All participants in the 2020 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.
Arielle Aronoff, Teva, Falls Village, CT
Teva works to fundamentally transform Jewish education through experiential learning that fosters Jewish ecological, and food sustainability. We work with a framework of awareness, togetherness, ecology, and responsibility with the lens of Jewish wisdom to guide us.
Teva sensitizes participants to the natural rhythms and patterns of their environment. We take the time to open our senses and appreciate our surroundings. Each morning we pray, join together in song to exclaim the wonders of creation and give thanks for the gifts of this physical realm. We enter into the forest with kavanah, the intention to open our senses. We look, smell, touch, taste, and listen to the ecosystem.
Teva builds community. Twelve educators and a medic live and work together for three months in a seven-bedroom house. During their three-week training, educators learn what it means to teach. Not only do they learn pedagogy and tree identification, but they gain the skills necessary to live in community. How do we use non-violent communication and build relationships with consent? When our ideologies clash, how do we reconcile our differences and find the common ground that unites us? We do this through conversation, play, and reflection. This work is modeled to our students and exemplified through group building games and their debriefs.
Teva means nature. Ecology is the study of homes. The forest is our classroom. Teva students and educators learn about the homes that create our New England ecosystem. We teach how carbon is transferred from one living organism to the next through the process of the food web and decomposition. We teach how every organism, including us humans, is intrinsically linked to every other organism. Trees are connected through the mycelial network, underground fungal roots. Squirrels and oak trees are in a symbiotic relationship where the existence and actions of one, benefits the other.
Teva educators and students leave our program as Shomrei Adamah, Guardians of the Earth. The tofu I ate for dinner in northwest Connecticut is a part of the system that is destroying the rainforests of the Amazon Basin. How do we change our behaviors to have a positive impact on the world and help to mitigate the climate crisis? Each participant creates a Brit Hazon, a Visionary Promise, to make a change in their individual behavior for six weeks. In addition, each school comes away from Teva with a student generated project based on what has inspired them at Teva.
Through nature immersion, Teva breaks down the barriers that we hold so rigid in our everyday lives. Students come off the bus from their cities and suburbs feeling nervous, excited, homesick, a little annoyed that we didn’t allow them to bring their cell phones, and curious about what is to come. Teva educators arrived in much the same way. We greet them with song and enthusiasm and, above all, an interest in their individual well-being. This individualized and unique attention brings out the best in people. They feel safe and trusting, ready to go into the forest unknown and open to radical amazement.
Robin Atlas, American Guild of Judaic Art, Seattle, WA
I became president of the American Guild of Judaic Art in 2019. Over the last 27 years, the Guild has morphed from a “marketplace” organization – its membership composed of artisans and creators of Judaica – into an organization whose membership is a mix of contemporary Jewish artists and artisans.
When I first became president of the Guild, I asked myself: “how do I effectively represent the needs of both camps while still staying within the guidelines of the AGJA mission”. I felt that this issue had not been successfully addressed within the organization and over time seemed to create conflict, confusion, and dissention within the organization itself and among our membership.
When I look back on my first year as president, I believe that the “secret sauce” was a board that was willing to take risks and go outside of its comfort zone to try new ideas. First, we identified four areas of focus: artist empowerment, artist advocacy, community, and education. Then, we worked together to create programming that supported those areas. Our board was open to a whole host of creative ideas and directions, the newness of which at times made some of the board members uncomfortable – yet, they took the risk all the same.
As a result, in 2019 we launched a number of initiatives and events including, a member trip to Israel; three new Guild-funded grants for the benefit of our members; fiscal sponsorship to enable the Guild to receive tax exempt contributions and apply for grants from institutions otherwise closed to us; and a revamped and revitalized website. I believe that these new programs have invigorated our members, created more traffic on our website, and generated new membership. None of this would have happened without the “secret sauce”. The Guild is now poised to further advance its mission and goals. We hope to become a desired partner of Jewish cultural and educational institutions, foundations, and philanthropic organizations to advance the collective goal of Jewish well-being.
Arinne Braverman, The Tribe, Boston, MA
The Tribe strengthens Jewish identity and character by teaching Jewish values experientially, builds Jewish community by creating connections with other Jewish families, and strengthens Jewish families by deepening the parent-child relationship.
The Tribe helps families create meaningful quality time together, making new Jewish memories centering around Jewish values. Approximately eight families, grouped by shared geography, language spoken, or other another affinity, are hosted as a “tribe” on a rotating basis in the home of a participating family or at a community building for two hours, once per month. Additionally, families are provided with optional Jewish values-based activities and an optional Jewish values-based 5-minute video series to engage in at home each month, on their own time.
