provided networks of support to their leaders.
For over a decade I have been involved with many different kinds of Jewish communities experimenting with the vibrant interweavings of justice and Jewish tradition. Currently, I am a founder and leader with If Not Now, a co-creator of Let My People Sing, and Rabbinical Council organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace. The essence of my motivations and leadership is supporting and co-creating a renewing, evolving, and resilient Judaism that can anchor Jews (and non-Jews!) in this time of great change.
I am the first ever Rabbinical Council organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace and a leader in our strategic focus area of Jewish Community Transformation. In our 10,000 member organization, we are finding a growing number of Jews looking for religious or spiritual home that honors and deepens connections to Jewish tradition and helps strengthen communities of resistance. For too long, being critical of Israel and Israeli policy has cut off Jews from synagogues and other spiritual spaces, but Rabbis and lay leaders are supporting an incredible reclamation of tradition and vision and I am honored to be a part of sculpting.
I launched a Havurah Network, linking these growing communities together to share resources and support. Many of these leaders across the country will be leading services and workshops to seed communities like their own at our 1,000 person national member meeting this March.
We also have a growing council of rabbis and rabbinical students who are supporting JVP in creative ways. There is a self-organized peer support initiative, pastoral care offered to JVP membership in times of crisis, ritual creation, media work, and support in rooting campaigns jewishly- to name some. We have many incredible Rabbis leading wonderful communities open to non-zionists, anti-zionists, and zionists, and this summer we livestreamed our High Holiday services so those who do not have access to communities could participate. Over 600 people registered and about 600 participated throughout the holidays. In our survey afterwards, 76 people exclaimed a renewed hunger for Jewish community, ritual, and spirituality.
JVP is committed to a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis as well as a growing effort to support the thousands of members who find Jewish home in JVP. This home is not only about fighting what is unjust, but also about building a vibrant and deep Judaism to look forward to.
Chai Mitzvah was formed as a 501c3 in 2009 with the sole purpose of collaborating with communities to increase Jewish engagement. To date, over 3500 people have become a Chai Mitzvah. Our basic assumption which is unique is a belief that there is quite a lot of “supply” of great Jewish programming, but not enough “demand.” Chai Mitzvah uniquely works with individuals and their social networks to increase demand for Jewish programming in their communities and beyond by forming Chai Mitzvah groups.
There is both a communal and individual component to the Chai Mitzvah program. Individuals come together in small groups and commit to 9 monthly sessions using beautifully illustrated text based source books designed to stimulate interesting and important discussions on specific monthly topics. Everyone who is in the Chai Mitzvah program is on the same topic each month, which allows for a global conversation. Usually there are at least 1,000 people in the program each year in North America and an additional 300 people in Israel in our sister Masa Chai Program (also on the same topics.)
In addition to monthly study, individuals make a personal commitment to what we call their “Jewish Bucket List.” Individuals identify something Jewish they want to learn, a ritual to take on or deepen, and a social action project.
At the end of the program, there is a culminating event that is designed by each group. In addition, Chai Mitzvah plants a tree in Israel for each participant and provides a certificate of completion.
New in 2016, Chai Mitzvah inaugurated the Ignite Program with a grant from the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Foundation and buy in from the major umbrella organizations in town (The Federation, Community Foundation and JCC). We made a commitment to create 25 Chai Mitzvah groups in the Greater Hartford area to see what impact a concentration of groups would have on a community. We have achieved our goal of 25 with groups running in traditional settings such as congregations, senior living facilities, JCC, Hillel, and Federation, and in informal settings among friends, in a condo association, in a Mah Jong group, among volunteers, with downtown professionals, etc. Our goal is to bring the Ignite Program to other small cities throughout the United States.
Each year we administer and pre and post survey to our participants. Overwhelmingly, our participants feel more engaged and focused in their Jewish journeys and most want to continue meeting in their groups beyond the life of the program. Many of these groups stay together and continue growing Jewishly.
In addition to these groups, Chai Mitzvah has 30 teen groups throughout the country in a 2-year program. We also have developed a deep relationship with the Women of Reform Judaism, and work to bring Chai Mitzvah into all the Reform Sisterhoods around the country. We have a worked with JFNA Women’s Philanthropy and are nurturing new relationships within the JFNA engagement initiative. We continue to reach out to other organizations and cohort groups to provide a packaged program for groups who want to stay together such as a trip to Israel, a leadership institute, a retreat, alumni of organizations, etc. The possibilities are endless… we encourage people to “unleash your imagination” and form a Chai Mitzvah group.
