All participants in the 2018 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.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen, Jewish Climate Action Network, Boston, MA
Because of the climate crisis, the human species faces an unparalleled existential crisis – the question of the survival of the human species. This crisis transforms the question of responding to climate change from a scientific question to a moral one. Can we both acknowledge the reality of anthropocentric climate change and respond with the speed and vigor required to reverse its trajectory? And given the inevitable disasters that are already happening, can we build the spiritual and psychological resiliency necessary to survive emotionally and spiritually?
These unanswerable meta questions provide the background for the work of the Jewish Climate Action Network. The existential threat and the need for a moral voice in response make climate change a Jewish issue – an issue important to Jews. Today’s Gen Xers are the parents of children whose future is in question. Today’s millennials wonder about their own future and whether the planet will be livable for them a generation or two from now.
The Jewish Climate Action Network has stepped into the fray, putting the words “Jewish” and “Climate Action” together in a way that had not previously been done. Since the formation of JCAN in late 2013, a group of committed volunteers from the greater Boston area has dedicated itself to mobilizing Jewish communities to build resiliency and take strong leadership against climate change through education, carbon footprint reduction, and sustainable practices. In carrying out its mission, JCAN brings an organized Jewish presence to the wider climate crisis conversation, inspires and mobilizes Jewish communities to take leadership and participate in meaningful climate action and justice campaigns, builds relationships with environmental and justice leaders in Jewish and other community organizations, facilitates networking among Jewish institutions taking climate action and develops and provides Jewish wisdom resources that relate to climate change and our human and Jewish relationship to the Earth.
Climate activists involved in JCAN find that it provides a sense of purpose and meaning in the face of the terrifying prospects for the future of our planet, as well as terrifying events in the present. Working to try to preserve the planet for future generations–of all faiths and no faith–and doing so within the context of their Jewish identity, provides a deep sense of community, support, and strength to those who connect with JCAN’s work.
People become active in JCAN because it provides a Jewish context for their passionate need to respond to the crisis of climate change. JCAN makes it possible for people to be active in their struggles to combat climate change in a context that allows them to authentically bring their Jewish souls to this work, to be able to do so in community with other Jews, and to make it possible for their own communities to exhibit concern and take action with a deep Jewish voice.
Rabbi Guy Austrian, Fort Tyron Jewish Center, Washington Heights, NY
The Fort Tryon Jewish Center (FTJC) is an independent traditional egalitarian community-based in Washington Heights and Inwood, Manhattan.
We seek to create Jewish spiritual community for our members, to act as a hub and catalyst for egalitarian Jewish life in Northern Manhattan, and to partner with our neighbors to improve the quality of life in Northern Manhattan for all its residents.
We are a young and fast-growing congregation, with new membership coming primarily among singles in their 20s and 30s, couples, and young families with children aged 5 and under. We bring together people of diverse backgrounds and identities to experience the power of traditional Jewish community and ritual with an open, inclusive approach that welcomes LGBTQ people, interfaith families, and those who are new to Judaism and Jewish practice.
FTJC is aptly described as a “80-year-old startup.” Founded in 1938 by refugees from Nazi Germany, an aging and dwindling congregation nearly shut its doors in the early 2000’s, then lost the use of its building in a real-estate deal gone wrong. But FTJC became egalitarian in 2007, fueling a boom in new participation, and has experienced a remarkable revitalization while using rented spaces, members’ homes, and public parks. Our DIY, volunteer-driven ethos makes everything a work in progress as we reimagine what a traditional Jewish community looks like and acts like in the 21st century.
With deep roots nourishing new shoots, we are giving life to a historic Jewish community in a historic Jewish neighborhood in the urban heart of New York City.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, Or Zarua, Havertown, PA
Or Zarua, an emerging community of meaning located in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, focuses on the needs of empty nesters/baby boomers who are engaged, socially responsible Jews searching for alternatives to the “traditional” synagogue model. Or Zarua was created to provide deep, meaningful, spiritually relevant, supportive community in which each member is authentically known and cared for. Or Zarua is not a “top-down” model, but is rather a co-constructed model in which the rabbi serves as a “facilitator” and “spiritual guide.” At Or Zarua, Rabbi Shelly Barnathan takes much time to learn the background, interests, and spiritual goals of each participant. She then connects participants to one another in order to facilitate their self-organization and co-leadership of Or Zarua offerings.
Or Zarua meets primarily in the homes of members, allowing each host family to experience their home as a makom kadosh – a holy place. For High Holidays and larger events, we meet in a local Friends Meeting House, which provides interfaith opportunities for our community. Or Zarua offerings consist of Friday night and Shabbat morning services, monthly Women’s Circles, tikkun olam opportunities, wise aging, mussar, and Jewish mindfulness classes. We engage in the work of gemilut chasadim, supporting one another in times of joy and challenge. At Or Zarua, we are grounded in the traditional roots of Judaism (texts, practices, and Jewish values), blending these traditional roots with creative Jewish practices such as chant, movement, mindfulness, poetry, Jewish storytelling, and song, in order to make deep, relevant meaning in our lives.
At Or Zarua, we access the or/light in each one of us through living our Jewish values and fostering deep, authentic, caring relationships and through respectful, open communication. As we access our own light, we sow/plant light in others and perform the holy work of tikkun olam in the world.
Tara Bogner, Chair, National Havurah Committee, New York, NY
The NHC has been around for a while, in Jewish organizational terms. I think what makes it so compelling is the ongoing commitment to core and original values of havurah, egalitarianism, and learning – combined with ongoing openness to change and development, in an intergenerational context. Our annual event, the Havurah Institute, is, at the same time or separately for different people, an oasis and laboratory, summer camp, university, vacation, and retreat. I think we are practicing a mode of Judaism that is precious and enriching far beyond its apparent borders.
As is the case for so many Jewish organizations today, we are now adapting our business model to the changing realities of membership and voluntarism as well as to new financial realities. We are committed to making our gatherings fully accessible and to provide an environment that is fully inclusive. We have long put a premium on gatherings that are both inter-generational and inter-cultural. We are committed to create environments where all participants feel safe from sexual harassment. Finally, as a heavily volunteer-driven organization, we are mindful of cultivating future leadership for the organization.
Jeffrey Cohan, Jewish Veg-Pittsburgh, PA
The mission of Jewish Veg is to encourage and help our fellow Jews transition toward plant-based diets in accordance with the Jewish values of compassion for animals, protection of our health and concern for the environment.
Our members, who span the globe and the full spectrum of Jewish observance, find many aspects of our work compelling, four of which stand out:
- The Torah mandate of tza’ar baalei chayim has never been more important, given the unprecedented scale of the mandate’s violation throughout the world. But even though tza’ar baalei chayim is, textually, a central component of Jewish ethics, it remains deprioritized and often times ignored in Jewish education and practice. Support for our organization is growing precisely because we are effectively educating people about the contemporary importance and application of this Torah mandate.
- Our shared Jewish history of persecution should inspire us to fight oppression and relieve suffering wherever we find it. So what do we do when we encounter animals, sentient beings who are at our mercy, whose care God entrusted to us? What do we do when we’re in the position of strength? Our members deeply appreciate that we’re encouraging and helping Jews to act compassionately.
- The Mi Shebeirach list at every synagogue in America is literally twice as long as it need be. Every Shabbat, we are praying for Jews who are suffering from – and too often dying prematurely from — heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. In more than half these cases, lifestyle has been a primary cause. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only national Jewish organization that is actively helping people to adopt healthier diets.
- Just in the past two months, our country has seen two devastating hurricanes and an incredibly vast wildfire, natural disasters that in all likelihood were exacerbated by climate change. Far too few people are aware that the most powerful thing they can do to shrink their carbon footprint is to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption. Jewish Veg is educating people about animal agriculture and its relationship to the Torah mandate of bal taschit.
Rabbi Robin Damsky, In the Gardens, Melrose Park, IL
In the Gardens is engaging Jews in two new ways, through edible gardens and mindfulness practice. One of our missions is bringing organic edible gardens and farms to congregations, organizations and communities. This is done both within and beyond the Jewish community; sometimes together with the Jewish community, other times in a secular context. This part of our mission has several goals:
- To offer people a spiritual, embodied experience in connection with the earth and growing food;
- To bring our food closer to home as a means of sustainable practice while building our local and faith communities;
- To do the work of tzedakah and tikkun olam in teaching, serving and relationship building, in impoverished areas, across lines of faith, ethnicity, race and locale; and
- To alleviate hunger directly via the donation of 80% of all the food we grow on our home site.
Through this mission we connect to the sacredness and agricultural history of our Jewish ancestors and pass it to our future generations, while addressing the rising issues of hunger, climate change and social divisiveness in the Jewish community and beyond.
Our second mission is to bring mindfulness and meditation practices to communities. In the Gardens offers these tools through classes, courses and retreats. We reach out to individuals and populations in the Jewish community and in other faith and/or secular settings. Training includes breath, chant, movement, meditation, prayer and study. This is offered in synagogues and Jewish communal organizations, as well as in businesses and nonprofits, tailoring to the needs of the participants.
We also offer The Mindful Gardens Project, which blends our missions of mindfulness practice with garden design and implementation. When these two aspects are fused, communities first learn mindfulness practice as a foundation tool to enhance self and interactions with others. Then they begin garden design as a community. The benefits of this work are manifest in the coming together of minds and hands that create a community garden of wholeness and togetherness as it physically nourishes its population.
All of our work aims to cultivate a deeper connection to self, Spirit, and to God’s earth. This connection sustains us, healing and enhancing us as individuals while cultivating more compassion and kindness in our communities.
Deborah Fishman, FED, New York, NY
FED Tanour (Hebrew for oven) is a recently incorporated nonprofit that believes that Judaism is a powerful force inspiring creativity, inclusivity and connection. For hundreds of years, communal ovens in Jewish villages and shtetls from Poland to Morocco served as a central gathering point for a vibrant communal exchange, where recipes and stories were swapped and cooperation strengthened. We are reclaiming the spirit of our ancestral communal oven and bringing it to life. Our vision is to establish a commercial storefront in Manhattan called The Oyven (Yiddish for oven), which will revive the Jewish tradition of the communal oven as a collaboration space, kitchen collective, bakery and community hub. Its open kitchen will be central to the space and to our mission of making sure everyone is fed, physically, spiritually and emotionally.
