How We Built This 2019

All participants in the 2019 National Kenissa Consultation were asked in advance to describe the “mission” of their efforts, as well as one or two most important elements that made their organization/community compelling to its members. Below you will find their responses, listed in alphabetical order.

Rabbi Dr. Zohar Atkins, Etz Hasadeh, New York, NY

The mission of Etz Hasadeh is to help people pursue wise, meaningful, self-realized lives, guided by the resources of Jewish tradition, the humanities, creative arts, and spiritual-contemplative practice. Etz Hasadeh is both an emergent community oriented around the existential study of Jewish texts, philosophy, and poetry, and a lab for rethinking the field of Jewish education writ large. We promote the development of personalized, psychologically inflected, existential meaning-making skills (​Midrash​, in the broad sense) in a field too often dominated by an exclusive focus on literacy skills (pshat).

Our belief is that a literacy-heavy approach to Jewish education fails to answer the basic question of why Jewish texts and ideas should matter in the first place. A literacy-heavy approach fails to attract and retain those who are seeking a more heart-centric, complex, and individuated path in to the tradition, i.e., most Diaspora Jews. In addition, it creates a communicative gulf between the textually literate and the textually illiterate, leaving ​both​ groups disadvantaged. The spirit of a meaning-oriented, existential approach to Jewish education enables folks with little text-based background and those with a great deal to converse and learn together on shared, democratized ground about their personal stake in what Jewish tradition has to say to them in the present moment.

Etz Hasadeh offers an intervention in the way Tanakah and Rabbinic literature are taught and studied, clearing the way for a ​poetic ​approach to learning that empowers students to engage ancient images and ideas as metaphors for the challenges of contemporary life, and not just as articles of faith or legal instruction (as they are too often read by both critics and defenders). This method holds promise for the future of Hebrew school, day school, yeshiva, and rabbinical school education.

We help both the secular Jew and the religious Jew, and all in between, as well as those with a more ecumenical interest in wisdom at large, discover the joy of thinking and questioning and of recognizing themselves in the ancient past. We are grounded in the belief that every perspective, regardless of training, background, or affiliation, holds unique insight that can both unlock and be unlocked by Torah study. Etz Hasadeh is a pluralistic and trans-denominational community of seekers where breadth and depth, criticism and commitment, universalism and particularism synergize to yield new Torah, new Jews, and new human beings.

Rabbi Bella Bogart-Bayit: Your Jewish Home, St. Augestine, FL

Bayit: Your Jewish Home brings together people committed to building a soulful, inclusive and meaningful Jewish life for all ages and stages. Partnering broadly with individuals and communities, Bayit develops, tests, refines and distributes tools for a Jewish future always under construction.

Bayit’s root metaphor is building, from Talmud (Berakhot 64a):

“Students of the wise increase shalom (peace, completeness) in the world, as it is said (Isaiah 54:13): ‘[Thus,] all your children will be taught of God.’  Don’t read it as ‘your children’ (banayich) but as ‘your builders’ (bonayich).”

Everyone in Jewish life can be a builder.  A living Judaism – building one’s own home in Jewish life – naturally builds Judaism for oneself, others and the future.  Hands-on building is the call of Jewish history, and the call of the Jewish future. This kind of Judaism naturally offers rooms and building tools for all, without exception.  This kind of Judaism is passionately egalitarian. This kind of Judaism draws from and flows through all streams of Jewish life. This kind of Judaism craves experience and meaning more than dogma.  This kind of Judaism fuses ancient designs (text, personal and communal prayer, social justice, rhythms of Jewish time) with modern tools, structures and systems.

Building this kind of Judaism always must be a work in progress, always leaning forward, always “under construction.”  Judaism always has been and must be a wise and playful “remixing” of tradition with innovation – what’s been and what’s coming next. This kind of Judaism uses design tools of research and development.  Effective builders must courageously try, measure, tweak and try again – mindful of both subjective experience and best practices, historical trends and modern demography.

Judaism (like spiritual life writ large) must be inwardly real.  People know what inspires and what alienates, what’s self-reflectively honest and what’s tone-deaf (or worse). Together we can build a Judaism that is compassionate, authentic, and a spiritual home for all.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Chief of Education and Program, Moving Traditions, Montclair, NJ

The mission of Moving Traditions is to embolden teens by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism and inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning.

What I find compelling about this approach to Jewish life is the incredible commitment that I have seen hundreds of mentors trained by Moving Traditions take on as they set aside one day a month to listen and support the teens in their communities. These mentors, many of whom are volunteers, choose to work with middle school and high school students. Guided by our curricula, these mentors are leading groups of teens in a process that challenges them to wrestle with both the personal (self-discovery) and the political (sexism) in the context of ongoing Jewish community. The bonds that they form in these groups are not only a powerful form of support during adolescence but, in the most successful groups, they become a touchstone for their lives in college and life beyond college.

There is a lot of talk in the Jewish world about “engaging” teens and “leadership” models for teens but very little talk about the importance of giving teens the experience of simply being citizens within a Jewish community where everyone’s voice has equal power. Our work in forming ongoing micro-community with teens is grounded in an insight from the late feminist psychologist Sandra Bem. Bem argued that adolescents learn who they are in the context of gender schema – that they look around at peers who share their gender identity and ask themselves if they “measure up” to these expectations. Do I walk like them? Talk like them? Think like them? Dress like them? Look like them? Feel like them?  The further away a teen is from the perceived norms that they see around them, the more likely they will feel alone, isolated, and of low self-worth. But when teens are in a group of peers and can surface the idea that everyone isn’t “measuring up” in the ways we think they are, or that “measuring up” carries a price-tag that may not be worth it, or that “measuring up” is a system designed for someone else’s benefit, then they can find space to be themselves.

One of the favorite Jewish stories that our teens encounter in the program is the story of Reb Zusha on his deathbed.  His students saw that he was crying and they consoled him saying “Why are you crying, rebbe, you are as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham!” Zusha replied “When I get to heaven they aren’t going to ask me why I wasn’t like Moses or Abraham, they will ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusha!”

I think this is a compelling story for teens because in their life development they are just beginning to look back on their childhood and to understand how their personality was formed. It is my hope that the mentors that we train will help each child to live up to the child’s potential, asking, “who are you and how can you grow” as the central question of Jewish education. 

David Bronstein, Taproot, Burlingame, CA

Taproot started in the winter of 2017 as an immersive week of intergenerational study and wisdom exchange where the land drops into the sea in Bolinas, CA.  This was a place for organizers, artists, and ritualists to tap into their Jewish background as a source of sustenance, and belonging.  One year ago, at the start of the pandemic, the stewardship team, made up of Rabbi Diane Elliot, Rabbi Irwin Keller, Rachel Milford, Rachel Plattus, Adam Horowitz, and I, started asking how our particular approach to Jewish healing might be of use in this historic moment.  Our answer was to transition from a retreat model into a year-long training program for community ritualists. We believe that intentionally empowering Jewish spiritual leadership and care beyond traditional clergy strengthens our communities, our justice movements, and our lives.  

We are now half way through this year long cohort of 21 Jewish leaders from 15 states, who carry identities that are underrepresented and marginalized in “mainstream” Judaism. Our participants are part of movements for economic, racial, and immigrant justice, and they are already in some sort of ritual leadership role for their community.  We’re learning about the daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal cycles of Jewish time, the deep structures of prayer, and Jewish ritual structures from our Rabbinic faculty. We are also meeting monthly with mentors, hosting guest teachers, and enjoying emergent chevruta study on Jewish plant magic, and prayer/ study.

It took courage for the stewardship team to agree to step into a fuller answer to the question of how we can be of best use now.  We grow from that courage and from developing the widening circles of support.  We’re currently fundraising for our Community Ritualist Training program and hope to open this into a community of practice for people in our wider ecosystem who identify as community ritualists to gather, learn, and collaborate with one another in 2022.  

To learn more:

Cherie Brown, National Coalition Building Institute, Silver Spring, MD

One of my main interests over the past four years has been to build intergenerational partnerships and to train the next generation of young adult Jewish leaders in a progressive understanding about anti-Semitism, internalized anti-Semitism, the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism, and how all of this connects to the Israel/Palestine conflict. I have partnered with several young adult Jewish activists and we have led weekend workshops for young adult Jews in NYC, Boston, Philly, DC, and Chicago.  I have been training cadres of young adult Jews to bring these understandings about being Jewish to all of their social justice work.  This past year, I launched a project called: Jews and Allies United to End Anti-Semitism. There are currently Jewish/non-Jewish teams in 19 cities in the U.S., Canada, England, Israel and Australia with Jews and non-Jews working together to bring awareness about anti-Semitism and the way that anti-Semitism gets used to divide liberation movements including Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Black Lives Matter, and the Labor Movement.  I believe deeply that this understanding of how anti-Semitism functions in progressive movements is key for building long term coalitions between Jews and other ethnic groups. As a part of this project, I recently authored a pamphlet entitled: “Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone’s Concern.” 

The organization that I founded in 1984, the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), trains resource teams on dozens of college campuses, in K-12 schools, and works with police and communities of Color in cities across the U.S.  We train teams to lead workshops in diversity, equity and inclusion. NCBI is one of the pioneer organizations training leaders, through “train the trainer” programs to lead anti-oppression workshops, which includes work on racism, sexism, gay oppression, and anti-Semitism.