Kevah addresses the need for community and meaning-making for a generation of adults who don’t feel at home in traditional Jewish institutions. The grassroots nature of Kevah groups makes them highly customizable. Each organizer gathers a group of his or her friends and peers to learn with, based around that individual’s social network and a specific affinity principle, i.e. women on maternity leave, parents with pre-school aged children, etc. The group chooses what they want to study: Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, Existential Questions, Tzedakah, Jewish Leadership, Mussar, Holidays.
To a generation accustomed to choice and high impact experiences, Kevah’s ability to launch and support customized, boutique communities fills participants’ need for intellectual and spiritual exploration, relationship-building, and meaning-making in a busy and over-programmed world.
Rabbi Sara Luria
ImmerseNYC is a pluralistic, Jewish, feminist organization in New York City that facilitates deep ritual experiences, supportive peer communities, and educational programs.
– Deep Ritual Experiences: Our trained, volunteer mikveh guides facilitate welcoming, transformative mikveh immersions for our diverse Jewish community, which honor the sacred nature of our lives, bodies, and experiences, and reclaim an ancient ritual for a new world.
– Educational Programs: We organize workshops and events about mikveh, feminism, and life transitions for adult learners, community groups, religious schools, seminary students and clergy.
– Supportive Peer Communities: Our peer facilitators convene community conversations in which people of all genders can share their stories, push back against unhealthy pressures, experience rituals together, and hold non-judgmental conversations about life transformations that foster growth and connection.
Rabbi Natan Margalit
Both as American Jews and as global citizens we are experiencing a time of major crisis: the dwindling involvement in Jewish life is an undeniable threat to a viable future for American Jewry; the degradation of our environment and a fraying social fabric has brought us to the brink of climate disaster and social and political disintegration. In both cases we cannot solve these crises with surface fixes. We must confront the root causes and find a new, inspiring vision. Organic Torah’s vision is to recover the vibrancy, flexibility and spiritual energy of Jewish life by returning to our organic roots while integrating with new directions in modern thought.
Rabbi A.I. Kook said we must “Renew the old and make the new holy.” We renew the old by using a new generation of contemporary tools to gain access to old treasures, and we make the new holy by adding Jewish wisdom to modern efforts to solve problems in environment, education and social justice.
Jewish wisdom is contained in ancient texts which are usually considered so daunting that only a small minority of contemporary Jews venture to even try to unlock their secrets. I have been developing, writing and teaching and advocating for a new approach to these texts which recovers their organic vibrancy while speaking the language of holistic modernity.
More than intellectual understanding, Organic Torah’s approach opens the door to a new way of being and acting. This is necessary if we are to change our current trajectory and avoid further social, spiritual and environmental breakdown. Organic Torah helps us to:
• Put relationships before things – strengthening our social fabric, improving health, spiritual life and natural environment.
• Avoid either/or dilemmas — integrating science and religion, healing the false divide between “tribal” and “universal” loyalties.
• See ourselves as integral parts of a greater whole – bringing meaning and purpose to our lives, encouraging caring and altruistic actions for people and planet.
Organic Torah works together with and enriches Jewish and non-Jewish programs:
• We help create the next generation of Jewish leaders by partnering with Jewish farming, environmental, social justice and spirituality programs, adding text study which deeply integrates with their holistic values and concepts.
• We partner with non-Jewish environmental and social change organizations to bring an integrated worldview and spiritual depth to their work.
• We create innovative educational materials and publications for youth and adults which bring together heart and mind, ancient wisdom and modern science.
• We offer life-changing short and long term educational experiences which uniquely integrate mind, body and spirit, Judaism and modernity.
Patricia Eszter Margit
Art Kibbutz is a volunteer-driven artists’ community, residency, and a hub that offers artists of all mediums, ages, backgrounds, nationalities, and affiliations opportunities to explore universal issues through a Jewish artistic lens. Art Kibbutz provides inspiring and peaceful space to work, learn and seriously explore the rich heritage of Jewish experience that informs their creative process. Art Kibbutz is located on Governor’s Island (NYC) and hosts residencies from May through September for three years in a row – supported 350 artists from all over the US and 28 countries, ages 16 to 82.