While we work toward this vision, we also have created an exciting minimum viable product. In the summer of 2021, we will embark on an Oyven tour where we will pop up in communities within a 5-hour driving radius of New York City with our mobile pizza oven. At outdoor community-building events, we will join people together in the experience of shaping, baking and sharing challah and other traditional foods. We will make and break bread together while spreading Jewish creativity, culture and ideas, including through performance art, text study, and other methods to generate dialogue and connection.
New York City is teeming with extraordinary people, yet it can feel isolating, lonely and impersonal. Quarantines and social distancing exacerbated this sense, causing serious mental health problems and decreasing social connection and productivity. People everywhere engage in existential searches for meaning — which Judaism provides. However, some may feel alienated from institutional Judaism and seek this sense of purpose beyond the Jewish context.
FED generates creativity, dialogue and connection in a framework of Jewish culture, food, values and experiences. Our goals are first to introduce our city to itself through building relationships, resulting in respectful dialogue and restoring connectivity in our often-polarized society. Second, through providing in-depth intellectual and artistic content, we increase knowledge of, engagement in, and positive association with Judaism on an adult, hands-on level. Finally, we inspire participants toward confidence in their culinary and artistic creativity, energizing them toward realizing their personal and professional goals.
FED has existed for the past five years as an inclusive Jewish community and platform for food, ideas and art, restoring our human capacity for empathy through hosting over 150 dinner parties and creative gatherings in New York City and 10 other cities worldwide. For more information on FED and how to bring the Oyven to your community, please contact email@example.com.
Carla Friend, Tkiya: The Jewish Community Music Initiative
Tkiya uses participatory music experiences to help people of all ages find their unique connection to Jewish culture and to strengthen the bonds of diverse Jewish communities. The experiences we design are interactive, engaging, and welcoming to all, regardless of background. Tkiya partners with two dozen organizations across the New York Metro Area to bring a refreshing approach to Jewish community that is inspiring to even the most unengaged.
Our participant retention rate is extraordinary because Tkiya’s experiences are well-tailored to meet the needs of the communities that we work in. In saturated areas, such as Manhattan, we are grateful that families choose to attend our programs when there are other comparable options. But for some of our communities, including Williamsburg and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, we provide families’ only option for non-Orthodox Jewish engagement, education, and connection. One grateful family wrote, “It’s the only program of its kind in the neighborhood and we are very thankful to have it!”
Tkiya’s experiences are designed from an educational perspective. This includes the songs/activities but perhaps most unique is the structure of the programs that helps to keep people of all ages engaged throughout. We also pride ourselves on creating experiences that are welcoming to all, regardless of background. At any given session we may have people ranging from not Jewish at all up to quite religious, and we strive to make everyone feel comfortable. This has been especially appealing to interfaith families! One wrote that our ShaJam Singalong “has been an invaluable program in helping to familiarize my husband with Jewish culture and holidays in a way that is welcoming and non-polarizing”
As recent studies show that fewer non-Orthodox Americans are self-identifying as Jewish, it is important to acknowledge that it is becoming increasingly difficult for many Jews to connect with a culture so historic in a world so modern. Tkiya is grateful to have found an approach that works for such a broad spectrum of people. We look forward to continuing to focus our impact in New York and, in the next five years, to expand our reach to other cities.
Dr. Barbara Gereboff, Head of School, R.C. Wornick Jewish Day School, Foster City, CA
When I took over the leadership of the Wornick Jewish Day School in 2009, I inherited a school of 200 students with a handful of children who were neither matrilinealy nor patrilinealy Jewish. Another 30% of the students had one parent who was not Jewish. I wondered what the Jewish day school experience would mean for the non-Jewish children in my school, and for the non-Jewish parents. What meaning would an Asian American child or a child of parents who identified Catholic derive from our morning tefilot, Jewish holiday observance, Hebrew language, Jewish history and text study. I worried too that some of our two-Jewish parents, our Judaic Studies and Hebrew teachers might marginalize these children and families.
My mission was to maintain the Jewish core of the school while assuring that all children and their parents could see themselves as part of a community shaped by Jewish values and knowledge. That core meant that we needed to examine thoughtfully our Judaic Studies curriculum. We selected text standards that spoke to torah l’shmah and to text as informing our values and moral commitments. We framed our conversations about tefilot in terms of gratitude, wonder, mindfulness and community. As students move through the school, there are developmentally appropriate conversations and units that engage questions about “wonder” and “meaning”. Our Hebrew language program is about second language learning and language production, with the goal that all students use their Hebrew extensively when on their eighth-grade trip.
As we rethought our core curricula, my staff and I worked simultaneously on “community-building”. We began to organize our work around the concepts of “meaning” and “matter”. Our goal is that all members of the community – children, parents, teachers and staff – find meaning in our school and that each knows that s/he matters.
The first step in this journey was that of dividing the entire school into twenty-two chavurot. Each chavurah has one or two students from each grade, K-8. Everyone remains in the same chavurah throughout their time at the school. Chavurot meet on the first Friday of each month and each group participates in a design challenge on that day. Children and staff sit by chavurot during Thursday morning all-school tefilah. At parents’ request, we are now beginning initiatives to connect parents to their childrens’ chavurot.
Our non-Jewish population continues to grow. The current kindergarten class is one third not Jewish with two Muslim parents from two different families in the mix. Many of our non-Jewish parents join Jewish parents for morning tefilot and they eagerly embrace parent education about Judaism. We make sure at admissions time that they know that this is a Jewish school with daily services, a year built around the Jewish calendar, Jewish holiday celebrations, Hebrew and Judaic Studies. In the end, the spirit that we have created around our curriculum and as an intentional community is profoundly meaningful for our Jewish and non-Jewish parents and children.
Bob Goldfarb, Darkhei Noam, New York, NY
New York’s leading partnership minyan, Darkhei Noam, describes its mission this way:
From its inception, the vision for Darkhei Noam has been the creation of a minyan and community centered around inclusivity and meaningful prayer. As such, women take on active roles in the ritual life of the minyan within the bounds of halakha. Darkhei Noam strives to provide a place where all who come to pray are active participants; where the voices of davening come not just from the leaders of tefillah, but from both sides of the mechitza as well; where public space is shared by men and women; and where the intrinsic value of each individual is recognized.
Darkhei therefore differs, in my view, from a lot of Jewish initiatives which also have the goal of inclusion. Darkhei doesn’t particularly seek to attract ‘unaffiliated Jews.’ Indeed, most members of Darkhei Noam have been very involved in synagogues and minyanim for a long time. It’s an approach that could serve as a model for other intentional communities, religious or otherwise.
Over the past twenty years, two assumptions have been propagated by communal funders: that the most important target is the unaffiliated; and the best way to reach them is through innovation. The main result has been the creation of new organizations to offer new and different options for engagement with Jewish life. A side effect was to shift attention away from initiatives that focus on enriching the Jewish experience of people who are already involved.
Darkhei Noam, like other partnership minyanim around the world, has shown that the quality of the experience is at least as important as novelty for purposes of engagement. Darkhei’s style of communal prayer is certainly innovative: it adheres to Orthodox halakha, yet with a commitment to bring women into roles that are not customary in conventional Orthodox congregations. Nonetheless, the intensity of the Shabbat and holiday prayer experience – enhanced by the use of powerful tunes, sung by the congregation together with the shlichei tsibbur – is one of the community’s defining and compelling qualities.
Significantly, it differs from a great many prayer communities in that it has no charismatic individual leader – no resident musician with beautiful new tunes, no larger-than-life rabbi whose personality attracts large crowds. Though it sometimes goes unacknowledged, many intentional communities—religious or not—depend on charismatic leaders for their appeal. Darkhei’s approach of collective leadership is an important alternative model; communities need to sustain themselves without charismatic figures at the helm.
In short, Darkhei Noam is an object lesson in how communities can inspire the intense involvement of their members without depending upon novelty, without focusing on the unaffiliated, and without an outsized personality at its center. Perhaps Darkhei’s example can inspire others to question the conventional wisdom of the last 20 years, and to build communities that serve committed Jews, favor quality over innovation, and share a collective experience rather than a captivating leader.
The opinions expressed are my own, not Darkhei Noam’s.
Rebecca Guber, Asylum Arts, Brooklyn, NY
Asylum Arts supports contemporary Jewish culture on an international scale by bringing greater exposure to artists and cultural initiatives and providing opportunities for new projects and collaborations. Our approach is twofold: we connect and empower Jewish artists through retreats and workshops and award grants to broaden the reach and impact of their projects. In the past few years, the Asylum network has grown to include over 500 Jewish artists from 28 countries.
Responding to the desire of many Jewish and Israeli artists to be part of a larger community, international and local retreats were conceived of as a platform where Jewish artists could build relationships with their peers who grapple with similar challenges, such as questions surrounding Jewish and artistic identity. Retreats provide a Jewish experience that is entertaining, meaningful, and even provocative, and present opportunities for artists to explore and integrate Jewish ideas in their work. On an individual level, retreats develop participants’ professional skills and personal relationships.
We have found that notwithstanding diverse geographical locales, Jewish artists are interested and committed to exploring their identities and integrating it into their work. Early in our history, as we expanded to places that we did not have many local contacts, we wondered whether we would be able to find enough applicants of quality. We are no longer asking that question; we have found that there is a major demand in every new community we engage, whether it is Stockholm, Mexico City, or Warsaw. This realization confirms our belief in the power of engaging Jewish artists and harnessing their power in this contemporary moment.
Our community of artists are living diverse Jewish lives that include working in and out of Jewish contexts, sometimes incorporating Jewish themes and sometimes, not. Often, particularly outside of the US and Israel, our artists are building lives that include Jewish practices with non-Jewish family members and friends. They want the Jewish culture that they create to be accessible to everyone, which we think is an essential part of Jewish life in the future.
Rabbi Jen Gubitz, Riverway Project at Temple Israel, Boston, MA
Fifteen years ago, Temple Israel of Boston created the Riverway Project whose mission was and remains to connect Jews in their twenties and thirties to Judaism and each other through Temple Israel. Rooted in a historic Synagogue, the Riverway Project has evolved in order to realize the hopes, needs, and goals of the Riverway community, as well as pivoting to accommodate the ever-changing landscape of Jewish life in Boston and shifting trends in American religious life. Like the Riverway Project’s program offerings, Boston’s Jewish community is saturated with opportunities for young adults to connect, socialize, pray, study text, or do justice work; there is a scarcity, however, of intentional programming that offers vulnerable, deep, and soul-searching Jewish learning through which young adults can authentically connect to Judaism.