The program was designed to distribute responsibility for hosting meaningful Jewish family experiences among participants, deepening their investment and giving them ownership over what they choose to do and learn. Families are encouraged to adapt The Tribe’s games, activities, and discussions as needed, selecting the parts that most resonate for implementation.
Secret sauce: The focus on relationship-building between parent and child, between children, and between parents is equal to the focus on meaningful Jewish content. This structural choice to invest in families’ own priorities and stated goals strengthens Jewish outcomes, rather than compromising them. In The Tribe’s first year, families reported a 260% increase in feeling connected to the Jewish community and reported a 69% increase in the frequency of intentionally engaging in “living Jewish values and doing ‘good deeds’” on a monthly or more frequent basis.
David Chack, ShPIeL-Performing Identity, Chicago, IL and Louisville, KY
As Producing Artistic Director of ShPIeL-Performing Identity, a theatre project in Chicago and in Louisville, our mission has been to bring theatre, performance and collateral programming, with the goal of building empathy, awareness, heritage and cultural identity, so as to bring peoples together.
Through the works we have developed and produced we practice the collaborative model we preach by joining together with Jews and non-Jews, people of all cultures and orientations, as well as reaching out to Jews from many ethnicities and narratives. ShPIeL strongly believes in collaborative creativity and identity for a transcultural world and, in so doing, combatting the rise of supremacism of all kinds.
Jewish culture is a vital answer to anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Instead of hiding or assimilating, Jewish culture is in a “from generation to generation” moment. ShPIeL supports and engages with Jewish artists of high quality and strong identity to tell their stories as well as to engage with the stories of others who do not necessarily see themselves within our narratives such as African-Americans, LGBTQ, Christians, Muslims, and others. Through research that I have done there is substantial evidence that when we deeply engage with the “other” in a meaningful experience such as arts and culture, we become stronger in our own identities.
An example of this is what we accomplished this past fall. ShPIeL founded TEATRON: The First Jewish Theatre Festival in Chicago and the first of its kind in the U.S. (at Tony Award winning Victory Gardens Theater). We performed staged readings, new plays from emerging young Jewish theatremakers from Ashkenazic, Israeli, and Mizrahi backgrounds, musicals from Jewish cabaret and operettas, comedy à la Second City, and solo plays — all over the course of a week. Now, we are building and planning for the next one in 2021 in Chicago.
I recently read a piece by a woman who had just recently, returned to positive identification as a Jew. It articulated the essence of what we are trying to achieve with ShPIeL: “As our country becomes a scarier place to be Jewish, our act of resistance is to embrace our faith and our culture with both arms. It is through turning toward, instead of turning away, that we connect to our roots as oppressed people….Instead of turning away from our community, we are choosing to become part of it for the first time in our adult lives.”
Bradley Caro Cook, Ed.D., Career Up Now, Los Angeles, CA
The majority of young Jewish adults are not connected to Jewish communities and, at the same time, they are searching for places to advance their personal and professional lives. Career Up Now works to develop communities that both advance the lives of these emerging professionals and simultaneously strengthens Jewish communities. Our mission is to empower Jewish emerging professionals to advance in their careers while incorporating Jewish values into their lives, through innovative networking and education opportunities with Jewish industry leaders.
Using the inherent spiritual value of a Jewish community and Judaism’s timeless wisdom to help empower young professionals to integrate and find relevance and meaning in their professional, personal and spiritual lives by helping emerging professionals find:
PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS: (kenesa)
PERSONAL FULFILLMENT: (kehilla)
SPIRITUAL GROWTH: (chokhmah)
While some emerging professionals (ages 20-26) come to us through partnerships with other Jewish organizations, most are drawn to CU-Now because of its “career” hook and tend to be Jewishly disengaged. Approximately half of CU-Now’s current participants self-identify as having minimal Jewish engagement.
Our flagship program is our industry-specific cohorts that bring together emerging professionals and industry leaders for 2-day, immersive group-learning experiences and a variety of follow-up programs. At these intergenerational, relationship building meetings, Jewish professionals of all affiliations, ages and backgrounds explore Judaism’s timeless wisdom and find connection, meaning, and purpose for their professional and personal lives.