Art Kibbutz explores important conversations about economic, environmental, and social conditions in a 21st century Jewish context. Art Kibbutz is an artist-driven, grassroots, volunteer organization with a 501c3 status.
Rabbi Miriam Margles
For so many Jews that I work with, early experiences of Judaism or of other Jews were marginalizing, fearful, parochial, judgmental, exclusionary and insular (particularly related to being in interfaith/intercultural relationships, holding left-wing views on Israel and Palestine, being LGBTQ or not being traditionally observant) and failed to guide or inspire their strongest yearnings to grow their inner lives and outer action, to be deeply connected and to navigate the chaos and beauty of life with courage and wisdom. For so many, these experiences have calcified into barriers to meaningful, substantive and enlivening connection with Jewish learning, prayer, practice and community.
In the community I am building at the Danforth Jewish Circle, in the retreats and workshops that I lead (eg. for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Mechon Hadar, Valley Beit Midrash, etc), as well as in my work co-founding and developing Encounter, the overarching mission of my work flows along two broad riverbeds – 1) consciously healing and transforming the wounds and obstacles to engaged Jewish life and 2) building up vibrant Jewish life that is creative, mindfully awake, resiliently open-hearted, brave and cultivates conscious relationship – with others (particularly in the face of conflict), with oneself and with the Holy One.
I’ll point to two key elements that distinguish this work and that I think make it compelling:
1) A focus on recognizing and healing the distorting impact of a history and legacy of anti-Semitism on the Jewish soul and psyche and on Judaism itself – My work addresses the ways that the trauma, wounds, fears, and distorting and damaging experiences of anti-Semitism have negatively shaped collective Jewish identity, beliefs and patterns of behaviour. On the one hand, we have unconsciously internalized various distorted, oppressive messages about Jews that we turn against ourselves and/or turn against types of Jews different from oneself. On the other hand, the coping mechanisms, survival strategies, and beliefs and behaviours that Jews have developed over time to reject anti-Jewish oppression and to nonetheless survive and thrive, have often become rigid, reactive and defensive, making Jewish survival and being the “right” kind of Jew ends in themselves, often characterized by self-righteousness and fear. These beliefs and patterns of behaviour have been consciously and unconsciously passed down from one generation to the next, limiting not only our Jewish lives but how we live the whole of our lives, individually and collectively – overdetermining our fears and hopes, creativity and joy, sense of urgency and reactivity, our relationships and our sense of the possible. All these elements deserve thoughtful attention and healing so that we can make conscious choices, respond to the present with flexibility and discernment, engage with one another honestly, compassionately and wisely, particularly when confronted by difference and conflict, and remove any obstacles to vibrant, joyous, caring life together.
2) A holistic mind-heart-soul-body engagement with Jewish learning and living, particularly focused on evocative, creative exploration and interpretation of Jewish texts though movement, voice and writing (intimate, associative and embodied ‘languages’ and modes of knowing); spiritual discovery, expression and growth through prayer, song, devotional and mindfulness-based practices (here, my own compositions of Jewish prayer-song play an important, joyful and accessible role); and the cultivation of relationship rooted in mutual curiosity, collaborative intelligence and brave loving, shaping the internal culture of community as well as the ways we reach outward to engage with other communities in responsive and responsible partnership – all to balance a rich but often lopsided emphasis on cognitive intellectual study.
24/6: A Jewish Theater Company is a home for Sabbath observant artists in New York. 24/6 is committed to cultivating innovative theater grounded in a rigorous engagement with Jewish tradition, believing that the performing arts play a critical role in the vitality of American Jewish life.
Theater has the ability of making people more empathic, and more empathy is what is needed to grapple with many of the community’s challenges. Though it is nearly impossible for Sabbath observant artists to work in the professional theater, we believe such artists add an essential dimension to the theater and Jewish community. We are dedicated to providing them a home.
Artistic Excellence: To produce quality, cutting-edge, contemporary theater.
Jewish Life: To allow our personal traditions, convictions, histories and culture to inform the work.
Company: To nurture community in our collaborations.
Audience Diversity: To contribute to the greater cultural conversations in New York City and in the global Jewish world.
Accessibility: To open doors of access to our work through publication of literature about our artistic process and educational programs.
Company members find 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company compelling because it allows them to pursue their calling as artists, while maintaining their religious commitments, it provides them with a community of other artists who are in the same position (whom they also collaborate with outside 24/6), and the rehearsal processes and productions themselves provide them a forum to harness their artistry as part of their spiritual practice.