Amid recent uncertainty and instability in American society, there is urgency to broaden Judaism’s capacity to respond to the needs of emergent seekers who are navigating broken or unfulfilling relationships, enduring the societal pressures of partnering, marriage, and parenthood, who face job loss, student debt and financial burden, who are worried by an unsteady political climate and discordant public discourse, or who suffer grief from genuine loss or unfulfilled dreams. “Who can I talk to, talk with, learn from, learn with?” is an ultimate question amid which loneliness and isolation abounds.
“The Bridge: Deep Wisdom for Troubled Waters,” seeks to address this loneliness and search for true connection by building and strengthening resilience through community, curriculum, and conversation. Our intended outcome is to develop, concretize and facilitate a curriculum that deepens Jewish spiritual resilience through conversation and community building, weaving the wisdom of ancient Jewish texts with the ethical tradition of Mussar and Hassidut in concert with poetry, music, spiritual writing, articles, and media from modern universal sources. When Lena Dunham meets Nechama Leibowitz meets Anne Lamott or Atul Gawande meets Yehuda Amichai meets Alan Morinis, participants will truly meet themselves to experience transformational and reflective moments that help them face troubling times and transitions, and to deepen their search in times of stability and strength. We believe this is the pathway to perpetuating deep Jewish connections.
“The Bridge” serves as both a point of entry into Jewish life and a sacred space for deepening Jewish experience. The intention of this project is aimed at someone attracted to learning about forgiveness around the High Holy Days who then has a welcoming place to go to celebrate the festival; it is aimed at one who is dealing with the loss of a parent and then has a supportive place to say Kaddish; it is aimed at the individual questioning his job and career path who needs a place to constructively reflect. We do not expect or encourage that all will follow a path of affiliation. We know, however, that it is possible that those who “get in, stay in”; we have watched how casual participation in Riverway deepens and leads to meaningful Jewish living.
 Moving forward, the designation “emergent seekers” will refer to young professionals in Generations Z, Millennial, and the latter years of Generation X. This riffs on the term “emerging adults” sociologist Jeffrey Arnett uses to categorize young adults; other sociologists refer to this demographic as “post-boomers.” When it became verbose, inconsistent, and limiting to describe one particular generation, “emergent seekers” was the best articulation of the broad population we already attract and believe we can reach more deeply. (Boston’s CJP categorizes young leaders ranging from 22-45; the 2015 Boston Jewish Community Study categorizes young adults ranging from 18-34; the Riverway Project’s mission is to engage 20s & 30s but we have increasing attendance from late 30s and early 40s.)
Peter Horowitz, Mile End Chavurah, Montreal, Quebec
Mile End Chavurah was founded in 2010 by a small group of Jews living in a neighborhood that, two to three generations ago, was populated by Jewish immigrants, many of whom were our own grandparents. This area has since become a vibrant and sometimes fractional mix of gentrification and Chassidic Jews. Many of our grandparents were orthodox or at least were more observant than we are. We found ourselves yearning for a connection to other Jews and a way to embrace and nurture our Jewish identities in a way that was meaningful to us. Many of the traditions that our parents taught us seemed to be outdated, modified to early 20th century American values, and we felt that these traditions needed further adjustments. The only choices for Jewish programming on our side of town were the Chassidic Shteibels, which were not very welcoming places.
After a successful home-hosted Chanukah party and then a Passover Seder which attracted over 90 people, we knew there was a need for something to serve the Jews of Mile End. Thus was born Mile End Chavurah.
We began as a lay-led group of Jews, and we continue to be lay-led, crafting our traditions from those we grew up with. We omit practices that seem out of time and place but we also add new rituals borrowed from Jewish Renewal and modern egalitarian world values.
Our members value the informality and the egalitarian nature of our services and events. We were intentional about creating a place where there was no hierarchy and no privileges were the province of a chosen few. We are all learning together; all opinions can be expressed, as long as they are expressed in a respectful way.
The thing we hear most often from our members or people attending events is, “I would never walk into a synagogue, but I feel comfortable at Mile End Chavurah.”
Rabbi Dan Horwitz, The Well, Detroit, MI
The Well’s mission is to empower, educate, inspire, and weave together young adults in Metro Detroit (and beyond) through inclusive, intentional and innovative Jewish experiences. My personal mission is to help young Jewish adults (and those who love them – who themselves may not be Jewish) cultivate an appreciation for the contemporary applicability of Jewish wisdom, the joy, meaning and richness that come with being part of a Jewish community and to help them answer the question “why be Jewish?” for themselves absent a belief in the traditional construct of God, Covenant and/or Commandedness.
There are a number of elements that attract young adults to our work. These include:
- A commitment to being non-dogmatic and non-judgmental. All are welcome to join us, and there is no alternative agenda (such as advocating for enhanced ritual observance) other than building community in an inclusive fashion.
- Metro Detroit is a region in transition, still suffering from the economic downturn and the resulting exodus/brain drain, with those living here actively seeking to connect and be in community with others given that many of their nearest friends are no longer living locally.
- An empowerment-centric, co-creation approach. We invite young adults to take an active role in creating/planning/hosting/facilitating our gatherings and we work closely with them to ensure that the experiences that they are cultivating are as impactful as can be.
Jared Jackson, Jews in ALL Hues-Philadelphia, PA
Jews in ALL Hues (JIAH) is an education and advocacy organization that supports multiple-heritage Jews and Jews of Color. Our goal is to build a future for the Jewish people where intersectional diversity and dignity are normative.
Our leadership is based on three specific things:
- Hachnasat Orchim: The Jewish value of welcoming others, is central to JIAH’s workshops, training and professional consultation work with Jewish leaders and communities. In our work to create inclusive spaces for multi-heritage Jews, our training sessions provide the tools that enable Jewish leaders and communities to understand the best ways to practice the value of Hachnasat Orchim— welcoming Jews of all backgrounds. JIAH helps Jewish communities recognize the ways that they can bring Jews of all hues into an inclusive and warm environment.
- Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Progress can be challenging. We cannot single-handedly create an inclusive Jewish environment in one day, one week, one month. Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that while we may not be able to impact every community or welcome every Jew, we must continue to try. This Jewish wisdom reminds communities that JIAH strives toward the betterment of our world, especially when the work is difficult. We must never desist from this work.
- One of the ten miracles performed in the First Temple was that no matter how many people squeezed in to pray, there was enough room for every person to be comfortable. Welcoming more people into communities doesn’t push others out. Diversity strengthens communities and adds new perspectives, building bridges into different aspects of Judaism. Like the First Temple, Jewish communities should have enough room for everyone. JIAH helps these communities integrate diverse Jewish populations effectively with love.
Our ability to approach individuals with dignity, create spaces where one can just be, and educate the broader Jewish people have attracted Jews from every background. We honestly believe that each individual holds the ability to connect beyond rhetorical boundaries. It’s time we, as a people, get back into the practice of meeting our family as they (we) are.
Leah Jones, Co-founder, TBD Minyan, Chicago, IL
When I converted to Judaism 12 years ago, I immediately joined the synagogue where my conversion had been supervised. I was single and in my late 20s, which left me without a lot of peers at the Reform congregation in Chicago. That’s the first time that I said, “If it’s not here, I’ll just build it”. I helped to build a community called Loosely Defined with our signature program being, Itza Mitzva. As people married and had children, most of the members moved on to the community provided by Tot Shabbat and I transferred leadership of Itza Mitzva to the JCC.
With two of the singles left in Loosely Defined, we decided to take a page from the independent minyanim our friends were involved in (Mechon Hadar and Mission Minyan) and co-founded TBD Minyan in 2010. When we started, our main goal was to provide lay-led services that people didn’t leave in tears of frustration. We understood that the desire to participate in a lay-led minyan didn’t always go hand in hand with liturgical literacy, so we began with a few months of text study before our monthly Shabbat services started.
Eight years later, we are a small community with 15 core members and 6 babies under 2 years old. Many of our members are now married to non-Jewish partners, but our non-Jewish members are committed to having Jewish homes and enthusiastically participate in our Jewish community. Our mission is still to provide a progressive, lay-led Jewish community that engages with the parsha, with prayer and with lively meals.
In the first 3-4 years of TBD Minyan, we were growth-minded and making larger outreach efforts. The good news is, the landscape in Chicago has changed. Mishkan, other independent minyanim and innovative synagogue programming has allowed us to take a step back. We now focus on our extended family of members and how to maintain our community with more babies in the mix. We have moved from Friday night services to Saturday brunches and Havdalah dinners and now we’re wrestling with the liturgy to find a meaningful, authentic way to include prayer and worship.
I think we continue to be compelling, because we are welcoming to all partners and we still strive to make sure that nobody leaves crying… well, that no adults leave crying.
Steffi Aronson Karp, Founder/President, LimmudBoston
I started the LimmudBoston conference to create community and encourage collaboration within the Jewish communities of New England. LimmudBoston is a comm-university and learning festival involving hundreds of individual participants, as well as many ‘ambassadors’ from area communities (synagogues, organizations, etc.) that wish to experience the joys of lifelong Jewish learning, and participation in creative community building through our volunteer-driven events.
Our planning teams (Program, Site, Volunteer Outreach, etc.) strive to include everyone–beginner to scholar, young to young-at-heart, affiliated and not-at-all connected. We don’t turn anyone away, but rather, find ways to include them in conference creation. With few exceptions, everyone pays to attend—showing respect for the value of Jewish learning. Yet, if the registration fee is a hardship, we ask what the attendee feels is fair for a day of learning. We also encourage that person to lend a hand with any of the posted volunteer tasks.
There are no titles on LimmudBoston nametags–just first names. Thus, every participant–clergy, educator and learner–is an equally valued part of our annual festival celebrating Jewish culture and lifelong learning.
For those with fond memories of any kind of a youth group, I often describe LimmudBoston as “youth group for everyone.” Over the eight years since holding our first LimmudBoston conference, the planning teams and I have worked to include many who have not found a welcome spot in Jewish organizations. We include those who do not identify as part of a pre-bar mitzvah family, or no longer have children in a congregation’s religious school, or those who never married, or are between marriages, or who are no longer married. We include those who are too busy to join committees, or embarrassed because they feel undereducated, or are simply not joiners. We also enjoy the participation of volunteers who have time to give because they are between positions of employment, or those who weren’t born Jewish. At LimmudBoston, we strive to encourage participation during our conference, or before as part of a planning committee. Volunteer + Participant, we call our helpers “volunticipants.”