We also offer “Women of Wisdom,” women’s empowerment programming through a Jewish lens; “Wisdom Buffets,” interactive Jewish learning gathering for young professionals; “Wisdom on Campus,” student-led, career advancing, wisdom-sharing evenings on college campuses; and “Wisdom Wednesdays,” an online weekly Jewish learning program focusing on the “intersection” of career and Jewish values.
Since our inception in 2016, over 2,000 individuals in nine cities have engaged in Jewish learning and life. The vast majority are still engaged with Judaism – and with CU-Now. Yet we’ve come to the realization that we need to do more than offer career advancement with a Jewish focus. We need to empower young Jews to not only integrate Jewish wisdom into their personal and professional levels, but build communities built on those values.
Rabbi Jessy Dressin, Repair the World, Baltimore, MD
I recently transitioned into a new role as the City Director for Repair the World Baltimore, also serving as the resident rabbi in the organization. Prior to this new appointment, I was working as a community rabbi in Baltimore. I was hired by the community in 2012 as part of an initiative to engage young adults and build community among those who were not seeking traditional entry points to Jewish life. I founded a community effort, Charm City Tribe, which used a three-pronged community organizing approach to convene people looking to tap into Jewish culture and tradition in creative and meaningful ways. The method utilized 1:1 relationship building, ongoing opportunities to learn and connect in small group settings and large-scale holiday events following the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. The work was aimed at three primary goals: personal meaning making; the imperative to be part of a collective; and the effort to make the world a “better” (more just and equitable) place.
The move to Repair the World was prompted by a personal and professional thirst to go deeper into the work of the goals mentioned above, however with a keen awareness of the critical moment we are at as a people, generationally, politically and behaviorally.
I see the work to pursue social change through a lens of Jewish values as something that can be a double positive. First, the work is an invitation to mobilize the American Jewish community to make meaningful service a regular part of people’s life habits and to help impact social change in areas of need in our local communities. Second, the work makes a great case that Judaism and Torah wisdom remains relevant at a time when many would seek to claim the opposite. If Torah has something to say about systemic racism and gender non-conformity it challenges the perception that Torah is “for someone not like me.” I believe that Torah and Jewish values can be engaged at the intersection of personal and universal identity, a place where many young Jews express desire to be.
Repair the World is built on the idea that serving one’s community is the way that Jews become partners in building a more just and equitable community in the cities in which we live. We believe that service and being a good neighbor is integral to a meaningful Jewish identity. Young adults (and beyond) who are seeking personal meaning making, community and who seek to have broader societal impact are drawn to Repair. Our goal is to have our participants be able to articulate these three areas of connection as something that is deeply rooted in their Jewishness.
Mati Engel, Well of Wills, New York, NY
Well of Wills is an art collective and platform for socially-relevant, Jewishly inspired, feminist, community-driven artwork. We provide community, educational resources, and a laboratory for women to explore and investigate their spirituality and creative voice. Our work centers the female, non-binary, and trans experience, however we encourage people of all gender/identities to engage with our work and attend our programs.
- Empowers women’s ownership of their narratives through storytelling, performance, and ritual;
- Critically engages with our histories and theologies to navigate our current political climate and seek liberation for all;
- Centers women’s voices and leadership;
- Investigates pathways for Jewish tradition and text study to be lived and expressed as embodied art and artifacts through ritual labs.
Our Name/Our Vision
Well of Wills is our ward against the fears, doubts, and stagnancy that can block us on our creative, spiritual paths. A well. A source of water: life (…and a symbol of Desire, according to the Jewish mystics). The site of ancient miracles and prayer. Within every human being is a Well of Wills. A fountain of divine desires. Grounded in this consciousness and the particulars of our lives, we ask: What can be emptied, released, made to flow, healed and/or transformed? We have directed a number of theatrical performances for a Jewish audience, as well as crafted a feminist-driven summer workshop series entitled: Speaking Ourselves Into Power– opening pathways to feminine embodiment, critical textual study, narrative-construction and self-expression.