What is unique about this work?  We focus on teaching healing tools.  We call it “Healing into Action:  bringing tools of emotional healing to activist work.  This includes sharing personal stories of discrimination as a method for training activists and building allies across group lines.   

In addition, I’ve been passionate about teaching Jewish activists an understanding about “Leadership Oppression”– namely how leaders in our organizations often don’t get treated well (when this happens between Jews and in Jewish organizations, it is sometimes a painful aspect of Jewish internalized oppression). We teach a whole set of skills and practices for leaders on how to build teams of support around one’s own leadership in order to thrive and avoid burnout.

Rabbi Debra Cantor, The Neshama Center for Lifelong Learning, Bloomfield, CT

Talmud Torah k’neged kulam.

Imagine if we took this dictum seriously and radically expanded the way we envision Jewish adult learning.

Imagine if our approach to Talmud Torah embraced multiple modalities, bringing “text” into a wide range of activities and experiences.

Imagine a Talmud Torah which emerges from creating works of art, from drumming, singing, moving, meditating.

Imagine a Talmud Torah that is intimately connected with social justice work, the learning and the doing interwoven with one other.

Imagine a Talmud Torah which invites in novices and experts, folks from a variety of faiths and backgrounds, to wrestle with the deep and challenging questions embedded in our texts and our lives.

Imagine a Talmud Torah which strives to help individuals find personal spiritual meaning, while connecting with others on their journeys.

I’ve long been interested in Jewish lifelong learning. Years ago, as an Education Consultant for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston, I led seminars for adult ed committee chairs on how to create and nurture more robust adult learning programs. As a rabbi, I’ve helped to build strong adult ed programs in the synagogues that I’ve served.

But I have always wanted to do more, to go beyond the boundaries of a single institution, to work more collaboratively, to think more expansively and creatively. As a visual artist, this was particularly compelling for me.  As a former camp director, I know the power of immersive, intense learning experiences. I know that adults hunger for these kinds of experiences as well. A recent study of the Greater Hartford Jewish community showed that these needs were not being met by other programs. As someone who’s been very involved interfaith work over the years, I also wanted to have a place in which to share Jewish and interfaith learning with others.

With the support of my congregation and the Mandell JCC, I was able to launch The Neshama Center for Lifelong Learning, a community-wide learning initiative, in the Fall of 2017.  Neshama offerings are based on five Jewish pathways to wisdom: *Lively Text Study; *Social Justice; *Mindfulness & Meditation; *Interfaith Learning; *Exploring the Arts.The Neshama Center offers multi-week courses as well as single session programs and workshops. We invite people of all backgrounds to take a breather from the fast-paced world in which we live, and join us for inspiring, creative, joyful Jewish learning. Our tagline is “BREATHE. THINK. SHINE.”

Our first year has been successful in many ways. We have a logo, excellent programs, a growing reputation and email list. But we are not yet a well-known entity. We have not yet tapped into the population beyond our friends of friends. We aren’t sure of our next steps. There is so much potential! But this community, like many others, is often wary of change, and of anything which might threaten existing institutions.

Andrew Davies, Bible Players, Philadelphia, PA

We, the Bible Players, are an educational comedy team that’s Improv-ing Jewish Lives. We strive to make every participant feel the joy in Judaism, and the laughter we can have while learning. Through improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy, we become better listeners and build the strong Jewish community we want to see. Let me share two elements that I think are important to our success.

1.Start with Shma (Listening)

The Bible Players DNA is Jewish at its very core. This project began while the co-founders worked on staff at a Jewish summer camp. And from day one, was inspired and driven by the goal of making Jewish Values and Torah stories exciting and accessible for everyone. We are guided by the Jewish value of kehillah, community, and how we can strengthen those bonds. We believe our community can be strong when we all learn to listen to each other, and respect each other as individuals.

One ritual we utilize heavily is our most famous prayer the “Shma.” The word “Shma” means “hear” or “listen.” Therefore, we impart to participants that listening is part of our deep-rooted obligation as a Jewish community in today’s world. We must make sure we all listen to each other, and that everyone is heard. Improv is our way of practicing this where we need to listen to and cooperate with our teammates, and can never succeed alone.

2. Comedy is Contagious

The Bible Players are the only Jewish performance project that uses comedy as a teaching tool, rather than just a form of entertainment. Our tag line “Improv-ing Jewish Lives” embodies how we encourage participants to integrate the skills and the Jewish values we teach in to their friendships, work, and Jewish learning.

The nature of this special sauce can be explained through one of our favorite activities, “Stand-up Mensch,” in which we give students set-ups for writing jokes. For example, we tell students “It took 40 years to get to Israel because…” and then ask them to complete the sentence.

One 8-year old camper this summer got up and proudly declared, “It took 40 years to get to Israel because…there was a camel jam!” Creating comedy from the Torah makes these stories memorable and magical for students of all ages. Participants are so excited by the comedy that they want to read, discuss, engage, and become part of Jewish learning. We make every Jewish institution a place where everyone wants to be.

Sara Fatell, One Table, Washington, D.C.

OneTable, a national non-profit organization, empowers people who don’t yet have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. The OneTable community is funded to support people (21-39ish), not in college, and without children, looking to find and share these powerful experiences. We make it easy for hosts to welcome people to Shabbat dinners at home, for guests to savor a Friday meal, and for all to experience unique events for Shabbat dinner out. Guests of any and all religions and cultures are welcome.

OneTable aims to meet folks where they are, in their homes. We don’t require anyone to have had previous experience, nor do they need to go somewhere to practice or participate in something Jewish. There is no membership nor prerequisites. We invite people to come together to end the week with intention. We encourage hosts to make their dinners uniquely theirs whether that means a themed dinner, a special menu, or a stunning tablescape. This element of empowering the individual to be the creator of their own experience really sets OneTable apart from other Jewish nonprofits. We are not here to do Jewish for people. OneTable exists to support folks on their own journeys to figure out how their Jewish identity is uniquely theirs. By opting in and creating their own practice, we know this will become an enduring practice in people’s lives.

Then, there is the art of hospitality – in Hebrew, ​hachnasat orchim​. This is the act of welcoming guests, of opening your home to invite others in. With this practice comes a sense of community and belonging. Belonging not to an institution or organization that guides you towards what to believe and how to practice, but belonging to a circle of friends, a community of like-minded folks, where you have a place to explore, together. By practice the art of hospitality and welcoming, each dinner is a chance to build a bigger community and join The Shabbat Movement.

Hachnasat orchim​ is a value that stands the test of time. Ending your week with good food, good people, and plenty of wine, is good for you. So in a time when wellness is the “it” thing, our response is Friday night dinner. Shabbat dinner is the most ancient ritual of wellness and #selfcare. Creating a beautiful night with a gorgeous meal might be the selfcare that the lonely millennial generation seeks. Sharing the night, the food, and the sense of community that is felt around the table is the wellness we all seek. Building and sharing an authentic practice is sustainable wellness. In short, OneTable is Friday night magic.

Keshira haLev Fife, Kesher Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA

Kesher Pittsburgh is an everyone-friendly, independent community underpinned by Jewish values and rhythms. Our mission is to shift culture around what it means to belong and to integrate Jewish teachings into our day-to-day lives.

We seek to create the space and circumstances where each person can reclaim and/or connect with Judaism in ways that are joyful, uplifting and connective for them, and where they can mark life’s milestone moments in ways that are meaningful to them and to those they hold dear. We believe that our lives are enhanced when we find the right balance between carrying forward Jewish tradition and meeting what’s alive and resonant in any given moment. We do this to honour and tend to our ancestors and elders, for the sake of healthy and strong identity formation for our youth born from love, pride and connection, and in service of the collective liberation of all people.

Kesher Pittsburgh is a place for families, friends, colleagues, allies, skeptics and seekers alike, where all are welcome and wanted as part of our community. To us, making community well is about creating a sense of intimacy and belonging – both to the collective and to one another – and calling ourselves together for simchas and Shabbat and for grief and when the going gets tough. We believe that by weaving together the sacred with the mundane, by praying and eating and crafting and planning and walking and crying and simply being together, we become part of something special and cherished. This isn’t something which is an orchestrated or explicit offering of our community; rather it is something which we strive to exemplify because we believe that the only way to shift culture is to shift culture and that, by doing so, we will automatically “find our people.”

Another element of Kesher Pittsburgh which is unique is that it is a Priestess-led community. Some feel held by its non-patriarchal nature. Others enjoy being led by a collection of peers, who bring musical gifts and spoken prayers that they find relatable. Still others find resonance with the progressive messages that we connect to Jewish themes and values. Underlying all of that, however, we believe that people are drawn most to the earth-based, time-based, embodied practice of Judaism that we offer. We are continually asking: “How can we re-align ourselves with Jewish cycles of time? And how can we mark this moment as holy?” Each time we gather, there is an intention to bring ourselves to presence and to open many doors – song, chant, prayer, sound, silence, stillness, and more – with the hope that each person can find their way into connection. 

By coming together each month for Shabbat (and more!), we are not only creating opportunities for meaningful connection with Jewish practice, we are also laying the groundwork for the connections which happen in between. This is our ultimate mission – to encourage and support connection (kesher) with ourselves, with each other and with the One who creates and connects all that is.