At LimmudBoston we try to “play well with others” by showcasing many diverse components of the New England Jewish community. We also help those groups flourish. For example, the Jewish Climate Action Network grew from a LimmudBoston session and now hosts its own events. From the beginning, I instituted “encore statements” for LimmudBoston session listings so that our participants can easily discover meaningful ways to continue the learning experience they enjoyed during the conference day.
LimmudBoston is one of 84 Limmud conferences worldwide, each of which relies on guidance from Limmud UK. Arguments are ‘for the sake of heaven,’ and inclusion matters. Most essentially, everyone comes as a learner. Even presenters attend LimmudBoston as learners. Everyone is asked to help set up or clean up. When a planning team faces a challenge, we turn to time-tested Limmud International Values and Principles.
LimmudBoston is, finally, fun: inclusive, intelligent, challenging, sometimes zany and sometimes intellectual, respectful and diverse, community-based fun. That is what inspired me to create LimmudBoston, and what continues to motivate this endeavor each year.
David Krantz, Aytzim, New York, NY
Founded in 2001, the volunteer-run Aytzim means “trees” — and fittingly we have a grove of projects, each addressing Jewish-environmental issues from different angles and each having different theories of change. Pirkei Avot says that one must learn as well as do. Correspondingly, that is the approach that we take at Aytzim. We are both educators and activists.
Our oldest project is the Green Zionist Alliance — the only environmental organization in the world with a direct say into writing and implementing Israeli environmental laws. So far, we have passed nine laws in Israel, where our work has led to more than two million trees being planted, hundreds of miles of bike trails being built, and the declaration of new nature preserves that have saved endangered species from extinction. All of that has been made possible because dozens of Jewish environmentalists joined our slate and thousands more American Jews voted for us in elections for the World Zionist Congress. When people join the Green Zionist Alliance slate, donate to support our efforts, and vote for us in elections they know that they are having a real impact to green Israel.
Our largest project is called Jewcology — think of a mash-up between Jewish and ecology. Consisting of more than 1,000 Jewish-environmental resources, Jewcology is the largest library of Jewish-environmental resources available online. It features a map of Jewish-environmental initiatives, pedagogical materials and Jewish-environmental divrei Torah for every holiday and even for every Torah portion. Part of the beauty of Jewcology is that since we operate it as a web site, it can reach Jews who otherwise would not have access to Jewish-environmental activities that tend to be focused where Jews are concentrated — in major metropolitan areas. Multiple times I’ve had strangers in other countries refer me to Jewcology when they found out that I was a Jewish environmentalist. (Little did they know that I’m involved in running it.)
Our newest project is called Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth. It’s a project that we run collaboratively with the interfaith-environmental group GreenFaith. We have had more than 100 rabbis, cantors and clerical students sign up — including chief rabbis of some countries — as part of a statement that caring for the environment is an important part of Judaism and Jewish practice.
Our regional project is called EcoJews. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, EcoJews is perhaps the oldest Jewish-environmental project on the West Coast. EcoJews has long provided Jewish-environmental social activities, often centered around holidays.
Greg Lawrence, The Tribe: Miami, FL
Mission: The Tribe cultivates a supportive, stimulating, inclusive environment for South Florida’s diverse young Jewish professionals, empowering them with the skills to become leaders and take positive action in support of our community and beyond.
I have had the pleasure of leading The Tribe, a Jewish young professionals community, leadership building incubator and volunteer hub in Miami for the last 3 1⁄2 years. In that time I have taken a community organizing/Relational Judaism approach to building the leadership capacity of Miami’s Jewish young professionals. By meeting for lunch or coffee with Tribesters following their involvement in one of our many engagement opportunities, we collectively flesh out their interests and skill sets, identifying how The Tribe and said Tribester can symbiotically help one another grow and flourish. Whether it’s leading a board meeting, schmoozing at one of our nightlife holiday celebrations, volunteering with Miami’s underserved community, speaking from the bima at High Holidays, hosting trivia night, or facilitating a Tu B’Shevat Seder, my intent is to ensure that I’m creating an optimal container for Tribesters to achieve the social, networking, spiritual, romantic, leadership, or volunteer experience they are seeking in that moment. Additionally, with The Tribe having a strong social media presence and my being the familiar voice of said presence, I am more accessible to Tribesters who wish to reach out and get involved. As a result, this yields more frequent and meaningful engagement opportunities for Tribesters due to current/potential community members’ increased comfort in their ability to reach out to the organization/me.
The Tribe is attractive to its participants because we are a Jewish community organization without a Jewish agenda. We are especially attractive to young professionals who are secular, Reform, Conservative, just Jewish, those interested in Judaism, and non-Jewish partners of Jews. While many of our events are largely rooted in Jewish holidays (Shabbat, Havdalah, Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, High Holidays), those with any religious content are based on Reform/Universal Spiritual precepts and practices. We offer opportunities, at least monthly, to repair the world through our volunteering with various Miami youth organizations whose kids benefit from positive adult interactions. And some events, like our pool party and trivia night, are simply an opportunity for Jewish young professionals to connect without any Jewish lens whatsoever.
For those who want to take it a step further, we are a Jewish leadership incubator, providing leadership opportunities via participation in event host committees, the hosting of Shabbat dinners, volunteering onsite at events and in consultation capacities in the background, and participation in our highly active board. Given our multiple thresholds and depth levels we provide something for everyone to meaningfully engage as a member of The Tribe.
Stephanie Levin,Gan Tzedek at the Peninsula JCC, Foster City, CA
Gan Tzedek, our Justice Garden, grows vegetables and fruit for a local shelter for homeless families. The mission of this program is to bring the work of tikkun olam to life – for garden caretakers to use their own hands to help their neighbors in need, to understand why caring for the earth and caring for the community are obligations the entire Jewish community holds and to provide a space for deep and meaningful Jewish learning in a pluralistic setting that is welcoming of all Jewish people regardless of their Jewish knowledge or practice and is also welcoming to people of all faith traditions.
Children in our community (preschoolers, after-school students, campers) and their families are the primary caretakers of our garden. They tend seedlings in our greenhouse, plant young plants into our garden beds and care for and eventually harvest produce. The children learn about Jewish values through their work including concepts of tikkun olam, kol yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, and pe’ah. One of the most unique aspects of the program is that people of all ages and backgrounds can participate – it’s open to everyone. There are ways for young children, teens, adults and seniors to help and several of our garden beds are designed as “enabled beds” which meet ADA standards for wheelchair accessibility.
William Levin, Alliance Community Reboot (ACRe): Southern New Jersey
In 1882 a group of 43 Jewish families emigrated from Russia to escape persecution and, aided by the Baron de Hirsch fund, formed The Alliance Colony in South NJ, the first Jewish agricultural community in North America. The colonists farmed successfully for several decades. Generations later, only a handful of Jewish landowners remained.
Alliance Community Reboot (ACRe) seeks to rebuild Jewish farm-based community in Southern New Jersey, on the site of the original Alliance settlement. ACRe is building an active farm with strong Jewish and agricultural education components, rooted in the values of sustainability, food justice and Jewish education.
William and wife, Malya Levin, first conceived of Alliance Community Reboot in 2014. As the great-great-grandson of Moses Bayuk, leader of the Alliance Colony, William had never truly connected with his Jewish agricultural roots or the ancestral farmland his family still owned. Inspired by their first visit to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center for Sukkahfest in 2014, William and Malya realized they had the potential to contribute to the Jewish farming movement, which has experienced a resurgence among the younger generation of American Jews.
The ensuing years were challenging but fruitful. ACRe now operates on 70 acres of historic family farmland, including the modern farmhouse, Victorian-era Moses Bayuk House and Alliance Synagogue. The organization was incubated by the Hazon Hakhel program for Jewish intentional communities, and members participated in two Kenissa: Communities of Meaning national consultations.
ACRe successfully transitioned the fields to organic farming and has hosted dozens of Jewish community eventssince 2016. In 2021 ACRe launched their first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in partnership with the Bartee family, a pilot program made possible by EJF Philanthropies in furtherance of Black-Jewish relations.
Rabbi Aaron Levy, Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism, Toronto, ON
Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism is a grassroots Toronto community fusing Jewish tradition and progressive values through spirituality, learning, and culture. Makom creates inclusive space that inspires diverse participants to explore together how Judaism can meaningfully enrich our lives. Since 2009, Makom has grown tremendously due to our openness as a community and focus on high-quality experiences.
Makom offers a new and refreshing paradigm of an open Jewish community, especially in the context of Toronto. Makom is independent; denominational labels don’t matter. Adamantly secular, religiously liberal and traditionally observant Jews come together for joyous services, meditation, holiday programs, adult education, family activities, art gallery openings, concerts, and more. Makom’s two rabbis span liberal and traditional approaches to Judaism. Particularly in ritual matters, Makom cultivates an overarching ethos of pesharah – mutual compromise – for the sake of creating cohesive community and engaging in soul-stirring experiences together. For example, Makom’s services are uniquely structured as an egalitarian minyan and a halakhically traditional minyan side by side, praying together.
Everyone is welcome: Jews and non-Jews of all ages, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Makom fosters diversity through active friendliness and accessibility. Individual programs are free, inexpensive, or often Pay What You Can. Makom’s membership model asks members to set their own goals for commitment to Makom in three areas: participation, donation, and volunteering. Anyone – adult or child, Jew or non-Jew – can become a member.
For nearly two years, Makom’s primary, multipurpose space has been an intimate storefront on a main, high-pedestrian-traffic street in downtown Toronto. Passersby can find out about upcoming programs from flyers visible from the sidewalk or just walk in to learn about Makom or speak with a rabbi. Makom’s large front window plays host to FENTSTER – meaning “window” in Yiddish – an artist-run exhibition space presenting rotating, site-specific installations of contemporary art connected to the Jewish experience. The visually striking art works in the window attract the attention of many hundreds of people each day, some of whom are moved to inquire about Judaism or Makom. Makom’s storefront, built in 1910, has a step at the entrance, so we had a ramp made to enable people with mobility impairments to enter.
Makom’s openness is often what initially attracts people, many of whom haven’t been involved in organized Jewish life in years. But what makes new participants want to return are the meaningful experiences they have with us. We consciously craft our programs to offer rich substance and depth, whether soulful and song-filled services, thoughtful text-based learning, or family programs with activities for children and adults both separately and together. Makom Afterschool provides Hebrew-immersion and pluralistic Jewish education up to five days a week for children in three downtown neighborhoods, right in their public schools. Makom ATID – meaning “future” and also an acronym for Afterschool Torah Im Derekh-eretz (Torah with Ways of the World) – delivers Hebrew and Judaic learning for pre-teens twice a week. In all that we do, we think carefully about how to facilitate positive, high-quality Jewish experiences.