I am the Associate Producer of Kaleidoscope, a narrative-arts driven initiative that was sparked by a desire to highlight the stories of Jews of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, observance levels, and interfaith experiences. Given the increasing diversity of the greater Jewish community, we feel that highlighting the complex, personal stories of diverse Jewish voices through “edu-tainment” is critically important. Through finely crafted performances, writing-workshops, and curriculum development we hope to establish a powerful initiative that will both engage and challenge Jewish traditions to reflect the many faces that already comprise klal yisrael.
Over the past two years, I have worked to cultivate young adult Jewish communities centered on the intersections of Jewish ritual and social justice. The Moishe Kavod House, where I work and live, is a home-based spiritual community that hosts Shabbat dinners and lay-led services, organizes learning circles on Torah, and coordinates social justice campaigns. We are a home for progressive Jews interested in Judaism and for religious Jews looking for a spiritual community whose progressive values match their own.
A unique and compelling aspect of our work is that we are not only bringing Jews together to meet each other, build community, and create ritual together, but we are also cultivating our own leadership. Many people come to our house on a Friday night because they want a nice, homey place to go for Shabbat. They leave with information about our next racial justice team meeting, where, for example, they will help devise a plan of action for how to mobilize our Jewish community for an immigrant rights rally. Kavod offers a “basecamp” for Jewish young adults to learn from each other about how we want to be in the world, a hub of Jews to agitate, educate, and train in community organizing and to become social justice leaders. So many progressive Jews are craving political spaces where they don’t have to throw their Jewishness or Judaism out the door and Kavod fills that void. We show up to our social justice work as Jews and infuse Jewish ethics into our political organizing.
In addition to being a space for young Jewish adults to explore what it means to live out our values and develop the skills to do so, Kavod is compelling because of our emphasis on participation and ownership over the community. Unfortunately, far too much young adult Jewish programming is built around consuming pre-packaged programs. At Kavod, our members not only plan and organize our events and programs; we hold elections and elected leaders take on decision-making roles that steer the direction of our entire community. People are attracted to Kavod because we have clear leadership pathways and provide the opportunity for members and visitors themselves to shape our whole organization.
I co-created The Well with Rabbi David Spinrad with the mission of establishing a musical and spiritual Shabbat home for young professionals in which we provide excellent music, intellectually stimulating topics and conversation, and a community of interesting, intelligent, and open people. I saw a need in Atlanta for a space where my “millennial” peers could gather for Friday night services and feel that they were part of a unique, cool, authentic, and welcoming experience with a low barrier to entry (Hebrew and liturgical literacy, Jewish background, LGBTQ, interfaith, etc.).
The two most important compelling elements, which come from participant feedback, are the music/service and the community of people who regularly attend. I lead a full band of professional musicians in original melodies that the community has come to know and love. That community is comprised of around 500 young professionals of which 70-100 attend each month.
Rabbi Rami Schwartzer
Our mission is to respond to the spiritual needs of Jews between “college and kids” in greater Washington, DC, specifically Montgomery County, MD, and to create a space for Jewish exploration in a setting that provides knowledge, purpose, and familiarity with our tradition and its people. The true innovation of our initiative is the collective collaboration of the local Jewish community and national movement institutions: 12 local synagogues, the Ramah Camping Movement, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Federation of Federation of Greater Washington, Base Hillel, and numerous DC area family foundations have all partnered to build a new spiritual community for unaffiliated Jewish young professionals in this area.
Rabbi Jeremy Sher
My approach at Ha-Emek is very simple: everyone is welcome. I’m a Jewish rabbi and I lead a Jewish congregation, and anyone who wishes to be in a Jewish congregation is altogether welcome at Ha-Emek. It doesn’t matter if they’re Jewish or if they’re just exploring. It certainly doesn’t matter who their parents are or who their spouse is. If they want to be with us, they’re welcome to be with us. If they want to mark a special life event with a ceremony, I’ll do all I can to give them a beautiful day to make happy memories out of. If they’re looking for community, they need look no further.
I don’t know that being nice to people is a novel strategy. My training in divinity school jibes with my professional experience in politics and with common sense to suggest removing barriers to entry, accepting everyone just as they are, and treating people respectfully results in them coming back wanting more. My modest proposal is that if we’re nice to folks we might see them again next week. I’ve come an awfully long way to become a Jewish Renewal rabbi, and I intend to give that simple idea a try.