Rabbi Brian Fink, Engage Service Corps at the Meyerson JCC Manhattan, New York, NY

It’s been a privilege directing UJA-Federation of New York’s Engage Jewish Service Corps at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, as we’ve worked to create meaningful opportunities for baby boomers as they transition from working full time to being retired.  These days, people don’t entirely retire all at once; they dip a foot or two in the water, as they try out working part-time, become a consultant, or start their own business, exploring what they might choose to do with all of their, new-found, free time. This is where Engage fits in.

Engage employs a flexible approach, working with a network of reputable nonprofit organizations that address the unmet needs of New York City, to design one-time recurring group opportunities that volunteers can sign up for as they are able.  Some volunteers might choose to join the Engage group each month at the restaurant-style soup kitchen or the monthly coffeehouse for Holocaust survivors, becoming friends with the other regular Engage volunteers.  They know that it’s ok if they have to skip a month because they’re visiting their grandchildren in California.  Other volunteers choose to only sign up for one activity at a time and value the variety of the potential offerings. They are continually excited to try something new, not automatically knowing what might capture their interest before they begin.

After a while, some Engage volunteers become ready to make a deeper commitment.  Whether it is visiting a home-bound senior on a weekly basis, tutoring an elementary school student in math twice a week at lunchtime, or sharing their fundraising skills with a grass-roots non-profit organization, Engage is able to help make these types of longer-term matches. 

We encourage volunteers to use the talents and skills that they developed over successful careers, leading teams of volunteers in ongoing assignments, serving as liaisons with our partner agencies, and proposing new entrepreneurial volunteer project ideas. In this way, we have created teams of volunteers who teach seniors how to become more proficient using their smartphones and tablet computers, lead movement games for children in a residential facility, and who create professional-looking photo memory books for seniors.

Ultimately, Engage is about creating community – community among the volunteers, many of whom are looking to create new social networks for themselves in this stage of life – and between the volunteers and the people that they serve, building bridges between disparate segments of the New York City community.  Through these experiences, the world becomes smaller, as we work together to create a more connected and compassionate community.

Lilli Flink, Spruce Street Minyan, Philadelphia, PA

We live in an era in which Judaism is comprised of a mosaic of practices and rituals, with increasing numbers of young Jews distancing themselves from Jewish communities as well as organized religion. As my former college roommate and dear friend, Gabi Wachs, and I began to set down roots in Philadelphia, it was hard to find a vibrant space that we fit into as young, committed, egalitarian Jews. Spruce Street Minyan (SSM) evolved out of a core desire for traditional davening and a close-knit community. What started in our small apartment living room evolved into an energized community that centered itself around that unifying core value.

Once a month, young people gather for a strong, soulful davening experience, and SSM draws members from a wide spectrum of Jewish practice. Our mission from the outset has been to foster community around an egalitarian minyan that is open to all, traditional in its roots, yet maintains a homegrown and intentional ethos. By minimizing the barriers and feelings of disconnectedness that often accompany joining a shul when moving to a new city, SSM engages and attracts people who truly want to celebrate Shabbat. Our atmosphere incorporates an approachable language and acknowledges the diversity of our members’ beliefs. Cultivating a minyan that is vibrant and authentic while being geared towards young professionals and graduate students during years of much transition has carved out a niche space within the Philadelphia Jewish community.

Our hope is to connect people to each other, Judaism, and to our community through gathering together to share davening, a home-cooked meal, and similar values. Spruce Street Minyan continues to attract its members through our authentic commitment to traditional davening while remaining hospitable and welcoming to individuals from a diverse array of backgrounds, denominations, and degrees of practice.

Eleyna Fugman, The Alberta Shul, Portland, OR

The two most important elements of our project, The Alberta Shul, are the “open source” nature of our community building. We are currently an all-volunteer organization providing cultural Jewish programming in our area. We are filling an essential role for some of the 10,000 underserved Jews on Portland’s east side by providing a space and resources for Jews to come together. Some creative programming we have provided this year include a “Bike Through Sukkah,” event to celebrate Sukkot and a neighborhood Purim parade. In addition, the Alberta Shul has surveyed over 120 Jews in our neighborhood to determine their skills, interests and needs.

Our mission statement:

The Alberta Shul is a Jewish grassroots organizational hub in Portland, Oregon inspired by the reclaiming of a historic synagogue building.  We build, strengthen and empower Jewish life by creating space for learning and experimentation, community celebrations and spiritual practice and social justice engagement.  We strive to be a heart for Jewish life on Portland’s east side by providing a connection to our past while re-envisioning and creating our Jewish future.

Needs Assessment:

The Alberta Shul provides a much-needed community and meeting space on Portland’s east side. Within an area of over 75 square miles, marked by city limits north to south on the east side of the Willamette River (commonly referred to as “the East Side”), there is an estimated population of 10,000 Jews. There is currently only one synagogue (non-denominational), a Moishe House and two Chabad houses on Portland’s East Side. The closest Jewish community center is a 30-minute drive from inner Northeast.

Our vision for community was catalyzed by learning of a small building, just two blocks off bustling NE Alberta street, an unassuming building once known as the “Alberta Shul” which holds a rich history of NE Portland Jews, African-American churches and most recently artists.  Preserving this building’s history also means preserving powerful stories of Jewish activism and integrity.

Our organizing team:

We are a coalition of Jewish teachers, organizers, business people and friends have been professionally and informally organizing and hosting innovative Jewish events on Portland’s East Side for over 10 years. We have brought together hundreds of Jews by hosting Passover seders, monthly Shabbat dinners, summer outings, and outdoor High Holy Days services. These events have increased participants’ connection with Judaism, and created a strong and vibrant Jewish community. Many members began as unaffiliated Jews and have since joined synagogues; others have found in these events meaningful ways to practice Judaism outside of synagogue life. In addition to this informal organizing one of our members also works for a local congregation and serves as a liaison between congregations in Portland and the more informal Jewish community.

Other successes:

We have raised over $30,000 and collected over 1000 volunteer hours in the past 18 months to help us build community.

Kohenet Rachel Galper, Our Sacred Circles, Durham, NC

Our Sacred Circles (OSC) is a multi-faith women’s collaborative that I have founded dedicated to supporting women activists, artists, educators, healers, and caregivers to create a mutually supportive community and dismantle systemic oppression and bigotry of all kinds. The mission of all my work within OSC is to provide and hold sacred spaces in which we, as women, can renew, connect and create, heal and support each other in our lives and work, learn and teach, share our stories, create rituals, and worship the Divine in all its manifestations. This work of “spirit journeys” was inspired by and has evolved from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s work with the netivot and her guided visualizations in her book, The Hebrew Priestess. These journeys have helped women, including myself, to connect with Spirit in meaningful ways and to access deep healing and wisdom.  

Several years ago, I co-founded Sacred Monsters, a worship space for Jews of all genders and backgrounds that is non and anti-zionist, anti-racist, LGBTQ affirming, and earth and life honoring. However, I no longer attend because I am no longer interested in a specifically anti-zionist worship space. Nor am I interested in attending synagogue and engaging in conventional Jewish practice or in engaging in exclusively Goddess or Divine Feminine Practice. Instead I have co-founded a Jewish women’s moon circle with a fellow Kohenet and am focusing on growing OSC. Therefore, most of my work is now multi-faith, rather than Jewishly focused, although I remain Jewishly rooted on a personal and professional level. I am at a place on my journey where being Jewish has to do with dismantling the exceptionalism of suffering and both bearing witness and taking action as a shamash to prevent suffering and shed light in whatever ways I can. This includes providing spiritual support for all female survivors of trauma and working with women from different faiths to develop inclusive, earth-based worship, holiday observances, and liturgy.

The mission of my work as a performing arts educator and magic maker is to help young people find and use their voices, minds, and bodies in creative and powerful ways and to help them strengthen their senses of the sacred in nature and connection to magic and mystery. What unites all these is my passionate desire to provide spiritual spaces for those, including myself, who feel ill-served by and alienated from conventional religious institutions and/or are in search of spiritual connection and community to help them survive, heal, and do their work in the world. These efforts are compelling or appealing to others because they offer an opportunity to connect in meaningful, joyful ways that we define for ourselves, receive respite from the traumas, assaults and indignities we have and continue to endure, and become clearer and more able to do our work in the world. We celebrate joy and creativity, and offer an antidote to despair and disconnection. And we honor our diaspora(s) and create a home for ourselves within them. 

Asher Gellis, JQ International, Los Angeles, CA

In 15 years of serving the LGBTQ and ally Jewish community, JQ International has become an institutional force for change. When the organization was founded, it was initially intended to provide a community space for LGBTQ Jews to connect with one another and foster a strong sense of self. JQ’s leadership grew to realize that this goal was not enough. As the community grew and the programing became more successful, JQ’s leadership saw a common thread emerge from the personal stories of community members.

LGBTQ Jews felt that because of how they were raised, they were put in a position that forced them to choose between being queer or Jewish. The Jewish community was, and still is to this day, inadvertently training young LGBTQ community members that queer and Jewish cannot exist together. This is my personal story as well. I was raised in the Jewish community with many great Jewish role models but never any LGBTQ role models, let alone an LGBTQ Jewish role model.