Jeff Levy-Lyons, Jewish Climate Action Network-NY
The world is clearly in a climate crisis and I’ve been involved in addressing that crisis with various organizations – secular and religious. Jewish Climate Action Network NY (JCAN-NY) sits at the intersection of environmentalism and faith. We invite Jews from various “flavors” of Jewish life to put their reverence for God’s creation into meaningful action. With the moral and ethical underpinning of our faith, guided and reinforced by tradition and Torah, we move into the areas of advocacy, education, and consumer choices to activate the New York Jewish community.
Having formed in early 2017, JCAN is still in its infancy. We have a steering committee of five and regularly draw approximately 20 people to our monthly meetings. We spent 2017 focused on supporting specific city and state initiatives. In NYC, we supported the divestment of pension funds from fossil fuel-producing corporations. This effort has now gained traction and both the city and state have committed to moving to full divestment. We are advocating for the city to retro-fit city buildings to meet new energy efficient standards. At the state level, we are part of a coalition to push legislation that moves NY to 100% renewable energy and puts a fee on carbon. We’ve met with state representatives, attending rallies, and helped promote the Sandy5 march across the Brooklyn Bridge to commemorate the 5th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.
For 2018, JCAN-NY is kicking off a “Living in Balance” initiative to focus on the connections between the climate crisis and consumer/lifestyles choices. We are creating a community of practice to support members making small and large changes to align with Jewish and personal values.
I recently hosted a vegan potluck after Kabbalat Shabbat services at my shul, Romemu, and used that event to shine a light on the climate crisis and promote involvement in JCAN-NY. In 2018 we will be looking for ways to replicate that event at other NYC shuls.
In February we will co-host an event with Hazon and the Manhattan JCC to educate and activate more people in the work.
Naomi Malka, Adas Israel Community Mikvah, Washington D.C.
A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath, requiring “living waters” sourced from rain. Oceans, rivers and other natural bodies of water are all kosher mikvahs. The ritual of immersion, whether it happens indoors or out, is rooted in centuries of Jewish tradition. It is a place to experience an embodied spirituality and can connect a person to God, to their own body, to their ancestors and to the water cycle of our planet. The Adas Israel Community Mikvah was built in 1989 and serves the entire Greater Washington area. We are proud that over 40 local clergy perform conversions here, that over 400 immersions take place and that 600+ people of all ages attend educational programs each year. Our goal for every visitor, whether they come to immerse or to learn, is to expand access to and understanding of the core practice of ritual immersion in Judaism.
As the only progressive and pluralist mikvah in this region, our principles are based on both Halacha and the values of our synagogue. And as a leading member of the “new mikvah movement,” pioneered by Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA, all of our programming emphasizes the centrality of water in Jewish texts and traditions. We are shifting the conversation about mikvaot away from purity vs. impurity and reframing the experience of immersion as a simple yet powerful ritual of transition.
Mikvah visits for the traditional mitzvot of immersing monthly, becoming a bride or a groom, making dishes kosher, converting, and preparing spiritually for Shabbat or holidays are regularly welcomed here. Creative reasons to immerse–such reaching a milestone birthday, marking the end of a period of mourning, coming out as LGBTQ, becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, or celebrating an anniversary—are becoming more and more common each year. In fact, the number of immersions that we facilitate each year has more than doubled over the last ten years; simultaneously the percentage of conversions out of the total number of visits has fallen from 90% to below 50%.
Immersion in the mikvah is a highly personal and spiritual experience. We respect the privacy and dignity of each visitor. Our highest value is the holiness of the body. Every person, regardless of age, color, size, marital status, gender or ability, is welcome here. We train our volunteer mikvah guides to facilitate meaningful immersions and to empower people to make their own decisions about how to prepare for and perform this ritual.
One of our signature programs is called “Bodies of Water.” It’s an introduction to mikvah as a tool for body positivity and healthy decision-making from a Jewish perspective, designed for kids ages 10+. Participants watch a demonstration immersion by someone in their bathing suit, explore different ceremonies for mikvah, practice mindful eating with brachot, and try Jewish yoga. The underlying message of this experience is that the mikvah is here to support each member of our community throughout our lives.
Leora Mallach, Ganei Beantown, Boston, MA
The local Jewish community is, in many ways, fragmented and disconnected. It exists in silos: within buildings, denominations, and geographic boundaries. For community to thrive it needs connections within, and outside of, existing institutions. M. Scott Peck writes, “Perhaps the first step, then, toward community on a grander scale lies in the acceptance of the fact that we are not, nor can we ever be, all the same.”
Ganei Beantown (Beantown Jewish Gardens) is building community through experiential food and agriculture education rooted in Jewish text, tradition, and culture. Historical frameworks, tradition, and ancestors’ stories offer guidance for our contemporary community in our respect for each other, as well as the resources and systems that support us.
By partnering with established Jewish institutions and organizations, we are integrating with existing frameworks of community engagement, while simultaneously building new entry points into Jewish life. Ganei Beantown brings people together for agricultural and food celebrations and learning from a uniquely Jewish perspective. We consult with Jewish institutions to create environmental programs and infrastructure, such as communal learning gardens. We host pluralistic, experiential learning opportunities such as homesteading workshops, that teach skills (beer brewing, canning, etc.) along with Jewish values and texts. We host community-wide holiday celebrations that pair contemporary holiday ritual with ancient agricultural practices – such as a Sukkot celebration on a local farm. Lastly, we organize the Boston Jewish Food Conference (BJFC), an annual day-long opportunity for Jews of all denominations and backgrounds to share knowledge of food systems and build bonds across experiences.
We are engaging in Jewish community building on a local level that transcends institutional walls and denominations, thus creating a foundation upon which to model our national landscape. The people who engage with Ganei Beantown programs value connections to the land that sustains us, and to the people in their community who rely on the same resources they do for survival. Developing environmental stewardship as an authentic and compelling expression of Jewish life forges new connections between people and groups, as well as nourishes our bodies and spirits.
Elan Margulies, Hazon, Brooklyn, NY
At Hazon, our programs aim to both strengthen Jewish life and to making this world healthier and more sustainable. Through creative programming, we cultivate the conditions necessary to develop a sense of belonging. These programs combine and emphasize creativity, service and community to address the challenges of modernity, environment and Jewish life. At Hazon, creativity and service cultivate the conditions for our participants to wholly engage and build community. In this way we foster a sense of belonging.
A key question of our times is how to connect viscerally, directly, and in an unmediated way with our tradition. Creating physical ritual objects is an avenue of expression that allows for the unique resonance with traditional patterns and cycles. When a ritual object is ours, the ritual is ours. The alienation of ritual is a component of the fragmentation that distances Jews from their Judaism. Whether the object is made by the user or is chosen, having handmade items with flaws and character flavors our religious expression. While many places in our lives deserve this creative uniqueness, this touch of the human hand, ritual objects are the natural place to start. With our rituals we are asked to slow down, take notice, and G!d-willing, delight in our unique connection. By using a DIY, hands-on approach we cultivate the joy of the creative spirit.
Another thing that separates the Jewish environmental field from the secular environmental field is the intended role of humanity. In secular environmentalism we are taught that we are over-exploiting the world’s resources. We see this with the decline of fish stocks, forests or the growing impact of global warming. In this worldview, the best thing we can do for the environment is less. Less meat, less travel, less “fun”! Generally speaking, secular environmentalism doesn’t offer an alternative for what the positive vision of humanity can be and it especially neglects the role of individuals. However, Jewish tradition counters with narratives about the role humans can and must play to “tend and till” in the Garden.
Kohenet Annie Matan, Matanot Lev, Toronto, ON
Matanot Lev (Gifts of the Heart) is the only non-traditional Jewish community in Toronto. Its primary goal is to widen the doorway to spiritual Jewish engagement for those who have felt left out. Matanot Lev provides welcoming, accessible, warm and meaningful Jewish experiences to Jews and seekers of all backgrounds. This community is fully inclusive to interfaith couples and families, LGBTQ+ folks, patrilineal Jews, Jews by choice and anyone who has felt marginalized or alienated in mainstream Jewish spaces. My mission is to support those who come to me in being their most selves. My secondary goal is to offer experiences that are relevant, engaging and meaningful in people’s lives today. With an emphasis on kavanah over kevah, our Shabbatot, holidays, and workshops offer experiential modes of connection with self, community and spiritual wisdom through a Jewish lens. We chant, meditate, walk, co-create ritual, share, journal, make art, laugh, cry, hug, hide, seek and are found together. Community members and participants report feeling connected and engaged at a level they have felt nowhere else in their Jewish or spiritual lives. Matanot Lev experiences inspire people to come back to the community and to share what they are learning with friends and family to grow their spiritual and Jewish lives.
The tropes of Matanot Lev’s liturgy are more love for everyone (beginning with ourselves) and that making more space to be our most selves through slowing down, remembering to breathe, listening deeply and speaking up and out when called for, will bring about the world we are all waiting for with our own hands, voices and feet.
Still really in its toddlerhood, Matanot Lev is already becoming a haven of connection for Jews in Toronto. Our youngest members are the new babies of young adults and our elders are in their 60s and 70s. Current offerings include Shabbat chanting circles on Saturdays, wellness and spirituality workshops, a Friday morning Shabbat experience for children ages 0-4 with their grown-ups and family-focused holiday experiences that prioritize being with family and community over doing more things.
The key factor that makes Matanot Lev stand out from any other offering in Toronto today is that everyone is Jewish enough, expressions of belief and disbelief in God/dess are welcome and each experience we share, while linked to our ancestors, is tailored to us, today through choices about language and modes of engagement.
Elad Nehorai, Hevria, Brooklyn, NY
Hevria’s mission is to foster, nurture, and empower “out-of-the-box” Jewish thinkers and creators. Ultimately, we dream of creating a spiritual Jewish 60s Greenwich Village. We believe that village can exist online, and we are fully committed to realizing that reality. We also envision a world where these villages can start to be built in the “real” world, starting with Crown Heights.