It’s not that I’m alone. An increasing number of rabbis are now realizing that being nice to people is the answer to our community’s self-inflicted demographic woes. Even more importantly, with a solid majority of American Jews now intermarrying and with the clouds darkening on the political horizon, it’s becoming ever more plain that we can’t sit here like Tevye holding mock funerals for our intermarried children and then turn around and scratch our heads wondering where everybody went. The first step to Jewish continuity in the 21st century is simply to stop kicking people out of our communities. When we stop kicking people out of our communities, I think we’ll be surprised how many folks are still there.
Our community will be lay-led, about which I feel strongly enough to have written a book (Growth through Governance). That process is still taking shape. But my personal mission in this work is to support Jewish continuity by being nice to people who come to be with us.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein
The mission of Organic Yeshiva is to develop and live out a model of Jewish learning that nourishes body, mind and soul, one that integrates hands-on learning about agriculture and the natural world into traditional text learning. Participants in the program spend half their day working on an organic farm and half the day studying Torah. One important motivation behind the program is the conviction that practical farming experience is essential for understanding Torah texts that were written at a time when Jews were farmers. Another is the belief that an authentically Jewish approach to environmental issues, must be rooted in a deep understanding of Jewish texts.
Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn
The Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction is dedicated to the introduction, development, and support of the emerging practice of spiritual direction in the North American Jewish community. Spiritual direction is a contemplative practice for soul work (tikun hanefesh) and exploring and deepening one’s experience of the holy in everyday life. It can be a powerful practice for people who identify as spiritual but not religious, as well as for those engaged in religious life and communities. Spiritual direction supports the spiritual growth of Jews, sometimes past limiting concepts of God and Judaism, to nurture and deepen their connection to God, self, community and the world. Spiritual direction can include probing what gives meaning to their lives, including relationships, work (paid or volunteer), and their Jewishness.
Our primary focus has been on the creation of a distinctly Jewish form of training in spiritual direction in the creation, running, and continued development of the Morei Derekh Jewish Spiritual Direction Training Program, a 30-month residency-based distance-learning program, now in our sixth cohort. However, we are increasingly struck by the fact that while Jews who have been introduced to spiritual direction find it a powerful and transformative contemplative practice, most Jews have never heard of spiritual direction. For this reason, we are turning our efforts to enable more Jews to become aware of the practice of spiritual direction and the significant impact it could have on their lives. We are currently developing and experimenting with several different models to introduce Jewish spiritual direction to spiritual seekers, clergy, and activists.
In our planned prototype, we will engage rabbis and cantors, introducing them to this practice in support of their continued spiritual growth, with a secondary goal of connecting the clergy and local Jewish spiritual directors who can then help bring spiritual direction to the awareness of people in these communities more broadly. Target groups might include those who have recently completed an intensive program of spiritual engagement such as Mussar or Wise Aging; people who are experiencing some transition in life such as anticipating or following a personal loss, caring for aging parents, midlife questioning or career change; people who recently completed the conversion process; as well as activists and others trying to ground their work in the world spiritually, and/or discern and prioritize their deepest callings.
We have started experimenting with panel presentations and offering spiritual direction at Limmud, which so far have been well-attended and well-received. And, we are exploring avenues to introduce JSD through a redesigned seeker-friendly website, and YouTube videos. Reaching out to unaffiliated Jewish seekers, especially younger Jews, remains our greatest challenge.
Addendum: What is Jewish Spiritual Direction?
Spiritual direction or companioning, sometimes called hadracha ruchanit or hashpa’ah, in Hebrew, is the practice of sitting contemplatively/prayerfully with a spiritual companion or guide, to explore how one experiences the presence of the holy in one’s life. The term “spiritual direction” has a long history and refers to this practice of sitting with a spiritual guide in order to seek the direction of the holy from both within and without.
This contemplative practice can be powerful for spiritual seekers, regardless of theology or comfort with traditional modes of religious expression, as the spiritual guide’s primary function is to support the seeker in his or her exploration and deepening of their relationship with the holy, however they experience it. SD invites us to notice the sacred dimension of our day to day lives, as well as the invitations to respond in any number of ways. SD offers people different kinds of exploration including:
• recalling and savoring a particular experience whether joyous or painful, to allow it to move more deeply within the person, and perhaps open to a new invitation or discernment;
• exploring what it might mean to experience oneself as holy soul, and getting in touch with one’s deeper soul yearnings;
• dropping down into a contemplative or prayerful experience of connecting with the holy, and exploring some aspect of one’s life from this contemplative/prayerful space;
• sitting with a particular challenge such as how to cultivate greater compassion in relation to an aging parent, or the balance between compassion and limits with a challenging child or work colleague.