Dr. Shana Erenberg, Libenu, Chicago, IL
Libenu was founded in 2010 as a not-for-profit organization that provides kosher residential, vocational, social and recreational programs, and respite services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Metropolitan Chicago. The organization was created in response to the paucity of services relative to the significant, immediate needs of the population. Libenu opened its first kosher home for Jewish adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD) in 2011 and its subsequent growth has been exponential. Since its inception, Libenu has become the premier provider of person-centered, inclusion-based programs that offer the gold standard of care in four kosher state-of-the-art residences; the Lev Chicago Respite program; the Cupful’s of Love social enterprise; and has formed partnerships that help maximize resources. Libenu, from the Hebrew word meaning “Our Hearts”, reflects a heartfelt commitment to enabling people with disabilities to live their best lives and maximize their independence and self-determination in an inclusive community setting. Recognized for expertise in the field, Libenu has become a national consultant for communities across the U.S. seeking to replicate our programs. In addition, Libenu was selected by Upstart Accelerator in 2016 and by Slingshot in 2018 as one of the most innovative Jewish not-for-profit organizations in the U.S.
Libenu’s mission is to provide kosher residential, vocational, social, recreational, and respite opportunities for children and adults with developmental disabilities, enabling them to live with dignity and respect, as fully included members of our community.
It is our vision that every Jewish adult with a developmental disability who so desires will live in a residence that provides a gold standard of care; is person-centered, safe, comfortable, inclusive, and familiar. We envision a full, meaningful life for our residents and facilitate their connection to Jewish tradition and community. In addition, every adult with a developmental disability will maximize his/her independence and self-sufficiency through gainful employment and/or a meaningful day program. Families with younger children and teens who have special needs will be able to access quality respite services so that they can take a break from the stressful demand of continuous caregiving.
Libenu’s “secret sauce” is simple: Passion (expertise+Jewish values+execution)=Impact.
From Libenu’s staff to its board, the organization has the collective experience and knowledge that enable us to provide the gold standard in all of our programs for individuals with special needs and their families. Libenu is rooted in Jewish values and predicated on a philosophy of inclusion. Multiplied by the passion and energy of our leadership, partnerships, lay-leaders, and supporters, Libenu’s “secret sauce” provides a lifetime of meaning through a lifetime of care.
Elly Faden, Healing Words from the Tree of Life, Hazlet Twp, NJ
Research for Healing Words from the Tree of Life began in the 1980’s in the Stanford University stacks. As a young adult who had recently married at my family’s synagogue in Queens, NY and moved cross country to work in Silicon Valley, I brought technical skills to answering my burning question, “how could there be alcoholism in my upstanding Reform Jewish family?” Not surprisingly, the statistics were universal: 15-25%. Next, I grappled with painful questions about domestic violence. How could my upstanding Reform family hide severe abuse behind closed doors? Wanting to protect my mother, grandmother and younger siblings from my father’s dangerous rage, I also had to come to terms with my mother’s behavior feeding the abuse. I began working through decades of problems, including PTSD and compulsive overeating.
I launched Healing Words from the Tree of Life as a program for introspective people who would like guidance on self-development by exploring the personality attributes denoted in the Tree of Life. Our membership includes spiritual seekers and people who are seeking solutions to personal and interpersonal conflicts.
Using the words that are reviewed in the Counting of the Omer, we spend a week at a time focusing on one Sephirah or Sub-Sephirah in the Tree of Life. We follow the traditional techniques of moving down the Tree from Chesed to Malkut, and learn about how to move energy from the Right Pillar over the Left Pillar to balance the Middle Pillar energy. Individuals have the opportunity to select a word of the week – from the virtues and vices of the week – that jumps out and is meaningful to them. Or, they may select three Sacred Words to work on regularly until the behavior is improved. We use a quick meditation to ponder what the word means personally and how to attain the more positive aspect of the word that is revealed in our program.
Our members have attended the sessions in Open Secret Bookstore in Marin County, CA and the Art House Gallery in Berkeley, CA. We have given talks in NY for the Mosaic Outdoor Community, and have a weekly online support group on Mondays at noon (EST).
Through a series of talks led by me, participants in the weekly support group discover the words of the week and select their word. They participate in a one-minute meditation and then share their feedback with other members of the group. Members have expressed that their experience is uplifting and beneficial to their mental health and enjoy the format of attending at will and taking away a new perspective and opportunity to balance the pillars on their Tree of Life.
The mission of Healing Words from the Tree of Life is to bring the technique of focusing on spiritual health through balancing the energies we are granted in our Trees of Life to all Jewish communities – especially ones in which spiritual and psychological suffering need to be addressed.
David Franklin, JEWS, ROCK & ROLL, Hartford, CT
JEWS, ROCK & ROLL, a museum show and documentary film project about the role of Jews in helping shape American popular culture. We expect that the documentary could reach a million viewers, and that over 500,000 people will see the museum exhibit as it travels to over twenty cities.