Our audience is largely drawn by the awareness that this is a community created by peers, one that is literally creating together in concert with the community itself. This means that even a casual reader has the potential to contribute to creating the community he or she dreams for him or herself. In a world in which so many communities are built from the top down, and with a specific “end” in mind for their members (becoming more religious, more politically aligned, etc), having a community that empowers its members to be leaders and allows them to determine their own ends is a rare and vital outlet. For a community of creative thinkers, it is even more important.
Rabbi Dev Noily, Kehilla Community Synagogue, Oakland, CA
My mission at Kehilla Community Synagogue is to grow strong new branches on the tree of our sacred community, drawing on the teachings of our ancestors to support each person’s spiritual path, and to guide us together as we answer the call to justice. In these distressing times, many of us feel the urgent need to be in community and to build solidarity and allyship with targeted and vulnerable groups.
Thirty years ago, Kehilla was an edgy start-up. Led by its visionary founder, Rabbi Burt Jacobson, as a “synagogue without walls” Kehilla was a place where Jews who weren’t welcome elsewhere could make a home. Jews who wanted to work for justice for Palestinians, Jews who were uncomfortable with G-d language, Jews who were feminists, and later, Jews who were queer. In 2010, when I arrived at Kehilla, the synagogue had lots of walls and doors, having recently acquired a big old church building. But in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, Kehilla wasn’t sure if it could afford to keep its walls. Kehilla’s demographic peak was made up of people who were about 55 to 75 years old. There was an abundance of adult activity—political, intellectual and spiritual. A generation of children had been born and raised and become adults in the web of this community. But the once overcrowded religious school had declining enrollment. The community’s present was robust, but its future, ten or twenty years ahead, seemed uncertain.
I was inspired by Kehilla’s mission of bringing together Jewish spiritual practice with building community and pursuing racial, economic and environmental justice. I wanted to help grow another generation in Kehilla – one that could carry on the core vision, while also introducing new ideas and practices and having the freedom to create community in new ways. The possibilities for intergenerational connection and integration are exciting. So many of Kehilla’s long-time members have made incredible contributions to justice-building. They include elected officials, founders of thriving social transformation organizations, writers, artists, healers of all kinds, and people who live lives of service and integrity. Kehilla is a treasure trove of mentors, teachers and friends for young activists, thinkers, healers and artists.
Over the past five years, Kehilla’s membership has grown about 15%, with most of that growth among young adults and families with young children. We seeded a thriving young adult group, Glitter Kehilla, which operates both independently and in connection with Kehilla. We’ve also partnered, formally or informally, with Urban Adamah, IfNotNow, SVARA and many interfaith and community organizing groups.
We continue to support and deepen Kehilla’s core of spiritual practice, while making our walls more porous—bringing our Jewish practice into the streets, and inviting an ever-wider circle of seekers and activists into our community.
Kohenet Stacey Sephirah Oshkello, Living Tree Alliance, Moretown, VT
Living Tree Alliance is a multigenerational, ecologically oriented initiative, dedicated to redefining community, regenerating land and revitalizing culture. We are building a cohousing community, a regenerative working lands cooperative and offering place-based transformative, education programs that nourish the mind, body and spirit of all participants.
The cohousing village is permitted for seven residences, a common house and workshop. The village design is compact, accessible and ecologically oriented, balancing the dynamics of community engagement with the needs for personal space. The building design and construction is aesthetically inspiring, ecologically responsible and crafted with the help of skilled local tradesfolk. Our residential culture is oriented towards the observance of Jewish traditions, rituals and cycles while maintaining a spiritually inclusive consciousness.
The working lands comprise thirteen acres of farmland and sixty-three acres of forestland managed by a collective of residents and community members. We apply principles of regenerative agriculture in our farm design and forest management plan. Lands are leased to members of the collective for growing a diverse range of annual produce, grazing small livestock, establishing perennial agricultural systems, maple sugaring, cordwood production and sourcing natural building materials. These lands are connected to regional forest and river corridors, adjacent to the local high school and are well suited to our goals of living in an ecologically conscious way, practicing small sustainable land-based businesses and providing vibrant educational programming.
The enrichment and educational programs we offer create opportunities for learning, insight, healing and inspiration and have impacts across age, gender, racial, and spiritual spectra. The programs connect people to each other, community, the earth, and tradition. Our programs and community are living examples of how dependency and commitment to land and the traditions of our ancestors can heal present cultural maladies. We design programs in collaboration with local schools and community groups to create opportunities for youth and families to root themselves into the rhythms of the seasons through the empowering work of the homestead arts and based in Jewish wisdom and values.
Kasey Passen, One Table, New York, NY
The first 14 years of my career have been dedicated to curating unique, personalized and intentional culinary experiences. As a chef and culinary director in San Francisco, I catered hundreds of dinners and created an education center to bring people together to learn about food and wine pairing. My wanderlust took me abroad to Tuscany where I studied the unique culinary traditions of the region. In Italy I learned the value of slowing down to enjoy good food and connect with people around the table. Coming together to break bread, drink wine and share life in an intentional way is a deep cultural value that connects Italians to each other, provides deep joy and gives life meaning. Inspired by my travels, I started my own company in Chicago to bring people together for customized, meaningful life celebrations. My personal mission to build community around the table for deeply meaningful experiences is the reason I was inspired to join the OneTable team.
OneTable empowers Jewish young adults in their 20s and 30s to build community by creating their own authentic Shabbat dinners and rituals, ultimately forming a lifelong practice. Millennials are stressed out and lonely, craving real-life connections, but needing assistance to make it happen. Shabbat dinner fulfills the desire for real-life connection by creating a space to slow down, end the week with intention, and connect face-to-face by welcoming guests, and savoring a meal. OneTable provides hosts and guests with easily accessible tools and resources, making these rituals not only attainable, but sustainable.
While our approach to Shabbat dinner itself is not prescriptive, we value the table as the literal platform on which millennials can begin to think about their Jewish identity and personal values. A OneTable dinner is a gateway to so much more: the transformative power of ritual, the traditional value of welcoming of guests, ownership over an authentic Jewish experience, and an opportunity to deepen their Jewish practice. We know that by harnessing the unique generational personality of millennials, there is an enormous opportunity to secure the place of Shabbat in the evolving idea and practice of Jewish peoplehood.
The mission of OneTable is an extension of my personal journey as a community leader, culinary expert and Jew. Although I did not grow up with a Shabbat practice, I have finally found a comfortable place to explore my personal connection to Judaism and meet other young Jews who feel similarly. I am empowered to explore what I want my Friday night to look like, in the framework of Shabbat dinner, because OneTable has given me the freedom and resources to make it possible. After spending so much of my career feeding others around the dinner table, it feels incredible to be fed emotionally, spiritually and figuratively by the OneTable mission. Working for OneTable is so much more than a job, it is who I am and a true calling.
Rabbi Laurie Phillips, Beineinu, New York, NY
Beineinu is committed to offering a personalized path to Jewish life and learning that reflects our evolving needs and aspirations in a changing world. Beineinu means “between us” and reflects the commitment to empowering people to claim and craft a personal spiritual pathway that is vibrant and meaningful. Beineinu provides opportunities for people to engage in all aspects of Jewish life. Community gatherings, open to everyone who wants to participate, are held in places and spaces from Brooklyn to Harlem pushes people to deepen their connection to NYC and their Jewish identity. Customized lifecycle, and havurot/family pods experiences provide a framework for more intimate connections with others.
Beineinu is filling the need for New Yorkers to make their own decisions about the contours of their Jewish journeys. We are the only local initiative that we know of building serious, ongoing Jewish community in New York City that is not membership based. We offer rich content and open doors into the depth of our traditions. We are open and welcoming to all.
Participants in Beineinu choose their own entry point, decide how often to engage and are able to decide what is important to them in constructing for themselves a Jewish experience that is relevant and personally meaningful. No aspect of Beineinu is prescriptive – it is entirely choice driven, and customized to the needs, interests and abilities of each individual – so that the process of defining life cycle celebrations, for example, is established based on the input of the user, unlike traditional structures in which users have little to no input on their own lifecycle event.
Beineinu’s havurah component enables people to build (small) Jewish communities in the neighborhood in which they live and forge lasting relationships over time. The havurot are all structured individually; each offers different content, with frequency, gathering times and content tailored to the needs and interests of each particular group.
Because we are not membership-based, we must sustain ourselves using a different financial model. Our hope as we build this organization from the ground up is that Jewish New Yorkers of all stripes will choose their points of entry and engagement. Participants will engage and offer financial support commensurate with the relevance and meaningfulness of the experience for them.
Ahava Rosenthal, Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, Newton, MA
The mission of Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (PTJL) is to provide a forum for parents from across the religious and social spectrum to discover how Jewish values and traditions can guide their parenting experiences. Thoughtful conversations around Jewish text study from ancient and contemporary sources foster greater understanding and engagement with Judaism as well as build community and friendships that extend beyond the classroom. PTJL classes create safe spaces for sharing the ups and downs of parenting while exploring Judaism in a way that is at once relevant and inspiring.
A key component of PTJL’s appeal is its commitment to “meeting parents where they are,” providing numerous ways to access Jewish wisdom. This pledge is fulfilled in numerous ways. Our classes are offered throughout the greater Boston area in a variety of settings ranging from synagogues to living rooms. Our diverse parent-student body attests to our core mission of welcoming all who want to learn from Jewish text and tradition – single parents, LGBTQ, people of other faiths, Jewish non-believers, etc. Yet, what binds our participants together is a common interest in the ways Jewish wisdom can inform their shared goals of being present and thoughtful parents. The curriculum provides multiple entry points to explore Jewish core values, practice and ritual through its broad range of texts. Finally, we carefully match teachers with learning communities so that students feel stimulated and challenged according to their own degree of familiarity with Judaism and Jewish concepts.
As parents learn together, they fulfill a foundational principle of PTJL: that of creating community. Through shared study and discovery, participants build relationships that nourish their need for adult connection as well as their aspirations to be caring and effective parents. In a society where young families often live far from familial roots, PTJL provides a supportive space and peer network. For many of our participants, PTJL is the first step in a longer journey towards Jewish communal connection, be it with congregational affiliation, Jewish preschool or summer camps, etc. For parents whose Jewish family lives may have been more compartmentalized, PTJL awakens within them an appreciation for the beauty and power of sharing Jewish experiences with others.