While most people in spiritual direction work with someone one-on-one, Group SD offers another very rich opportunity for Jews to explore their spiritual yearnings and the potential for deepening the spiritual dimension of their day-to-day lives, in small groups of fellow travelers. Discovering and connecting with other Jews who are also spiritual seekers is potentially very powerful in itself.
Rabbi Josh Stanton
We are creatures of expression living in an age of expression. We are deluged daily with information and opinion, with pundits and preachers proffering perspective. Many of us spend hours every day spreading philosophical truths and culinary creations on social media. But when we express, we cannot fully absorb. When we are transmitting truth, we cannot receive it in the same moment.
As rabbis, we feel this most deeply about our work with emerging adults ages 13 to 34 – the generation known as Millennials, the largest in American history. We watch a Jewish world desperately trying to convince this rising demographic of the essential nature of Judaism. We try again and again to express to Millennials what they “really” want and need, and why Jewish community is an answer to many of their struggles and support for their aspirations. As congregational rabbis, honored to serve Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and Congregation Rodeph Sholom, respectively, we do believe that Jewish community needs these Millennials, and that these Millenials need Jewish community.
And yet, too often we speak rather than listen.
In our work together, we wanted to try something different: to create a community not only for Millennials, but led by them, as well. We are calling it Tribe. We took months this past summer to form an Advisory Board of Millennials who could shape the program and tell us their needs. We cannot purport to have heard them out adequately, but we cannot help but feel inspired by what they have already shared.
This is what some of them shared with us – their wants, their needs, their hopes from the Jewish community, in their own words. We have found inspiration in them and hope that they in turn inspire more listening within our own program, as well as in the wider Jewish community. We hope that as Tribe’s leaders offer some expression, others in the Jewish world will create the space to absorb and listen.
Adam Stone: While Judaism and the world at large have changed, we still want heritage, tradition and community in a way that fosters relationships and personal connections in a practical way. We all have busy lives and schedules – but we still want to find time to preserve and perpetuate Judaism in a way that’s accessible, meaningful and convenient for us.
Blair Albom: I joined Tribe to help create an innovative outlet for young New Yorkers to explore their Judaism socially, professionally, and spiritually. As Millenials, we don’t necessarily want to fit into existing models of Jewish expression like the synagogue, because we recognize that “being Jewish” doesn’t necessarily mean doing what our parents did. My hope is to build a community that re-defines what it means to be Jewish in the Big Apple.
Ariella Abuaf: Having been raised by parents on opposite ends of the religious spectrum, I came away with a different sense of Judaism than most of my peers; for me it’s not the religion that matters, but the sense of community I gain from cultural events. My mother, a scientist, would cry at the mention of God’s non-existence, whereas my father, a self proclaimed atheist, belongs to not one, but two Synagogues. These paradoxical role models reinforced my affinity towards a cultural Jewish lifestyle, when I go to Jewish events I am seeking ties to the arts, traditional cooking, friends with shared backgrounds, and family bonding. When I look to the future, I see my Judaism focusing around these every day activities, not what is prayed about in Synagogue.
Ezra Levine: As an over-stimulated Millennial, it’s important to have an outlet for relaxation and reflection. Judaism, and Tribe by extension, provide a much-needed breather from the daily grind by continuously reminding me of what’s truly important and to be celebrated – friends, family, health, good food and wine, and the importance of being in the moment.
Pamela Fogel: As a Jew, I’ve spent my life gravitating toward the community aspect of Judaism. I’m a bit spiritual, not quite as religious, but I always feel comforted and uplifted having like-minded Jews around me. These are Jews who have shared similar upbringings, embrace similar values, and practice similar traditions. As a Jewish Millennial at the outset of “true adulthood,” I’m looking to find and enhance that community – I hope it will be one of openness – a community that recognizes that in 2014, there is a broad spectrum of what it means to be Jewish, and accepts and welcomes all.
Erica Tanne: The traditional synagogue structure no longer provides the same draw that it did for our parents and grandparents’ generations. Tribe provides a fresh approach that is accessible, mindful of, and solicitous to the needs of young Jews. It creates a framework through which millennials come together to cultivate relationships and bolster Jewish practice in an exciting and meaningful way.