JEWS, ROCK & ROLL brings to life the story Jewish Americans’ pivotal role in creating popular music. Through portraits of musicians, songwriters, and executives, set against the backdrop of a century of American Jewish history, the film and exhibit examine how Jews shaped our most iconic cultural creation and, in so doing, helped reshape America itself.
In the end, JEWS, ROCK & ROLL will be a thrilling ride through a century of amazing music, and a vibrant conversation about the essential role that an outsider people have had in defining what it is to be American. The story will be brought to life with powerful interviews with dozens of musicians and other witnesses to the history, exhaustively researched archival footage and photos, and a soundtrack of some of the greatest recordings ever made.
Using Pop Culture to Tell Deeper Stories
We hope to address long held concerns about waning Jewish identity and achieve some long-term engagement impact by training Jewish educators and docents to lead classes and discussion groups on the legacy and progeny on Jews in Rock & Roll. We are developing special engagement experiences, such as special young adult outreach events, curriculum for Jewish educators and training for docents and songwriting workshops with local music schools. These unique programs can have a ripple effect in developing local partnerships that engage a community in innovative and creative ways. With the help of our incredible roster of Jewish musicians, industry executives, academic advisors and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, we plan to develop associated educational resources and materials never before created for elementary school, high school, college and adult audiences.
JEWS, ROCK & ROLL Traveling Pop-Up Museum will be a new popular culture experience for the Jewish community and beyond. This interactive exhibit will bring to life the history and influence of American Jews in popular music from the songwriters and agents of the 1930’s to today’s mega pop stars. From Alan Freed to Regina Spektor, Gene Simmons of KISS to Carole King, and Mike Gordon of Phish to Pink, the impact of these musicians, songwriters, performers and industry mavens on Rock & Roll music is nothing short of astounding.
JEWS, ROCK & ROLL won’t just tell that story, it will serve as a model of Jewish community engagement, connecting hard-to-reach segments of the community. Those who wouldn’t otherwise consider attending a “Jewish event” will flock to this dynamic, experiential, educationally rich exhibit. All of our projects have been built on some sort of mainstream appeal, and JEWS, ROCK & ROLL is no different. Bringing Jewish culture events to the widest possible audiences is what we as Downtown Arts Development, the non-profit developing this project, do best.
Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, Montreal Open Shul, Montreal, Quebec
Driven by a post-denominational clergy collaboration and inspired by contemporary movements in Jewish spirituality, Montreal Open Shul (MOS) was born almost two years ago. MOS is dedicated to creating and celebrating innovative and inclusive opportunities for contemplative and experiential Jewish practice, life cycle rituals, learning, community building, and social change. Not bound by a particular location, we meet in yoga studios, the JCC, cafés, synagogues, homes, event venues and various religiously unconventional spaces around the city, bringing joy, spirit, song and celebration to places without a Jewish institutional presence. We welcome the unaffiliated, as well as those looking to enrich their current Jewish experience and practices.
One element of Montreal Open Shul that we believe makes it compelling to participants is that our clergy team emerged from three distinct denominations in Judaism to build a post-denominational spiritual community. Our participants have said that they appreciate the diversity of Jewish clergy presence and gender, and enjoy the experience of praying, learning, celebrating and doing ritual in different ways. Many participants also appreciate not having to identify with one denomination over another in order to practice and live a Judaism with depth and meaning.
Another element that is central to our success is that, in all our programs, we build in multiple opportunities for one-on-one, small-group and large-group experiences so that participants can learn from one another, share abilities, talent and expertise, and create meaningful interpersonal connections. We believe that being heard is one of the greatest human needs, and we provide many opportunities for participants to do just that. We have seen that participants get the most out of the programs when they are involved and engaged, and so we have made accessibility a core value which lowers or removes barriers to participation and helps participants become and remain involved.
Rabbi Justin Goldstein, Yesod Farm+Kitchen, Ashville, NC
Yesod Farm+Kitchen is a community space dedicated to regenerative agriculture, earth-based Jewish living, and growing relationships across difference. We steward 16 acres of ancestral Catawba and Tsalaguwetiyi (Eastern Cherokee) land near Ashville, North Carolina.