Beyond adopting and experimenting with Jewish traditions and rituals, parents have been inspired to view the universal challenges of parenting through the lens of Jewish wisdom. One parent wrote about her newfound understanding of the value of compromise with her pre-teen, a concept explored in a text that explains how the placement of the mezuzah (on a diagonal) represents a compromise between Rashi, who said that it should be affixed vertically and Rabbi Tam, who believed it should be affixed horizontally. This mother’s words personify PTJL’s mission of fostering seamless connections between Jewish teachings and parenting: “When I walk into my home,” she wrote, “I now see not just an angled mezuzah, but a cultural reminder that the opinions, feelings, and perspectives of my growing children need to be given weight and credence and respect.”
Jon Adam Ross, The In(heir)itance Project, New York, NY
Before Covid, America was already dealing with a pandemic of antipathy. The isolation, economic devastation, and national reckoning with racism of the past year has only served to fortify our silos. The In[HEIR]itance Project was born in 2015 as an experimental playmaking project, aimed at activating difficult civic conversations. Our unique process sits at the intersections of sacred and artistic practices. We endeavor, through collaborative artmaking, to investigate what we as HEIR’s do with our shared and individual inheritances (myths, narratives, ideas, theologies, systems, etc.) and how we can apply them to hard conversations in our communities. And we do that work by inviting the community into the process as co-creators at every step.
Since its founding, The In[HEIR]itance Project has created original pieces of theater in communities spread across the country (Charleston, Seattle, Kansas City, etc), engaging over five thousand participants. And 100% of the box office receipts, over $30,000 to date, has gone to local artists and arts organizations to continue the civic conversations through their own artistic practice.
Our first endeavor paired stories from the book of Genesis with topical civic conversations through an open access artistic process, becoming The Genesis Plays: 5 plays in 5 American cities. Our five pilot communities were Minneapolis, Charleston, Seattle, Austin, and Kansas City. Our next series, exploring Exodus narratives, has led to projects in NYC (with formerly incarcerated New Yorkers), Omaha (refugees), Cincinnati (exploring the legacy of the Underground Railroad as an Exodus narrative) and Norfolk/Virginia Beach (white flight as a subversion of Exodus because it was the oppressors who fled). Other work has included projects related to WWII (West Point), tribalism (Harlem, NYC), inherited customs (Detroit), and the environment (Palm Beach), along with residencies in California and Wisconsin. The Covid-19 pandemic instigated the launch of our first virtual project, CYCLES: Revelations.
In our project in Omaha, Nebraska we worked with recently settled refugees and the Nebraskans who do and don’t want them there. Partnering with faith communities, arts institutions, schools, universities, and civic leadership, we applied our unique approach to open artistic process where everyone is invited to work together to turn their lived experiences around a civic conversation and a sacred text (in this case refugee resettlement and Exodus) into a play that is created and shaped with and by the community.
During one devising session with teens at a church in Elkhorn, Nebraska, we were told a story that encapsulates America: An Afghan man was a translator for the US Army and was killed. His wife and children applied for and received asylum from the US. When the local resettlement agency called the church to see if they would be the local sponsor for this Muslim family, the pastor told us and the students at the end of our workshop, the board didn’t know what to do. They were torn because helping refugees was such a ‘liberal’ thing to do. But they realized helping the military was a ‘conservative’ thing to do, so they went ahead and sponsored the family. It was dispiriting to think that such binary, political tropes were getting in the way of common human decency. But those teens from the church participated in an open rehearsal a couple of months later at the local university with around 80 teens (some in yarmulkes, some in hijabs, some in their native cultural wardrobe, etc.) for a profound night of sharing perspectives and co-creating art.
What we’ve learned over the past few years of doing this challenging and exciting work is that there is no universal, true version of the narrative. There is only his truth and her truth and their truth and our truth. We’re making theater between a rock and a hard place. And though it’s hard work, it feels like sacred work: putting communities in conversation with each other and their own shared narratives. The In[HEIR]itance Project has evolved and will continue to evolve to serve partner communities with our unique approach to collaborative theater inspired by shared inheritances.
Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, Bechol Lashon: Brooklyn, NY
The Enlightenment Period, also known as the Age of Reason forever changed the face of religion. Wisdom, Knowledge and pursuit of individual expression came the center for how we communicate between our individual self, our communities, our society at large and even God.
The establishments that have largely monopolized faith, knowledge and wisdom for millennia no longer carried the same weight and gravitas as they once did.
Major religions of the West, namely Judaism, Islam and Christianity were presented with many challenges, and like our ancestors have done for thousands of years, they responded.
Though they responded and adapted, the question is, How well? What have we inherited from our parents and grandparents? What is left up to the Cosmos, and what is in our reach for social change, for how we inspire a start-up generation to believe that their tradition can hold them, now too?
Along the lines of the research done at Harvard by Casper ter Kuile on “How we Gather?” And “Faithful,” are we able to respond to the generation’s needs, and what mediums make the most sense for this generation as interface between Man and Man and Man and God?
This generation’s tenor will not bend to any institution, or Absolute anything. Society shapes religion, and religion must listen and respond.
Hazon, Bechol Lashon, Carmel Academy | The Beis Community and the Joint Distribution Committee, are the organizations I work for, followed by the ones I partner with.
They have many things in common, but two of the most important elements to me are:
1) Radical inclusivity
2) Utility, Visibility, Reciprocity, Village-Centered, Warm, Spiritual
Rabbi Jan Salzman, Ruach haMaqom, Burlington, VT
The mission of Ruach haMaqom, established in 2016, is to grow and establish a center for Jewish life in Burlington Vermont and the surrounding rural area that is based on innovative ritual and religious services, creating chances to play with each other, opportunities to learn and becoming a home for a wide array of social action initiatives. We are dedicated to bringing our relationship as Jews and our non-Jewish friends and families into alignment with the needs of our local economy and the natural world; to revitalize, especially for the young and unaffiliated Jews, a vigorous, joyful, and spiritual connection to the future of our people; to connect how we act in the world with the impact that it has on our society and the planet; to honor the past, remolding it into a form that is accessible and engaging; to create programming and experiences that resound in all of our facets: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.
RhM is situated in a synagogue that is the oldest synagogue in the state of Vermont, dating back to 1895. Its name is Ahavat Gerim, and has been in continuous operation since the building’s inception, though at times, known by different names. Part of our mission is to upgrade this beautiful jewel of a building into once again becoming a center of community. For five generations, Jews have worshipped in this building, and descendents from the original arrivals from Lithuania still live and work in the Burlington area. The current stewards are aging and dying. They are overjoyed at the infusion of new life and energy into the building and are working with RhM to help bring it back to its former glory combined with becoming something that will reach into the future. There is a mikva (broken at this time), cemetery and an active chevre kadisha that is used by Jews from around the state. It is located in the center of what was known as “Little Jerusalem” back when the neighborhood was filled with a Jewish population. We will build on this local history to create a safe, accessible space in order to host events, performances, art happenings, and so forth. Responding to the needs of the community, and growing from those needs, is the seedbed of our re-generation.
Individuals and families have been drawn to RhM as the only unaffiliated synagogue in northern Vermont. For those who are familiar with Jewish Renewal, RhM is the only synagogue led by a Rabbi who received smicha through ALEPH; Rabbi Jan received smicha from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 2010, and has been the face of JR in Vermont since that time. In the Jewish ecosystem of Northern Vermont, there is a Conservative, a Reform, a Hillel, and Chabad. Ruach haMaqom is unique in this bouquet, and therefore appeals to those who do not need an affiliated congregation.
Irene Lehrer Sandalow, SketchPad, Chicago, IL
SketchPad, Chicago’s Jewish innovation space, opened in December 2017. As Chicago’s only designated coworking space, SketchPad is the home for 19 nonprofit organizations, representing the full gamut of Jewish life in Chicago. The organizations’ missions range from Jewish education and community building to social justice and community advocacy, and everything in between.
SketchPad’s mission is to maximize the impact of our member organizations by fostering collaboration, innovation, and resource-sharing in a supportive and joyful environment while promoting Jewish values such as inclusivity, environmentalism and hachnasat orchim, or radical hospitality. More than a workspace, SketchPad also serves as a cultural, intellectual, and progressive hub for Chicago’s Jewish nonprofit professionals, and a model for a new type of Jewish community space that focuses on translating Jewish values into practical, people-focused outcomes.
One of the essential elements that appeals to SketchPad members is the emphasis on collaboration. From the start, the grassroots impetus and process of creating SketchPad, suggested unique opportunities for the implementation of a shared vision. SketchPad was founded by a collaborative group of professionals representing three organizations – Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad, and Avodah. By planning this project together, SketchPad’s founding organizations exercised their collaborating “muscles,” asking everyone to advance both their own organizational needs and the collective needs of current and prospective SketchPad space members.
Another essential element behind the founding of SketchPad was the creation of a supportive community of colleagues. These colleagues serve as sounding boards for one another, providing feedback on new ideas and, when possible, introducing each other to resources, people, and networks. SketchPad facilitates opportunities for members to share their ideas, questions, and concerns with a diverse community of professionals through member gatherings and events. SketchPad is becoming a “one-stop-shop” for Jewish professionals to explore diverse entries for Jewish engagement and multiple expressions of “doing” Jewish.
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, WAYS OF PEACE, New York, NY
WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources promotes justice and kindness across lines of diversity and throughout the life cycle. Our name and mission derive from timeless Jewish principles of sustaining the poor, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and consoling the bereaved—“for these are ways of peace” beyond crisis and conflict (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Gittin). The organization is a social micro-enterprise, the outgrowth of decades of service in both the United States and Israel.
WAYS OF PEACE facilitates transformation through compelling programs, unique publications, and life-changing consultations. Our two primary initiatives—Sacred Undertaking and Generous Justice—address the core spiritual, social justice, and sustainability challenges of death and money, respectively.
Sacred Undertaking is a multi-generational model of Jewish connection, essential to the renewal of our commitments to each other and to our earth. It restores the Jewish burial fellowship as integral to a truly caring community—preserving vital natural resources, affirming human equality, taming fears of death, strengthening mutual support, and renewing the circle of life.
Generous Justice is the only organized Jewish presence among today’s transformative philanthropy initiatives for “just-giving”—simple, regular, and fair. Through text study, storytelling, action/reflection, and cultural development, Generous Justice connects Jewish millennials, Gen-Xers, boomers and elders in transformative dialogue to create a world of greater fairness and fulfillment for all.
Modeling our commitment to just-giving as a social micro-enterprise, WAYS OF PEACE donates at least 10 percent of all net staff compensation to other non-profits that uphold our core mandates of promoting justice and kindness across lines of diversity.