The brilliance of our Advisory Board has made evident that we need to listen more to Millennials and cannot possibly heed their truths while trying so fervently to express our own. We look forward to sharing more of their words and their insights and amplifying their vision for Tribe.
In some ways, we see the overarching lesson evident in a classical rabbinic parable (Tosafot on the Babylonian Talmud in Chullin 108b):
If one takes a kosher spoon, and dips it into a boiling pot of creamy clam chowder, the spoon is no longer kosher. The spoon absorbs the essence of clam through heat and contact. But the spoon may be purified, in the very same manner in which it was tainted – immerse it in a pot of boiling water, and the pure waters will leech out the clam essence, and voila, a pure spoon emerges. But a question arises – as the essence of clam is expressed, why wouldn’t that simply taint the boiling waters, and therefore mean the spoon was again becoming unclean? The reason: when something is expressing, it cannot absorb.
When something is transmitting, it cannot receive at the same moment. We should all take more time to receive what Millennial Jews have to share.
This reflective piece was co-authored by Rabbi Benjamin Spratt and has been previously published. We are grateful to our communities, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York for their support of Tribe and ethos of collaboration.
Twenty-five years ago I started Shalom Bayit, with the goal of both breaking the silence about abuse in the Jewish community and also empowering Jewish women towards safety, justice and healing. Of course we have grown and evolved tremendously since that time, most notably from a small activist volunteer task force to a full-fledged organization that now has a broad impact reaching thousands of people each year. But the primary mission remains the same – both the social justice aspect of eradicating domestic violence and transforming the Jewish community’s response to abuse, and the on-the-ground community-building piece of reconnecting women to safe, supportive Jewish community. Abused women are often silenced by, and therefore alienated from the Jewish community. We help them rediscover Judaism and find supportive, meaningful, relevant Jewish community.
I would say two elements that make Shalom Bayit compelling are
(1) The feminist Jewish spiritual healing rituals and holiday celebrations for women that we pioneered. Now there is an entire Jewish healing movement, but there was nothing when we started! It is amazing to watch people fall in love with Jewish ritual, community and concepts they never even knew existed.
(2) Teaching intimacy life-skills through a Jewish lens – which makes Judaism directly relevant and helpful in people’s daily lives. An example of this is our Love Shouldn’t Hurt Jewish youth education programs on healthy relationships, which teens find compelling as they explore topics like consent, boundaries, and values on relationships all through a Jewish lens.
I am not exactly sure why I was invited to be a part of this, as I am not leading one of those new cool “Jewish engagement” alternative synagogues. But I am honored to be included and I do think that our work with women has built an important alternative access point to Jewish community, which is hopefully now more integrated into the mainstream. If you think the feminist spiritual leadership piece fits with your goal, then I would love to be a part of the gathering!
So long as Jews rely on prayer literature for their devotional praxes, they will rely on Siddurim. The question is whether Jews will have the personal autonomy to grow their spiritual practice or to rely exclusively on the content, curation, and design of others.
My mission is to improve the conditions within which individual Jews and groups of Jews of have autonomy in the organization of their spiritual practice, and the freedom to share their practice with others (to the degree that this practice can be disseminated through print and digital media). In so doing, I believe that the wisdom and creativity of Jews past and present can continue to vitalize Jewish spiritual practice in the future without their being compromised by proprietary interests. To this end, I’ve targeted the specific technology by which Jewish spiritual practice is packages and distributed to Jews under the authority of those who seek to disseminate their historic customs and contemporary innovations: the Siddur. Underlying this effort is this belief that all culture is creative whether it be historic or contemporary, and that there need be no conflict between “cultural authenticity” and “individual integrity” when either one can reinforce interest in the other.