Yesod Farm+Kitchen brings people into relationship with land through the lens of the agricultural wisdom and practices of the Jewish tradition. We seek to live in regenerative relationship with community and the environment inspired by our own ancestral wisdom and the ancestral wisdom traditions of original inhabitants of this region. We are inspired by the teachings of shabbat, shmitah, and yovel as practices to create just and sustainable community. We see in Jewish tradition relevant, ancient wisdom to guide us in navigating the contemporary world. Through incorporating ancient Jewish farming practices, principles of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, and celebrating life and harvest within the context of the Jewish calendar, we bring people into deep and substantive relationship with Jewish culture, land stewardship, and community building. Through experiential programming and farming opportunities, Yesod Farm+Kitchen creates a community-oriented space to explore the wisdom of the Jewish tradition through the agricultural cycles of the year. We host educational experiences, agricultural celebrations, community gatherings, and retreats. We practice radical hospitality by offering gathering and retreat space for organizations and individuals working for a more just and kind world.
While our official programming will not begin until Spring 2020, we have already experienced an incredible excitement from people who have visited us in person and others with whom we have shared our vision, especially among Jewish individuals who have not found communal or spiritual homes in synagogues and other legacy Jewish institutions. The most significant aspect of this endeavor is curating experiences for people looking to connect to the earth-based roots of Jewish practice and tradition.
Most Jewish Americans seem woefully uninformed of the deep practical and spiritual wisdom found in Jewish tradition grounded in relationship with the earth. People are energized by the opportunity to see ancestral Jewish farming practices in tangible action and off the pages of the Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, or a text source-sheet. In addition to the programming and farming, people have been especially responsive to a community space and resource which practices radical hospitality and deep inclusivity. We host like-hearted organizations by offering meeting space, we collaborate with other farmers and social justice organizations who work on building relationships across difference, and very seriously endeavor to embody the best values passed down through generations of Jewish lineage. This has made our project accessible to non-Jewish community members with little to no knowledge or experience with Jewish culture.
Rabbi Andrew Hahn, Kirtan Rabbi Prayer Initiative, New York, NY
Kirtan Rabbi—both as a musical experiential happening, as well as to the concept of an individual rabbi-musician who brings concerts and chant-laced services to synagogues, yoga studios and festivals around the world—is in a state of change and reassessment. First, a short definition: Hebrew Kirtan—inspired by a form of devotional prayer developed in India—is continual call-and-response, participatory chant where short, sacred phrases from the Jewish tradition are treated as powerful, universal meditations. It is at once contemplative, ecstatic and simply fun.
When we began to offer Kirtan in the Hebrew language, our guiding intention was taken from A.J. Heschel: “First we sing, then we believe!” And the mission tagline has been: “Bringing Yogic Meditation to the Jewish World; Bringing Jewish Wisdom to the Yoga World.” As such, Kirtan Rabbi has not been an organization in any usual sense of the word: We have not been about community building, even if a substantial following has grown up around the practice. Nor have we intentionally set ourselves to the task of envisioning the Jewish future.
Kirtan Rabbi has been about creating a meditative experience—and, indeed, one directed not only to Jews, but to anyone who simply wants to chant in the Hebrew language. In so doing, we have focused primarily on two things: 1) On the power of the experience itself, perhaps prayerful, perhaps also inspiring communal feeling that those in the room have in the moment. And, 2) we have sought to foster the cultivation of a practice of group connection to the Divine (Deveikut) which might become serviceable in the lives of those who participate. In other words, something which, optimally, they can tap into during stressful times (e.g. shabbat).
Over the last 16 years, Kirtan Rabbi has traveled to all corners of the United States, as well as internationally to places as far-flung as Hong Kong and Jerusalem. We have produced three CDs—Kirtan Rabbi: Live!; Achat Shaalti; and Nondual—as well as a single, Shiviti. A new EP, Hallel, is expected in 2020. We have touched many peoples’ lives, yet have lacked for ongoing connection.
To address this—and here is the “change and reassessment” mentioned above—we have formed the Kirtan Rabbi Prayer Initiative (KRPI), a not-for-profit fiscally sponsored by Clal. The goals of KRPI are to create something more sustainable and durable. Specifically, we are seeking to expand in three areas:
1. Prayer. To move beyond one-off “concerts” and establish Hebrew Kirtan as a legitimate form of prayer, during service times, for those who best connect to God via chant and meditation. (In this sense, a Kirtan “synagogue” is wholly possible.)
2. Training. Over the course of the next years, KRPI will seek to train more leaders in the kirtan practice, even offering a certification program, “not for clergy only.”
3. Communication. To share via blogging, books and articles more of the theory behind kirtan practice and how it might provide additional spiritual energy to the Jewish future.