JQ’s leadership realized that there was an opportunity to help our community become re-engaged with Judaism and serve as role models for the youth of today. We developed the JQ Speakers Bureau and supplemental educational programing to assist in our efforts. Today JQ offers two teen-specific programs called the Teen JQSA and the Tzelem gender non-binary leadership program. These programs are safe spaces for LGBTQ and ally teens to explore the intersection of LGBTQ and Jewish identities through a Jewish lens. Learning about Jewish texts that support inclusion and affirming programing that ensures the development of a strong, proud, and healthy sense of self.

To this day we have consistently invested in leadership through cohort learning fellowship opportunities. Our niche programing acknowledges that it is not enough to put all queer people together but rather give each of them an opportunity to create programing and leadership opportunities that reflect the uniqueness of each community. By focusing on niche communities, we encourage greater participation. Individuals associated with a niche see themselves reflected back by those of the same niche. This prevents a sense of feeling marginalized in the larger queer Jewish community. At the same time this encourages a larger spill over affect into the community wide events.

In 2013, the JQ Helpline was launched. It was the first hotline designed to support LGBTQ Jews, their families, and allies in need. The JQ Helpline has provided support to thousands of community members and it is equally utilized by leaders in the Jewish community seeking support for their LGBTQ community members. In March 2016, JQ launched its first ever Persian Pride Month. March has become a month of celebration, new trailblazing initiatives, and heartwarming community building with our Persian-specific programing and the launch of JQ’s young adult Persian Pride Fellowship following in 2017. We also provide leadership training for young activists to become change makers and advocates for inclusion in the traditional Iranian-American community.

My personal mission is to make sure that all community members feel that they are welcomed, embraced, and are a valued piece of our larger Jewish community.

Mo Golden, Minyan of Thinkers, Olympia, WA

The Minyan of Thinkers CONNECT Cohorts ignite socially conscious young people to make positive change in the world by bringing them into community and brave conversation with each other. We utilize an exploratory learning CONNECT experience that includes discussing scholarly texts, engaging in activities, and sharing lived experiences. The project is motivated by a vision of a world in which people from different walks of life can have open, honest, brave conversations with one another about challenging topics and take their learning into their communities to make positive change. Participants make space for open and honest conversation, raise the caliber of social discourse in their communities, and apply their learning in personal and professional spaces to dismantle structures of inequality.

CONNECT does not shy away from taboo topics. Instead, we look closer and ask what is dangerous or difficult about this? And we investigate it together, with much care. For example, last year’s cohort focused on anti-semitism, Israel, and navigating the social justice arena. Past cohorts have covered race in America, intermarriage and conversion, and Jewish identity. This year’s cohort will be about visible and invisible identities. As the CONNECT Curriculum Designer and User Experience Expert, my hope is to intentionally design a space where people can bring their whole selves safely; where they can go deep without feeling unsafe; and where participants leave feeling a sense of belonging and inspiration, avoiding burnout or empathy fatigue. This work is unique in its approach to challenging conversations. We aren’t saying it will be easy or comfortable. But we are saying it will be safe and inclusive. And the people in the room are people you might otherwise never meet. I think this really speaks to people. Many of us are craving connection to diverse community, as well as the skills to sustain such community. Young adults are looking for ways to make their work more intersectional, to understand current events from other perspectives, and to see their personal experience in a larger context.

CONNECT makes space to dive into ideas and hear multiple perspectives, while also cultivating unlikely and diverse community. Today more than ever, we are bombarded with polarized thinking and un-nuanced perspectives on issues that impact all of us. I am deeply grateful and humbled by the leadership team I am a part of, the work of previous cohorts, and the project’s founders for their efforts to encourage deep learning, a capacity for multiple perspectives, and intersectional social justice practice.

Becky Havivi, If Not Now, Philadelphia, PA

IfNotNow is a movement of American Jews, primarily millennials, organizing for the freedom and dignity of all Israelis and Palestinians by ending our community’s support for Israel’s occupation. We are building a broad movement and community that uses nonviolent civil resistance to impact public opinion, with the aim of shifting the “common sense” of the American Jewish community away from institutions and activities that lend support to Israel’s 50-year military occupation.

As demonstrated through our success over the last couple years, IfNotNow’s unique frame has been able to activate a broad base of anti-occupation Jews by speaking to people’s moral values and providing a banner to unite around the problem of the Occupation, rather than focusing on a particular tactic or political solution. IfNotNow does not take a stance on some of the more divisive issues, like Zionism or BDS, and instead emphasizes freedom and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians, all the while grounding ourselves in Jewish values. We have distinguished ourselves as a proudly Jewish movement, uniting and activating Jews across the religious spectrum, alongside secular and unaffiliated Jews who have never been involved on this issue before.

Melissa Hoffman, Jewish Initiative for Animals, Los Angeles, CA

As part of our mission, Jewish Initiative for Animals supports innovative programs to turn the Jewish value of compassion for animals into action while building ethical and sustainable Jewish American communities in the process. When it comes to standing up for animals, especially farmed animals, the Jewish community already has a lot to be proud of. But, we also have a long way to go. Embarrassingly, most religious organizations in America–Jewish institutions included–have lower animal welfare standards for the food they buy than McDonalds! We know that this situation doesn’t reflect the deep concern most Jews have for animals, and JIFA has supported dozens of cutting-edge Jewish institutions in creating ethical food policies and adjusting their purchasing to highlight animal welfare as a Jewish value. JIFA has worked across all denominational lines and with a wide array of institutions (synagogues, camps, schools, Jewish farms and retreat centers, and university Hillels) to help people buy food that reflects their Jewish and moral concern for animal well-being.

One of the most compelling parts of our programming is our aim to empower individuals and institutions to improve the system upon which all people depend—our food system. Through religious outreach, JIFA leverages the values to which Jews are already committed to bring about positive change in the world. Our food system relies heavily on the exploitation of humans, animals, and the environment, and at JIFA, our team is dedicated to empowering communities to support food suppliers, farmers, and companies that operate responsibly. By withdrawing support from factory farming and, instead, by buying from ethically produced food sources, the Jewish community will lead the way–for other faith communities and for all communities–towards a more just and sustainable future for everyone.

Our supporters also attach to the Jewish values embedded in our content, as JIFA always integrates Jewish learning into our educational programs and resources. Each lesson in our service-learning curriculum for bat/bar mitzvah students, for example, frames the human relationship to animals with relevant Jewish texts and teachings. Our text study guide utilizes Jewish text and commentary to spark inquiry into the way we should treat animals today, especially in light of factory farming. Calling upon ancient wisdom and contemporary Jewish thinking, our educational resources compel community members to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face in our food system using lessons rooted in our core Jewish values.

Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavura, Virginia Beach, VA

My very small chavurah, with about 25 member households and another 25 on its mailing list, is an outlier in a community with a significant number of Jews, most of whom don’t belong to a congregation. Aside from its size, Tidewater Chavurah is different because it is unaffiliated with a Jewish religious movement (though it operates more or less as a Reform congregation, using Reform liturgy) and because it has no building, meeting primarily in living rooms.

Our mission statement is:

The mission of Tidewater Chavurah is to provide a place of Jewish worship, to encourage Jewish education, to initiate Jewish family activities, and to cultivate a love and understanding of the Jewish heritage. We value a friendly, warm, supportive, and egalitarian community which welcomes all who wish to practice the Jewish traditions. We value the Torah and our Jewish heritage. We value g’milut chasidim (acts of loving kindness) and tzedakah (charity) for those who are in need. We value our children and families in a flexible and tolerant environment. We value growth and renewal. Lastly, we are open to the diversity of traditions throughout our Jewish communities.

I have made a consistent effort to create an atmosphere of joy and celebration in our services and other programming. In addition, since becoming rabbi of Tidewater Chavurah, I have been striving to increase the Jewish knowledge base of my congregants, as I have long been convinced that non-Orthodox Judaism will flourish only if non-Orthodox Jews know the traditions, history, and particularistic aspects of Judaism, such as Torah study and the use of Hebrew in prayer. The chavurah has the same desire to attract young families as any other congregation, but in a community with many retirees, I see an important outreach for us among Jews 50-75, helping them to be stronger, better-educated grandparents and role models.

Our members like the fact that Tidewater Chavurah is a “congregation without walls,” flexible and informal in its approach to Judaism, but with professional leadership. They also appreciate that the chavurah offers worship and programming that combines kavanah and teaching with intellectual accessibility and celebration of Judaism.

Naamah Wendy Kenin, Imeinu Doulas, Berkeley, CA

Imeinu Doulas is a group of birth and postpartum doulas that provides physical, emotional, informational and spiritual care to the laboring mother, her baby and her family to encourage the most positive childbirth experience.

We are honored to offer resources for childbirth as a Jewish rite of passage and to be a voice of Jewish thought and culture, building women and family wellness networks in the US and Israel.

Imeinu serves persons of all cultural and religious backgrounds. Our doula team works collaboratively and in shifts to provide a solid presence throughout pregnancy and birth.

Imeinu Birth Collective is a network of birth professionals and other service providers who are committed to the mission of Imeinu Doulas.