What makes this project compelling is that both autonomy and tradition are both being served by our project’s concern for correct attribution – a value of interest to scholars, creators, and educators. The value is at the basis of Jewish values on how a “Torah of Lovingkindness” must be transmitted (cf. Sukkah 49b), how creators are acknowledged under open-source licenses, and how scholarship is incentivized through citation. Contributors know that their work will be made accessible to others for redistribution and creative reuse under the legal condition that they remain properly credited for their contribution. Those accessing digital content can trust that any sacred liturgy shared is an authoritative transcription of a particular manuscript or printed work in a given tradition. Since the project is non-denominational and non-prescriptive it provides a rare opportunity for students to compare liturgical customs within and outside any particular historic lineage of Torah (e.g., Israelite-Samaritan, Karaite, Rabbinic, Beta Israel, etc.) or any contemporary custom. For a practitioner, the project offers a truly pluralistic space for crafting the siddur they always wanted. Whether they are working alone or as part of a Siddur committee, they know they are among others — from many other streams of Judaism — happily sharing their own personal and topical prayers, their own translations of these or historic works, and digital transcriptions of works in the Public Domain for which no digital edition had yet been made.
Rabbi Michael Wasserman
My wife Rabbi Elana Kanter and I founded The New Shul in 2002. Our vision was to create a traditional-egalitarian synagogue with a deeper sense of community, and a more intense style of worship than one generally finds in mainstream liberal synagogues. To achieve those goals, we relied heavily on structural change. For instance, we eliminated membership dues in favor of voluntary giving — not to make membership more affordable, but in a certain sense to make it more expensive. We wanted to dispel the notion that one could “purchase” membership. Instead we wanted people to think of membership as the expression of a deeper commitment, which money cannot buy. In the same spirit, we eliminated almost all of the explanation, direction, and mediation that liberal synagogues generally rely on to make their services more accessible. We felt that a more intensive davening experience must be, by definition, a more demanding one, and so we structured our service to require more of our members. The ba’al tefilah faces the ark, and uses melody instead of explanation to draw the community into the experience. In that respect, our style of worship is akin to that of many independent minyanim, though our community is much more intergenerational than one would usually find in an independent minyan. Finally, we designed the shul to function without any programming or maintenance staff, which sends the message that (as one of our members put it), there is no “they” here, only “we.” Members naturally step up and take responsibility when they understand that everything depends on them. The result of all this has been a structure that is more conducive to religious growth, and more supportive of real rabbinic leadership, than most conventional liberal synagogues that I have experienced.
Thank you for the invitation to the NPSCI Consultation. It is a deep kavod to be invited and a special opportunity to support and strengthen the community building we are doing in West Philly. The West Philly Jewish community is an eclectic mix of folks. We are teachers, writers, artists, activists, poets, organizers, social workers, and musicians. Punks, anarchists, hippies, homesteaders, gardeners, academics, and yeshiva bochers. Jews by birth and Jews by choice. Trans Jews, queer Jews, straight Jews, White Jews and Jews of Color. Non-Zionism is a safer assumption than circumcision.
There is one ten-year-old shul in a neighborhood that, two generations ago, had many. Kol Tzedek is a justice-oriented, Reconstructionist shul that draws Jews from across lines and divisions together in community. The shul was built on a grassroots organizing model, and continues to operate mostly on volunteer labor with a small budget, minimal staff, and no major donors. I taught in the Hebrew school, founded and currently run a Thursday morning minyan, teach adult education classes on davening, gabbai, lead services, and help where help is needed. I love Kol Tzedek, and am blown away by the diversity of community. And, as a community that meets infrequently for davening and is geared towards a busy crowd with minimal Jewish literacy, there is a lack of intimacy and depth of ritual life for some.
My partner and I have begun hosting gatherings in our home, to supplement and enrich the Jewish life at Kol Tzedek. Just like any good shtiebel, we are not seeking to replace the synagogue, but to provide a more intimate environment and community for deeper Jewish practice and learning. We host full-liturgy, soulful Kabbalat Shabbat davening in our living room, Shabbat morning coffee and meditation, and seudah shlishit tisches. We are looking to have beit-midrash style learning with different community members as teachers, and host house concerts, poetry readings, workshops, and trainings. We are in conversation with local community organizations about potentially utilizing their spaces for larger gatherings when needed.
Our “shtiebel” seeks to serve just as diverse a community as Kol Tzedek, providing additional opportunities for our community for those interested in going deeper. I think people feel comfortable at our events because we don’t have any expectation or assumptions of what our guests’ Judaism should be, and are not representing any organizations with larger agendas through our funding. We seek to be a Jewish home space that is rooted in a power analysis of the ways misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism can disenfranchise people from finding spiritual nourishment in their Jewish heritage and are constantly working to see our community as supporting radical equality and mutual liberation. We co-create a cathartic space for a community exhausted by many hours of activism each week; a space that revolves around song, sustenance, Torah, relationship and open-hearted sharing.