Rabbi Denise Handlarski, Secular Synagogue.com, Toronto, Ontario
One day I was scrolling through social media after a very long day and I was noticing that nothing in there was actually making me feel good. The “perfect” Instagram photos seemed hollow to me. The twitter-verse was full of people being terrible. My Facebook feed was full of bad news stories. And, yet, I could not get off the couch.
I should probably have gone to meditate or something but I was so flattened I just needed to keep scrolling. And then it hit me… what if there was something worth scrolling for? What if social media was used to actually connect people the way we all think it should (but then end up feeling more disconnected than before).
I decided to start SecularSynagogue.com, an online community for secular/cultural Jews because I wanted to fill our feeds with inspiration, learning, connection, social justice work, and overall goodness. And then — I can’t believe it — that’s exactly what happened! I’d like to take all the credit but really, it’s the community that makes our group what it is.
I come from a traditional yet untraditional congregational setting. I am the rabbi at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, which is affiliated with the movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism. We do lots of things that feel familiar for those used to congregations: services, adult and children’s education, life cycle events, holiday celebrations, arts and culture programs. The difference is that the content of these is entirely focused on humanity and this world, there is no element of the supernatural; no prayer. While to some, this idea is radical, the movement has been around for over fifty years. And despite our somewhat untraditional offerings, we are still housed in largely traditional settings: dues-based congregations. As such, we face many of the same challenges as do Jewish congregations across the liberal streams of Judaism– declining membership and an aging population.
What I knew while I was scrolling that day was that many people out there were like me: secular and Jewishly engaged, wanting to be part of some kind of Jewish community, but they hadn’t been able to connect.
I knew that the celebration, learning, and offerings of my community were valuable and meaningful, but we weren’t reaching people where they were at. Where they were at was their couch. Our mission statement is: SecularSynagogue.com aspires to create meaningful, valuable, beautiful Jewish learning, experiences, and community for secular/cultural Jews. Our Judaism will foster two-directional goodness: it will make our lives richer/better and, in turn, it will make us better so that we can create more goodness in the world.
We are a global community that comes together online to do Jewish learning, ritual, celebration, practice, and community support. We have members all over the world. We could never do this in an in-person community. The pressures of time and distance make it impossible. We are forging together a digital Judaism that is inspiring and enriching.
Stuart Himmelfarb, B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, New York, NY
B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform started in 2010 due to the realization that, at a time when Baby Boomers were approaching or experiencing an unprecedented life stage—between mid-life careers and child-rearing on one hand and retirement, whatever that is, on the other—the Jewish community, locally and nationally, was unprepared and unresponsive.
B3’s mission is to engage—or re-engage—Boomers in Jewish life and to do so with attention to intergenerational connections. This mission was totally not compelling if we measure this in terms of traction with funders and organizations. We had none. Most people and institutions simply said, “you guys are onto something but: 1) we’re only interested in next gen; or 2) we don’t have the resources to take on a challenge of this magnitude.”
Therefore, one element of B3’s success was our tenacity. We changed tactics (not mission) and fielded a national, intergenerational survey that engaged 40 federations and another 15 organizations as partners. The survey helped us place Boomers in the larger context of the (then) four adult cohorts active in Jewish life. (We say “then” because now, with Gen Z, there are five.)
We also began to find partners and fielded some projects to test our hypotheses about the potential to engage (or re-engage) Boomers in Jewish life. We spent three years in Palm Beach County leading a community-wide effort, funded by the Federation, to develop new models of engagement for Boomers and emphasizing collaboration among agencies and organizations interested in this group.
There is also a logic to our work: We believe that Boomers are more like the succeeding generations than the preceding group (Boomers invented “the generation gap” to describe their relationship to their parents.) As a result, if we can help crack the code for Boomer engagement in the current cultural landscape, then it might have implications for future generations of Jews as well.
We also believe that engagement efforts focused on one cohort must recognize that trends and interests in the real world do not always align with date-of-birth. As a result, we expanded our exploration of the forces affecting Boomer engagement because these forces are part of the larger American landscape. Thus, behaviors such as episodic engagement, reliance on social media, diminished interest in formal membership, declining interest in affiliation, and general anti- or post-institutionalism combine to impede not only Boomer connections, but those of other cohorts as well.
Finally, the catalyst for increased interest in Boomers appeared in the past few years through the issue of engaging grandparents in transmitting Jewish values to their grandchildren. This has finally captured the attention of funders and organizations. This is, of course, a welcome development unless it distracts Jewish organizations and synagogues from igniting interest among Boomers in their own Jewish journeys and not only those of their grandchildren. The latter, we believe, would be a missed opportunity because Boomers would only vicariously explore the power of Jewish connections and we will have failed to engage or re-engage themselves in Jewish life.