Rabbi Dana Saroken, The Soul Center, Baltimore, MD
The Soul Center is a spiritual start up, powered by Judaism. We work tirelessly to create a new approach to our ancient traditions and Judaism – an approach and programs that feel exciting, connective, meaningful, relevant and that can fit into people’s busy lives. Our target group is 37-65-year olds and our culture is a culture of “yes” and possibilities. Our programming focuses on mindfulness, healing, rejuvenation & growth, always with a Jewish twist. Whether we’re doing a mixology tisch – a modern riff on a longstanding Shabbat ritual (with a visiting bartender, three craft cocktails and three shots of Torah in between) or out in a new park each month doing a YogaHike with extraordinary facilitators, our programs fuse things that people care about, can grow from and yearn to make time for in their lives.
The elements that have made the Soul Center compelling are our space – we created a beautiful, sophisticated and elegant space that feels like a residence within a larger institution. People are constantly surprised by the feeling that they get within our walls and the warmth, acceptance and intimacy that they experience while with us. We also work hard to provide the highest level of instruction and provisions of all sorts. From the ambience to our publicity, from refreshments and most importantly – teachers – we want the Soul Center to feel cutting edge, surprising, and indulgent so that people feel nourished and taken care of and ready to re-embrace the world that awaits more inspired, rejuvenated and nurtured when they leave us.
Ruth Schapira, Director of Leadership and Training, The Mussar Institute, Philadelphia, PA
Jewish tradition provides us with a rich corpus of ritual and ethical laws for a purpose— to raise our level of behavior in imitation of the Divine, so that we can create a better social order. So, thousands of years after the giving of the Torah at Sinai and by following biblical injunctions, we should have moved closer to this sublime state. The truth is however, after thousands of years, there is still so much work to be done in terms of how we behave in the world.
Despite all the laws and ethics in our tradition, the stark reality is that a person can understand the mitzvot and even perform them routinely with little awareness or regard for ethics. For example, knowing conceptually that it is important to watch our speech, and even understanding that there are negative consequences to not being careful with what we say does not mean that we have the specific tools for how to change that within ourselves on a consistent basis. So, even when diligent people perfectly follow the law in the most discriminating way, impeccable behavior is not guaranteed. The Mussar movement developed in response to the gap between knowing the law on the one hand and acting ethically on the other.
The Mussar Institute advances the study and practice of mussar, which is a Jewish path of character development and spiritual growth. People have derived benefit from studying the gems of mussar literature as a way not only to provide them with a much-needed connection with Judaism through Jewish texts but because at its foundation, its’ practices have a practical application to one’s life as well. Through the practice of mussar, there is an impact on one’s character over time, and the experience can be transformative.
The process begins with the intentional goal of chochma, of providing the opportunity to engage with our rich wisdom literature, and what we discover is that this journey encourages people to live a life of kedusha. Through in-person courses based in local communities, and real-time online courses, people learn mussar from classic and contemporary sources. At some point, they may opt to enhance their mussar practice by attending experiential retreats and kallot.
The Mussar Institute also offers a range of mussar programs to a diverse group of organizations including Jewish Federations, Synagogues, Early Childhood Centers, Campus Hillels, Jewish Community High Schools and Boards of Jewish Education. The Institute additionally offers specialized training programs for rabbis, mussar group leaders, and for facilitators of mussar courses and programs.
In this way, The Mussar Institute inspires individuals, organizations, and communities to align their hearts and minds with the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.
Brenda Shoshanna, Ph.d., One Tent, New York, NY
For many years my contribution to the Jewish people and to the future generations was foremost in my mind. Coming from a Hasidic background in Borough Park, eloping at eighteen with a non-Jewish man and being lost to my family, I struggled my entire life with what it means to be a truly good Jew? This became a vital koan for me. A koan is a Zen question, which has no logical or rational answer. It cannot be figured out. To solve the koan requires dedication. You must go through the fires of personal experience and grapple with it through deep meditation. Then when the time is ripe, the sssss
After becoming a fervent Zen student with a wonderful Japanese, samurai teacher for over forty years, many things changed. I learned to sit up straight and stop crying. I learned to honor my breath, my life and all others. I stopped judging and clinging to the past. Instead I connected with my innate courage in order to move bravely ahead.
However, my original koan never left me. I was driven to plumb the depth of it. What does it mean to be a good Jew? A real Jew? At the zendo, I had a new Zen name, language and robe. However, I never forgot that the Torah says, if you lose your name, language and clothing, you lose yourself. You are no longer a Jew. This was definitely another koan. At first, I scoffed at it. Now, I’m wondering.
Intermarriage became another koan I lived with. As a woman who had intermarried, I was shunned by the mainstream Jewish community for many years, even though I returned to synagogue with my four young children. Naturally, this only deepened my questioning about what it meant to welcome strangers, be a good Jew and truly follow Torah?
Over the years, I wrote Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen. Many of the other Zen practitioners I met were Jewish. I wrote this book because I wanted to introduce the power and beauty of Torah to my Zen friends. I also wanted to introduce the Jewish community to the power and beauty of Zen practice and show how it would deepen their connection to Hashem.
Sadly, my Jewish Zen friends were not at all interested in hearing anything about God. And, the Jewish community at that time, had no interest in a book with the word Zen in the title. The ones who ultimately loved the book and turned to it actively were the Catholics. I met and began working in an Interfaith capacity with Father Roshi Robert Kennedy, who is both a Jesuit Priest and Zen Master with many Zen groups all over the world. I now give regular talks to his Zen/Catholic sanghas (communities), which combine Zen and the principles of Torah. Many have become very close friends.
As the years went along, in my quest to understand and express my truth, I had the great good fortune to be the playwright in residence at the Jewish Repertory Theater, where several of my plays about Judaism, were performed or read. The theater became my Shul and the wonderful actors and directors there, my chevra. It was incredible to see the old, Jewish neighborhood folks come to performances, resonate and talk heatedly during intermission about their own stories, what they had gone through.
I am not a leader of a congregation. I recoil from hierarchy of any kind. I actually love Hashem’s directive which says: “Come To Me Directly! Not Through An Angel, or Messenger!” In the sitting and learning groups I have in my home there is no teacher, no teaching and no money exchanged. Each has his or her own connection and journey to take. It is not my business to get in the way.
Misha Shulman, School for Creative Judaism, Brooklyn, NY
I had been teaching unaffiliated Jewish kids Judaism for many years. I would prepare them for their b’nai mitzvah, guide their families through the process and lead the services. I had a quickly growing Hebrew school with escalating demand for communal events, which flesh out what Judaism means to unobservant 21st century Jews. I knew I was filling a gap in the community, providing a service that many need. “The synagogue is a place that neither me nor my kids feel comfortable in, not to mention attracted to,” parents would tell me over and over again. “But I am Jewish,” they would continue, “and yearn for ways to explore and express that Jewishness for me and my family.” My work with the School for Creative Judaism, represents a deepening of my commitment to serve these families.
At the School for Creative Judaism (SCJ) we aim to empower a new generation to redefine Judaism and claim it as its own; to give young people the tools required to know, explore and love their tradition; to assist them in developing a rich relationship with spirituality; to connect children to their past – both ancient and recent; to nurture a life-long commitment to Judaism; to provide a platform for families to explore their core values.
At SCJ we don’t shy away from the difficult questions we all have about religion today. On the contrary, we encourage students to have a truthful dialogue about what Judaism, God, the Torah and history actually mean to them. We believe that it is only through an honest dialogue that today’s younger generation will embrace Judaism on their own terms.
The School for Creative Judaism is a home for Jews who see great value in engaging with and exploring Judaism, but are not affiliated with a synagogue or a Jewish denomination. We focus mostly on children, but parents participate in community events and weekly circles of prayer and discussion. While students acquire a similar set of skills as in a more traditional Hebrew School, the open and question-based approach, creates an inviting and stimulating atmosphere.
One of the ways SCJ provides a bridge into the religious world for essentially secular people is through our continuing exploration of the triangle Religion-Art-Politics. All of the teachers in the School are artists, and bring their artistic talents into the classroom. We try to bring to life the line from the Psalms: “Singers and dancers, all my fountains spring from you.” The arts have the capacity to open up both kids and adults who are skeptical of religion and God. Political engagement and discussion, in the tradition of the prophets of Israel, is also central to pulling in those who might distrust religion, and to give contemporary meaning to the ancient traditions. It is in the places where these three forces overlap – religion, art and politics – that we can most easily identify and connect with our spirituality.
Craig Taubman, Pico Union Project, Los Angeles, CA
The Pico Union Project is a multi-cultural community hub committed to living the Jewish principle to love your neighbor as you wish to be loved. We began the project by purchasing the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles, with a plan to create a cultural performing art space.
As we got to know our neighbors, it became clear that we had wildly different needs, dreams and expectations. I’m a middle aged, grey haired, loud and privileged Jewish artist who wanted to create art and culture. Our neighbors were 85% Latino, with household incomes averaging $20K and primarily concerned with food, housing and job security.
We concluded that to succeed in this new community we would need to lead from the outside in, and that change would have to be built on a foundation of trust. We abandoned our vision to be an arts center and, committed to planting gardens and providing our neighbors with free, fresh produce.
As the years passed, the gardens flourished, as did the bond and trust with our neighbors. With time, we expanded our programming to include concerts featuring world class artists as well as weekly services serving Latino, Black, Korean, Muslim and Jewish faith communities.
COVID 19 confirmed that our mission of building community was more critical than ever. It also was a wake-up call to the social injustices endemic to our community. With over 700 deaths, the Pico Union area has the second highest mortality rate in Los Angeles – mostly due to inadequate housing and access to healthcare. Our response was to create a COVID Emergency Fund that pledged no child in our neighborhood would go to bed hungry. The response was extraordinary, enabling us to grow from serving 250 families twice a month to currently distributing free, fresh produce, children’s books, household goods and PPE supplies to 2000 families, twice weekly
Years ago, my daughter taught me the lesson of “OAM” – an acronym for “objective and methodology”. The idea is simple: before you can run your plan, you must plan your run.
While the pandemic has impacted much of our programming methodology, our objective of service, trust and love continues to be at the core of our efforts – and that is what sustains us.
Time is our greatest investment and love, our most valuable asset. There is much work to be done and we are determined to do our part to repair our broken world by first loving our neighbors. Rabbi Hillel was spot on- if not now, when?Is this page useful and interesting? Please consider sharing it with your social networks!