Our name “Imeinu” is inspired by our Jewish matriarchs.

The two most compelling elements of what we do are:  

  • For Doulas and Practitioners: A traditional Jewish framework and international sisterhood to support our professional birth work.
  • For Clients: A Jewish start including ancestral birth traditions for parents growing their families which enhances the holistic wellness approach of the birth worker’s service.

Caroline Kessler, Ashreinu, St. Louis, MO

Ashreinu is an egalitarian kehilla (community) that gathers for spirited davening, inspired learning, and creative ritual. We are steeped in tradition, based in St. Louis, and committed to building a collaborative, spiritual community. Tasha Kaminsky and I co-founded Ashreinu in November 2015 in response to a need that we saw in the city of St. Louis. Like many people (young and old!), we were searching for authentic connection, holy community, and engaging learning…and we hoped to find those things within the Jewish community.

When I arrived in St. Louis for graduate school in August 2015, I began to investigate. What was the Jewish ecosystem like? Where were the synagogues? What denominations were they? Were there independent minyanim? Where did people my age gather? What was missing in the landscape? What did people wish existed?

I asked these and other questions of many rabbis, lay leaders, and other Jewish individuals who had lived in St. Louis for varying amounts of time. People were responsive and generous, sharing their insights and suggestions, as well as their own pathways through Judaism. This research introduced me to a wide swath of people, and to the rich and varied pockets of Jewish community in St. Louis. Nearly all of the institutions, buildings, synagogues, and day schools are concentrated in St. Louis County—a far drive (literally and metaphorically) from St. Louis City, where I, Tasha, and many other Jews lived.

From these conversations, and from piloting a Shabbat davening and dinner experience, a vision for the community emerged: one that is sustainably integrated in, and connected to the city of St. Louis, where we share the wealth that we’ve created; one that connects people to Judaism in new ways; and one that meets people where they are literally, and asks people to meet us spiritually.

Ashreinu began by gathering in people’s homes, creating intimate spaces open to anyone, in the parts of St. Louis where people lived. Our Friday night services use the traditional liturgy, and our nigun collectives create an opportunity for anyone to start, learn, or lead a melody. We deliberately cultivate an intergenerational community—people my age often bring their infants, their parents, and even their grandparents. We engage with the wisdom of our tradition and the wisdom contained within: people in our community lead text study on Saturday mornings, drawing on contemporary and ancient sources.

A truly holy kehilla must be built and also must build itself. As our community has grown, so has its needs: meal trains for new parents, shiva gatherings, and bigger spaces to accommodate our numbers. A core group of Ashreinu folks recently opened the doors of what was an abandoned synagogue/church space and is now Ma Tovu, an inclusive Jewish space that fosters connection through enriching the community’s spiritual, cultural, and social life.

The possibilities abound when community members express and meet each other’s covenantal needs, however large or small. We’re so grateful as Ashreinu continues to grow and meet the needs of those in St. Louis.

Rabbi Evan Krame, The Jewish Studio, Potomac, MD

Our mission is to connect Jewish adults to a meaningful and inspiring Judaism.  Our vision is to craft a renewed Judaism that is soulful, relevant and exciting.  Our participants are generally mature adults who want to attend events and prayer experiences to connect with the joy and spirit of Judaism.

Many Jewish adults have become alienated from legacy institutions and community-based Jewish practices. Often these are empty nesters who found their connection to Jewish community through their children’s synagogue-based education and life cycle events. Others who are single, divorced or widowed, can feel isolated in institutional settings yet crave connection to religious community. To re-engage this population we employ a welcoming and accessible approach to Jewish observances. Our primary focus is on Friday night and High Holiday observances with inspiring services, often accompanied by catered meals. We present creative holiday celebrations with an emphasis on joy and inspiration. We also offer cultural events such as theater trips and visits to art galleries.

With a willingness to explore and an excitement for meaningful engagement, our participant list has grown to over 1,000 adults in lower Montgomery County, Maryland.  Without a membership-funding model, our generous supporters have enabled us to thrive. With every event and every discussion, we are taking steps toward crafting a Judaism that is accessible and yet formidable. 

Rabbi David Markus, Temple Beth El of City Island, City Island, NY

Temple Beth El of City Island, affectionately known as “Your Shul by the Sea,” imagines itself as a joyful island in the sea of Jewish spiritual life.  The community’s “island” culture is both literal – City Island is a fishing and boating village in the Bronx and a tiny outlying speck of New York City – and also a spiritually poignant snapshot of collective identity.  Founded 85 years ago as an Orthodox shtiebel and then a burned-out Conservative synagogue, the synagogue is celebrating a renaissance from within, fueled by the spiritual tools of Jewish Renewal and attracting people who have felt adrift elsewhere in Jewish life.

The “mission” of this revitalization effort is to cultivate experience – not understanding or keeping of Jewish tradition for its own sake but rather deep inhabitance of the emotional and spiritual valences of Jewish life.  We use a “Four Worlds” (body, heart, mind, spirit) approach to liturgy, learning, lifecycles and community life; once heart and soul feel open and engaged, then we connect with deep text study and ritual that might feel more familiar to mainline normative communities.

We also use music, poetry and dance as frontal aspects of community life.  Our band is a draw; our music is very carefully selected to calibrate emotion and draw out deep meanings of text.  Time and again, participants come away feeling pleasantly shocked that “Judaism can be like that.”

The first stage of this revitalization effort is now giving way to a second stage, in which the community’s size and prominence is starting to attract visitors and participants from “more normative” contexts who also expect those normative experiences.  We understand this second phase as quite normal, and inherently challenging in that these people may express surprise (or discomfort) with the transparency and depth of experience they encounter.  Will they exert influence and change the community?  Will they “drink the Kool Aid”?  Hard to know: that’s our current journey.

Joseph Palermo, GLOE-The Kurlander Program for GLBTQ Outreach and Engagement at the Edlavitch DCJCC, Washington DC

I must first open this short essay response with my humbled thanks for your inviting me to the Kenissa Consultation.  Some of the brightest minds in the contemporary Jewish community are among the alumni, with many being folks I look to for inspiration in my own work organizing the Jewish community in Washington, DC.

Since 2016, I have been directing GLOE – The Kurlander Program for GLBTQ Outreach & Engagement at the Edlavitch DCJCC, founded in 2006 with the generous support of Stuart Kurlander, who felt, and recognized in peers, a strong need for a program that engaged LGBTQ Jews and offered a safe place to express and explore their Jewish and LGBTQ identities. GLOE was the first full-time LGBTQ program at any Jewish Community Center in the world and is honored to be a model of inclusive community, as well as a provider of resources to other Jewish communal organizations that seek to create a more responsive and welcoming environment for LGBTQ Jews.

While LGBTQ Jews represent a growing portion of Jewish communities, many find it difficult to participate in programs at established institutions and, at times, are met with resistance, promoting feelings of isolation and animosity. GLOE seeks to address these issues by creating programming that speaks to the needs of LGBTQ Jews while also establishing the Jewish community as a safe, welcoming, and open environment. In addition to addressing the breadth of the community, GLOE aims to further engage secular/cultural Jews on their own terms. As many spirituality-based programs already exist, secular Jews are often still left out of these non-secular options. GLOE works to reverse the negative trend of many LGBTQ Jews to stop identifying Jewishly after coming out. This is due to many LGBTQ Jews not feeling welcome, or it may also be a result of the Jewish community not putting forth an effort to connect in easy and fun ways.

A particular focus of my leadership of GLOE is to recontextualize Judaism for a contemporary queer community—providing meaningful, content-rich experiences rooted in Jewish values and tradition while also extending Jewish outreach and education to build Jewish allies in the broader LGBTQ community.

I’ve identified and recruited diverse members of DC’s LGBTQ Jewish community to the GLOE Committee, which has been vital to developing programming that is compelling to our community members. Our committee meets quarterly to give feedback on my program ideas, and some may collaborate with me on an additional ad hoc basis as it relates to programmatic needs.

Through my work with this advisory committee, GLOE annually creates over 25 unique events for LGBTQ Jews across the arts, social justice, community service, and religious programming. Through these events, we demonstrate how to sustainably reach and engage a community across a variety of demographics – from gay zaydes to young queer Jews of color, from trans Jews-by-choice to Orthodox lesbians in interfaith relationships. GLOE has also grown our GLOE Youth & Family programming that specifically builds community among Jewish LGBTQ-parented families and LGBTQ Jewish kids.

Libby Parker, Jewfolk, Inc., Minneapolis, MN

There has been a lot of talk about Jewish engagement of late, particularly related to young adults, within the larger Jewish community. Lots of innovative solutions have been proposed by legacy Jewish institutions as well as by well-meaning Jewish professionals. However, a huge problem in the Jewish organizational world is knowing what people, particularly young adults, actually want. Organizations often think this is guess-work, but we at Jewfolk understand that the best way to find out what someone wants is to ask. We listen to discussions in the online hubs we’ve created, we listen to other Jewish organizations, and most importantly we listen to individuals one-on-one. We believe the only way to understand what our core demographic wants to do, see, be, etc., is to listen.

Our ability to customize connections based on the things individuals have actually said is one of Jewfolk’s strongest assets. We believe in connecting people to people, not people to URLs or event pages. We connect young adults to what they want. It’s as simple as that. We have heard them and we can now connect them to authentic experiences. This makes us unique in that we do not partake in the push/pull that many other organizations deal with. We are not pulling them towards our events or pushing them towards another calendar appointment or potential solicitation for money; we are introducing them to other people that they can engage with, one-on-one, and work to build more Jewish relationships and personalized experiences. We go further than that first connection point, as well. For those who are seeking it, we provide capacity-building for individuals to develop their own authentic Jewish experiences for themselves and their networks.

For Jewfolk, engagement goes beyond just our own. While we live and breathe online and in real life engagement within our organization, we strongly feel that amplifying the other organizations’ voices and initiatives in our community is the most effective way to broaden overall engagement. One of our most unique engagement efforts is that we assist Jewish organizations in our community with their digital and social media communications, which primarily bridges the gap between millennial Jews, who don’t think they want or need the legacy Jewish institutions, and those institutions that still have value to offer to young adults but haven’t quite figured out how to talk to them in a way that intrigues, delights, and surprises. We are finding that this is something that is not only sorely needed by Jewish organizations locally, there are probably many organizations across the country that could use this service. We are working on ways to scale this venture and our Jewfolk model of listening, connecting, and engaging.

Rabbi Laurie Phillips, Beineinu, New York, NY

LIVE with purpose.

LIVE with meaning.

LIVE with kindness.

This is the essence of the four propositions and exactly what Beineinu strives to provide and achieve.  Dayeinu! 

Our privilege and our responsibility as human beings is to LIVE on this earth.  Tapping into the sacred text of Torah, we learn from the first story that God established a unique partnership with a human being – one of trust.  God entrusts human being with the task of caring for all other creations.  This partnership, this unique bond, along with this charge is bestowed upon us for all eternity.  And since that time human beings have been trying to figure out HOW.

Throughout history there have been many iterations and variations to the process of how we care for the “other”.  Some strategies have yielded great success and others tremendous failure.  The religious lens has always maintained a powerful role in shaping the world in which we live.  However, over the past two decades we have witnessed a decline in the role and the power of religion as it relates to shaping personal and communal identity.  Religion is down in America, in many ways due to the tremendous success experienced by people between the ages of 18 and 35.  As my father proclaims repeatedly “religion does best when times are worst”.

If we are going to strengthen the role religion plays in shaping identity we must be willing to put it in the hands of the user to claim it in ways that are relevant.  This will create a greater opportunity for living with purpose, meaning and kindness.  Judaism is draped in beautiful and strong rituals and soaked in rich content that can be foundation for creating such a life.  Wisdom, Social Justice, Community and Living with Sacred Purpose are components to crafting a pathway for living this kind of life.

Beineinu offers the unique feature of full and open choice.  Users choose their entry point and there is no minimum or maximum expectation or requirement.  Beineinu puts decision making in the hands of the user.  It’s the name and that’s the goal.  The hope is that if you have a positive and meaningful experience you will be more likely to continue to engage than if you don’t. 

Beineinu provides a “what size fits you best” approach.  We look for the unique qualities of each person to craft a pathway that is rich and meaningful and manageable.

Beineinu is committed to creating individual and communal opportunities for everyone who wants to participate.

Cindy Rowe, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Brookline, MA

JALSA’s mission is to engage the Jewish community in the pursuit of social, economic, environmental, and racial justice.  Our members, donors, and volunteers range from their 20’s to their 90’s.  They work with us because they want to create the world as it should be, and they are motivated from a place of their Jewish values.  We influence policy through our “toolkit” of community organizing, advocacy, litigation, education, and coalition building.

Over the past few years, we have brought hundreds of people in the Jewish community together to work on gun violence prevention; $15 an hour, paid family and medical leave; criminal justice reform; affordable housing; climate change; immigration and civil rights.  We also coordinate a network of synagogues which shares best practices about social justice issues in their congregations (for instance, hunger and immigration).

No longer content to work only on issues, however, JALSA has expanded beyond its 501c3 operations and now has a 501c4 – JALSA Impact – which has taken the lead in Massachusetts in bringing the progressive Jewish community together to work on federal elections.  Given the challenges of today’s political environment, we are working to restore checks and balances by taking a role in “Flip the House” elections, targeting five key races around the country. So far, 75 JALSA volunteers have made 3,500 calls to these states to convince voters to switch from Red to Blue.

JALSA is attracting people now with a new sense of urgency because we are:

  • Giving people something concrete to do in troubled times: When the world is threatened politically, JALSA is giving people an outlet to express their outrage.  For some people, this takes the form of working on an amicus brief.  For others, it’s collecting signatures to support an increased minimum wage or testifying at a legislative hearing.  Or, it could be simply just showing up at a Salon where people in their 20/30’s are gathering to hear about public policy issues from a well-known speaker in a bar on a weekday night.  Wherever people are at, JALSA gives them a way to connect through their Jewish values to what is going on around them.
  • Creating a space for affiliated and non-affiliated Jews to come together: JALSA brings together people at very different places in their relation to Judaism.  Some are Presidents of their synagogues, while some have never stepped foot in a synagogue but know that they grew up “Jewish.”  What unifies them is a sense of optimism that we can repair our broken world, and they are willing to take on the obligation to do so.
  • Providing a central place for Jewish resistance to the President: JALSA Impact is channeling people’s urge to stand up against white supremacy, fueled by its underlying foundation of anti-semitism and racism.  In a time when we are being threatened because of who we are, JALSA Impact says that we value every individual – that we are all created in the Divine image – and that we will support that principle through our political voice.

Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz, Temple Bnai Israel CoHousing Project,Williamantic, CT

I am the rabbi of a small congregation, Temple Bnai Israel, in Northeast Connecticut.  It’s a congregation with a number of strengths, most importantly a long-standing tradition of social cohesion and caring.  Our members prioritize their commitment to one another and our community over narrow ideological, programmatic, or social interests.  We have a strong eighteen-year lay-rabbinic partnership. And although we have serious annual budgetary troubles, we also have a significant cache of endowment and quasi-endowment.  Nonetheless, I and the congregation became convinced about four years ago that the long-term trends of changing patterns of Jewish demographics and engagement weren’t in our favor. Some of us concluded that the 20th century of model of synagogue at the center of Jewish communal life would need to change.  We decided that we were in a good position to address these challenges proactively.  We started a conversation, involving both Temple members and nonmembers whose mission we stated as follows:

Rooted in the solid foundations of Temple Bnai Israel as it currently is, and in the evolving civilization of the Jewish people, we seek, through an open-minded visioning process, to formulate the best way to sustainably foster and serve the Jewish community in North East Connecticut (including the non-Jewish participants in that community) for the coming several decades.

We are now coming to the point of deciding, by this coming June, on a path forward based on those conversations.  The path that brought us to Kenissa’s attention is the possibility of creating a vibrant, diverse, multi-generation Jewish cohousing community that would serve as a residential center of our wider, liberal Jewish community, with the cohousing common building also being the ‘bet k’neset’ (in the literal sense) of the wider community.  We believe real community is the basis on which Judaism is able to contribute to the life of our members and to the life of our broader community.  A cohousing-synagogue synthesis seems to us to be a way to make that sort of community happen.  We believe the “Jewish energy” of the residential group will energize the whole group.  We hope that it will attract folks interested in an intensive, progressive Jewish life, whose needs focus on community as well as the other aspects of Jewish life, including spirituality, learning, and tikkun olam.  We’re also hopeful that this may be a useful model for others to learn from, one that builds on existing institutions as we reconstruct the forms of Jewish communal life for the 21st century.

I’ll mention that the other innovative path that the congregation is considering involves building on our considerable energy around interfaith work.  Might we share a “house of prayer of all peoples” with other faiths?  And, if so, we would want it to be not just a cost-saving measure, but an on-going project of tikkun, building a world of love and solidarity between different ethnic and religious communities.

Hazzan Jodi M. Sered-Lever, Congregation Mekor Shalom Tampa, FL

With 75% of Tampa Bay Jews unaffiliated with a synagogue, what will ensure a Jewish future in Tampa Bay beyond bagels and lox? Since its inception in 2013, Congregation Mekor Shalom provides a meaningful, non-judgmental, sacred community for individuals and families in an effort to ensure the Jewish future. From the beginning, the vision was clear: Care about and value each person and connect people to each other and to Judaism.

Two of the most important elements that have made Mekor Shalom compelling to its members are meeting people where they are and breaking down barriers to synagogue affiliation.

Meeting people where they are happens in a non-judgmental place, where each person may come and be a part of things in a nurturing environment. Meeting people where they are happens when each person, including the seasoned davener and the one who has not been to services in years, are both able to be at ease in a sacred space to experience and learn about Jewish prayer rituals. Meeting people where they are happens when young children who make noise have a place where they are celebrated and appreciated. We like to say: Children who are comfortable in shul come back as adults. The reverse is not the case. Meeting people where they are takes place when one is able to sign up for a congregational Shabbat dinner, and instead of having to pay to make a reservation, one may redeem Frequent Chai-er Points earned from volunteering.

Barriers to affiliation come down when everyone is able to choose what their annual financial commitment is with no questions asked or explanation required. Barriers come down when complete acceptance of all people–who they are, where they are, and who they may become–is paramount. Barriers come down when there are teams in lieu of committees and everyone is welcome to join any team at any time. Barriers come down when the spouse or life-partner in a multi-faith household is recognized and honored as a supportive partner.

Often the culture in a synagogue may seem like a junior high school cafeteria or hallway, where not everyone is kind, friendly, or respectful. At Mekor Shalom it is different. As one member wrote in a Google review: In our fast-paced society, where many connections tend to be virtual and superficial, we crave connections of meaning. Mekor Shalom is such a place. Our motto of “Be Connected. Be Accepted. Be Inspired.” is held close to heart, modeled by every member and shared with every new person who walks through the door. For those who are looking for a new spiritual home, you can be assured you’ll be welcome at Mekor Shalom – Source of Peace.

Idan Sharon, Hamidrasha BeOranim/North American Shaliach, Kiryat Tiv’on, Israel

I am an Israeli Emissary to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation on behalf of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington D.C. I am my congregation’s connection to Israel and Israel’s varieties of progressive Judaism.

I was raised in Bet Shemesh as a completely secular Jew. In Israel this can mean a Jew who celebrates holidays but does not assign them religious meaning, and does not observe halacha. At the age of 18, before entering the army, I became a student at Hamidrasha BeOranim, a renewing Judaism organization (not the same as Renewal) that for the last 30 years has made its mission to create and enhance a new way of approaching Judaism. The Midrasha’s approach is progressive, enlightened, humanistic and socialist. Oranim’s Bet Midrash works with children, teens, volunteers and adults of all ages, through all life cycles, to support social activism, pluralism and tolerance. HaMidrasha BeOranim teaches gender tolerance, LGBTQ consciousness, Feminism, sustainability and social/political activism. It also provides officiation for weddings (outside of the Rabbanut). Part of the institution’s educational methodology is to use midrash to address modern conflicts through the reading of ancient texts.

HaMidrasha BeOranim changed my point of view on Judaism.  Through HaMidrasha, I rediscovered my Judaism as a sacred way to better the world and its people and myself.  After my release from the army, I wanted to make a difference in society. I became a lecturer through HaMidrasha, traveling across Israel to offer talks and activities in high schools about the meaning of Judaism. I was intent on conveying how Judaism can unite people to do good in the world.

One of the most experienced lecturers in HaMidrasha was the one who introduced me to Reconstructionist Judaism in America. She spoke passionately about how amazing their work is. HaMidrasha’s values seem to be almost identical to that of the Reconstructionist Movement’s. I am now working as a shaliach for one year at a Reconstructionist congregation in Bethesda, MD.  On the one hand, working for a year to strengthen a community which shares so many values with me, is simply a blessing disguised as a job. On the other hand, going to a different continent is hard for me since I see myself inextricably bound to a personal mission of bettering Israeli society.

I don’t think American Jews know all that much about how progressive organizations and communities in Israel are creating new forms of Jewish thought and practice. During my limited time as a shaliach, I hope to share some of that information with American Jewish audiences.

Lauren Spokane, New Synagogue Project, Washington D.C.

New Synagogue Project (NSP) is building a spiritually vibrant, radically inclusive, Jewish community in Washington, DC that reflects our vision for a world of justice, equity, and liberation. NSP is a startup Jewish community and we are innovating new expressions of Jewish life that speak to the needs and values of our members, most of whom have never belonged to a synagogue as an adult. Our community is being created by and for families with kids, partnered and single people, queer and trans people, interfaith families, Jews of Color and white Jews, Jews from many religious and secular backgrounds and anyone interested in exploring and experiencing Jewish life.

NSP launched in May 2018 with a series of Shabbat events. We immediately found incredible hunger and excitement for what we were building. Almost three years later, we have 14 member-led teams, 15 programs each month, and, before the pandemic, about 125 attendees at a typical Friday night Shabbat program. Now, 50-60 attendees join for virtual services. Since we launched our sliding-scale membership structure in August 2018, in which anyone can join regardless of financial means, more than 250 households — representing 406 people, including 81 children — have joined. There are hundreds more community members connected to NSP who have not yet opted into membership, including over 1,000 people who attended High Holiday programming or services this year. 

We have accomplished this growth with the support of our full-time rabbi (Joseph Berman), a half-time administrative associate, and a 20-person board, which we call the Team of Instigators. Even amid the pandemic, we are continuing to grow. We are in the process now of searching for a founding Education Director to create and lead our innovative, social justice-centered and community-based education program which will launch this fall.

We are creating a spiritual and political home for people bound together by a welcoming and liberatory Judaism. Our members are activists, organizers, artists, and healers involved in movements for racial and economic justice in the U.S. and throughout the world. With them, we are innovating Jewish ritual and liturgy. We are designing prayer experiences that draw on ancient Jewish traditions while speaking to the political crises of our current time and our spiritual need to work toward, and embody, collective liberation. Through joyous song, heartfelt prayer, transformative ritual, arts, culture, and learning, we provide spiritual sustenance and grounding in a living, breathing Jewish tradition. 

NSP is a multi-generational community primarily consisting of young adults and young families. Fifty-two percent of our adult membership is between the ages of 22 and 32; 37% are between ages 32 and 42. Our experience has run counter to the stereotype that millennials do not want to join institutions or pay synagogue dues. Instead, we are finding that many young Jews do want to belong, to have a home community to call their own, and that they are willing to invest resources if the community meets their interests, reflects their values, and honors their identities. 

Through this project, we are integrating Jewish practice and culture into people’s everyday lives through their interests in social justice, arts, singing, learning, and spaces designed by and for people who hold marginalized identities (e.g., queer Jews and Jews of Color). We are weaving these interests into Shabbat and holiday programs and creating avenues for participation in Jewish life beyond religious services. 

Rabbi Benjamin H. Spratt, CRS Minyan, New York, NY

From the beginning, our tradition claimed connection as the foundation of life. “It is not good for a person to be alone,” is the divine voice that echoed forward through the generations. As humanity would spread from Eden to the edges of the world, we learn that the gathering of 10 worthy individuals is mighty enough to sway even God. As our ancestors wandered through the wilderness, they gathered in community to build a house for God together, as the collective recognized communal construction as the recipe for divine presence. Two thousand years ago, as the center of Judaism fell away, rabbinic Judaism arose to reclaim the portable pathway to divinity throughout the world’s wilderness.

And in this moment, the early rabbis claimed communal counting as the new Tabernacle, the gathering of souls as the walls in which God dwells. Minyan – the smallest definition of community, the counting of individuals into a collective, relinquished the need for brick and mortar in favor of heart and spirit. And in this way, the heart of Judaism could never again be destroyed through siege or expulsion. For the heart of Judaism, the house of God, rests in the power of people gathering, where each person counts.

The goal of Minyan is to help each and every person in our community to feel needed, necessary, and a part of something sacred, and we believe such community must begin in small units of connectedness.

Minyan is an attempt to take some of the learnings of Tribe (a grassroots Jewish Millennial collaborative community I co-founded) and bring them into the heart of a large, legacy Jewish institution (Congregation Rodeph Sholom).  There are two primary philosophies that drive Minyan:  The first is a rebalancing of synagogue power.  In seeing a top-down power structure in most legacy Jewish institutions, in which only a few elite lay leaders are engaged as creators and clergy hold ecclesiastic power, the majority of the congregation become passive consumers and disempowered participants in spiritual and religious life.  We wanted to return to some of the radical impulses of the tanaaim and amoraim in elevating the efficacy of community members, collapse barriers to access and empowerment, and return to the notion that the most sacred may be created by a collective coming together to create power-with rather than a few holding power-over.

Second, Minyan assumes that not only is Torah everywhere, but the purpose of Judaism is the improvement of self and world.  In challenging a passive narrative that Judaism’s purpose (and thereby the purpose of a Jewish institution) is perpetuation/continuation, it suggests that Judaism should be a toolkit for delivering the most essential elements of human and societal flourishing.  In enabling fellow congregants to spark groups of belonging based on their own interests, the clergy role becomes delivering Jewish tools to help the group connect and deepen/elevate meaning within the group.

Miriam Steinberg, Egeth, Center City Kehillah, Phila. PA

When I was a kid growing up in rural New York State, I could count, very easily, the number of Jewish people I knew in the entire world. Now, as an adult, I manage multiple community networks comprised of and representing thousands of Jews, but the novelty hasn’t worn off. I don’t take a single person for granted even though the Jewish population of Philadelphia is magnitudes beyond my wildest childhood imagination. My mission in all my many-faceted projects is make the experience of Jewish community as wonderful, surprising, engaging, and affirming for the participants as it is for me.

The Center City Kehillah is a network of thirty organizations, representing synagogues and congregations; cultural, educational, and social justice institutions; and nonprofit initiatives. All our organizations are each other’s champions and provide referrals, collegiality, and support. We look for overlapping interests and opportunities rather than divisions and obstacles. In doing so, we enrich the work of the staff and lay leaders who help bring everyone together, while enriching all of Jewish life in Center City Philadelphia.

We don’t just aspire to a lofty goal of bringing Jews together; we tangibly build connections among all the constituents who are willing to entertain this vision. On Sukkot, we build a public sukkah available for anyone to use. On Chanukah, we gather in a park to light candles together. On Shavuot, hundreds of Jews from diverse backgrounds stay up all night together eating, learning, and praying. We’re not doing radical programming, but we’re creating these programs through a radical mindset.

I also serve as a sort of concierge when someone is looking for a Hebrew school, a minyan to say kaddish, or a good bagel. I approach everyone who comes to an event or a coffee date or who sends me an email with the kind of openness and encouragement I was seeking when I had my first encounters with institutional Judaism. I can only set people up to find their way through relationships, through listening, and through embracing the reality that each person I meet has a different hope and path for their Jewish connections.

I am honored and excited each time I have the opportunity to help a person find an entry point to Jewish life, and I take the responsibility seriously. Because of my part-time hours with the Center City Kehillah, I get to use the rest of my time to explore other opportunities to create connections that further my personal and professional goals. Through additional consulting, facilitating, and writing projects, I get to see far beyond any one individual institution and into the bigger picture of how we all fit together. Each institution fills an important role in Center City, and I get to be part of the fabric that binds them together.

Rabbi Ariel Stone, TischPDX, Portland, OR

“On the margins of the community there are stirrings of Jewish revival. It looks a lot different than the Jewish community of the last generation, but if properly nurtured, it has the potential to grow into a great renaissance of American Jewish life.”1

Why the Tisch​: The American Jewish community is undergoing a transition. Jews are not disappearing, but Jewish life is changing as we live through times that include a lessening of ethnic identification, a changing of the American Jewish relationship with Israel and different stresses on our American Jewish community than our ancestors could have ever imagined in the post-war world.

The generative question energizing our project, which we are calling TischPDX, is this: “How do we support Jews on the margins of our organized Jewish community, nascent leaders who are organizing, mostly on a small scale, communal spiritual and cultural activities that have the potential to re-energize Jewish communal life?”

How it Works:​ We are building a cohort of such leaders in order to support them and encourage them to support each other. We provide resources and mentorship through three foundational pillars: ​Torah, leadership development and community organizing, helping them to ground and further their work and, thus, benefit our community at large. Our cohort leadership model builds strong, resilient, collaborative community leaders. They are able to identify strengths and weaknesses, and set goals and benchmarks to facilitate growth over the 9-month period of each Tisch year.

The initial cohort of individuals representing six Portland Jewish start-ups will begin meeting monthly in Elul of 5778 (August 2018) for mutual support and learning, a shared meal and access to advisory board expertise in leadership development.

What is different:​ We are not inviting marginalized Jews into programs that will dictate to them what they should do. There already are successful independent models of Jewish leadership and organizing on Portland’s East Side. To the extent that such Jews exist in isolation from each other and from the greater organized Jewish community, they sometimes suffer from a lack of staying power. The Tisch offers an opportunity to bring these disparate groups together to mutually support and learn – not only organizing techniques, but also the Torah that also supports the work they seek to do. In this way we protect and nurture the emergent energy of these Jewish start-ups, energy which then suffuses the established Jewish community with new ideas, and new vision, for whatever 21st century Judaism will be.

1 Rabbi Sid Schwarz,  “​Making a Spiritual Future for America’s Jewish Community​,” Jewish Forward, May 5, 2016.

Roger Studley, Urban Moshav, Albany, CA

Urban Moshav is a non-profit development partner for creating Jewish cohousing.

  • Cohousing is a form of intentional neighborhood, with private homes and extensive common facilities, in which people know their neighbors well and are deeply engaged in community life.
  • Jewish cohousing is a modern village where neighbors engage together in Jewish ritual, study, and culture, creating a milieu in which daily life is infused with Jewish life and where Jewish literacy, identity, and values can flourish.

One evening, in a Jewish cohousing community…


Rachel’s gentle admonition echoed lightly in the busy courtyard of Berkeley Moshav. When it reached Jake’s ears, he excused himself from a pleasant schmooze with Mordy and Esther, dodged an errant ga-ga ball and its two excited pursuers, waved to Naomi and Ruth as they picked tomatoes for a community Shabbat dinner from the shared garden (while quizzing their daughters on the day’s Hebrew lesson), and approached his wife.

“I expected you an hour ago!” Rachel chided unconvincingly. She knew well that extended neighborly chats — not to mention impromptu meal invitations, minyan-making, childcare trades, and music jams — were the happy hazards of life among the community’s 25 close-knit households.

Given the benefits of living in community, and recent attention on the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness, the absence of neighborhoods like Rachel and Jake’s is surprising. People flourish in community.

Jewish life also flourishes in community. Mordecai Kaplan (among others) noted that Jews thrived in the diaspora largely because we lived in community. Imbuing daily life with Jewish community and meaning is how Jewish life has persisted over the centuries.

What exactly is community? It is more than simply relationships or social networks: Community is mutual, deep, and sustained interconnectedness among a group of people. This type of interconnectedness nurtured people in tribes, villages, and neighborhoods of old but is mostly absent from modern life — leaving a void between the intimacy of family and the disconnectedness of our cities and suburbs.

Cohousing can fill this void and restore the intermediate cradle of community. A form of intentional neighborhood, cohousing is characterized by private residences, extensive common facilities, and a balance between communal and private life — similar to an Israeli moshav. A critical feature is a commitment among residents to participate actively in neighborhood life.

Jewish cohousing, as described and depicted above, will harness the established cohousing model in support of Jewish life. Residents — who will ideally be diverse in age, family composition, economic circumstance, and Jewish observance — will together negotiate communal aspects of Jewish observance (e.g., kashrut in the group kitchen) while respecting, accepting, and valuing variations in personal observance (e.g., kashrut in individual homes). Jewish life will be integrated with secular life and reinforced by the bonds of community. Children growing up in Jewish cohousing will be more Jewishly literate and attached to their Jewish identities, making it easier for them to retain these identities after leaving the nest. In Jewish cohousing, Jewish life will strengthen community and the community will nurture Jewish life.

Rabbi Bridget Wynne, Jewish Gateways, Albany, CA

Jewish Gateways is an open, pluralistic community that invites all to explore and connect with Jewish tradition through learning, celebration, and spirituality. Our “come as you are, no experience necessary” environment encourages wandering and wondering Jews and their families and friends to discover what is personally meaningful. Jewish Gateways responds to the many Jews who wonder whether Judaism might enrich their lives, yet have not found comfortable ways to explore this.

One element participants find compelling is feeling appreciated as the people they are, rather than sensing that “we” – a Jewish organization – may try to convince them to be “more Jewish.” They discover that Jewish Gateways is a community they can help shape, and that our goal is for them to explore Jewish knowledge, experiences, and community as they choose.

Another element that excites participants is discovering that Judaism speaks to human yearnings and big life questions, rather than being a collection of rituals they “should” do because their parents were Jewish; because “it’s good to give your children a foundation”; or other abstract reasons.

We offer Jewish activities that are intellectually honest and spiritually sophisticated, that speak to people with a range of Jewish knowledge, including almost none. Many participants feel competent in other areas of their lives, but not in Jewish environments. We recognize them as people with a lot to contribute rather than having something lacking. We do not assume that they know Hebrew, Yiddish, or Jewish concepts, are Jewish, or that Jewishness is their primary identity. We welcome a diversity of experiences and viewpoints, and explicitly affirm how diversity enriches rather than is a challenge to our community. We help participants connect Jewish learning and practices with their own desires for wisdom, community, making a difference in the world, or whatever else Judaism might speak to in their lives.

We see Jewish tradition as belonging to all and we try to make this as real as possible. Our activities for children also include adult family members; often adults have time separate from their children to build community with one another and explore the same topics as their children on an adult level. This helps parents gain the relationships and knowledge they need to shape their families’ Jewish lives.

We reinforce the message that people can take ownership of their Jewishness in many ways, such as by: 1) meeting in homes, parks, and other non-institutional spaces; 2) responding to participants’ interests and involving them in creating activities rather than starting with activities and encouraging participation; 3) supporting people to form face-to-face communities so they have the relationships necessary to create Jewish experiences.

Jewish Gateways does not have membership, since so many Jews experience it as an emotionally-charged barrier. At the same time, we do not offer experiences for families and individuals to choose as consumers. We are creating a new model that is more open than a synagogue and, at the same time, invites participants to choose and create their own connections to Judaism.

Talia Liben Yarmush-Achayot, Sisterhood of Women Writers, Linden, NJ

In recognition of the rich legacy of Jewish text and tradition, and a desire to incorporate this legacy into our own writing, Achayot is dedicated to the creation, cultivation, and promotion of Jewish literature by women. Historically, with George Eliot and the Bronte sisters, up to as recently as J.K. Rowling, there are many famous examples of women using male pen names or intentionally hiding their full names, in an effort to be taken seriously as writers. And while women – and indeed, Jewish women – are a demographic of book buyers and readers, we still encounter the same roadblocks in the writing and publishing industries as we do in the rest of the workforce.

Achayot is an intentional community whose mission is to connect Jewish women writers to each other, to opportunities and kinship, and to connect the world to the writing of Jewish women. We are a professional network, learning from each other and linking one another to opportunities and shared knowledge. We are a community of friends, of mentors and mentees, and of shared goals. We are an art collective, running workshops and retreats to nurture creativity while infusing our writing with Jewish text and tradition.

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