Arielle Korman, Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy, New York, NY
When it comes to describing how “we” built Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy, the first thing to do is to examine who’s contained in that “we.” Elders who have been navigating Jewish spaces for years as Jewish people of Color laid the foundation with their visibility, relationship building, and resilience. Those who chose to leave Jewish educational spaces and express their Judaism differently laid our foundation. And those who have chosen to remain, despite experiencing racism laid our foundation. We owe a great debt to rabbis such as Alysa Stanton, Sandra Lawson, Mira Rivera, Isaiah Rothstein, Angela Buchdahl and more. Yavilah McCoy’s decades of organizing Jews of Color, her coining of the term, and her use of the phrase “Jews of Color Torah Academy” in her work, all directly lead to the creation of Ammud.
In December 2018, Yehudah Webster and I sat down for a meeting. At the time, he was the interim Jews of Color organizer at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice where I was a Grace Paley Organizing Fellow. I came to him with an idea; I wanted to teach a small class for Jews of Color on the politics of Hebrew pronunciation. Yehudah essentially one-upped me; he wondered if, together, we could build a container that could house that learning and other classes too. An environment for Jewish education by Jews of Color, for Jews of Color.
Ammud has become just that–a container for Jews of Color to learn, grapple and grow as individuals and as a community. We gather at NYU’s Bronfman Center once or twice a week, depending on the week. We offer seminar-style classes, using a variety of sources to grapple with topics such as the future of the term “JOC” or the relationship of Sephardi and Mizrahi identities and the use of those terminologies. We also offer beginning Hebrew classes, providing, beyond just instruction, a community of learners.
At Ammud, there are no litmus tests. We will never ask a person who walks in the door if and how they are Jewish, or even if and how they have come to define themselves as Jews of Color, even though our classes are restricted to those who identify as JOCs or, as we like to say, find themselves in the “messiness” of identity and are asking themselves if the term “JOC” is right for them. I think one element that has made us successful thus far is this opennesss, even while being an affinity community. We strive not to replicate the rejection so many Jews of Color feel in many other Jewish spaces.
The other element that has made the project successful so far is the extent to which it is a group effort. We have about ten people who serve on our board, which for us is a body mostly engaged in continuing to organize and grow our community as well as to run elements of the program. We strive for communal decision-making when possible, because this program belongs to no one person, but to the collective, and to those who have fought for years for such a space to be possible.
Casey Krebs, Latkes and Babka, Kingston, Ontario
Food in an important part of Jewish culture, yet many people misplace their grandparent’s recipes or, perhaps, never learn how to make the special dishes passed down through the generations in the first place. Those cursive hand-written notes in the margins of cookbooks are becoming lost, torn or faded. This is true not only for Gen Z and millennials but all of us because our world has become way too fast. When a person brings a store-bought gefilte fish to a Passover Seder, a small piece dies inside of me. Where exactly is our food coming from?
Too many people depend on “to-go”, and quick meals. Many of us have forgotten the long and loving process through which our food is made. Food should be grown in nutrient-rich soil by practicing shmita (allowing the land to lie fallow every seventh year) and tikkun olam (the repair of the world). The preparation of food should be peaceful, meditative and bonding. The sharing of a meal at a simcha (celebration) should be seen as a sacred act. A catered Rosh Hashana dinner, though delicious, is not what I’d like our future to look like.
This is where Latkes and Babka comes in. We are a group founded on bringing the joy back to Jewish cuisine through hands-on experiences in a nurturing, spiritual and nourishing way, all grounded in the teachings of Judaism.
The key ingredient (if you will) of our group is a forward thinking, progressive take on food. Our experiences with food, cooking and tasting are carefully curated to be timely while ensuring that we maintain and respect Jewish traditions. We create activities and experiences that our community is interested in. We don’t just bring honey to the table on Rosh Hashanah and dip our apples in it. Our group visits an apiary, meets actual honeybees, drones and Queen bees, extracts our own honey drippings from the comb, and tastes fresh honeycomb from that very morning. And then we bring that honey back to our table. We have learned about nature, planning, bees, earth, patience, cycles and taking time with these delicate creatures, and of course, with our food.
On Passover, we modernize our recipes by baking a “gluten-free” nut and seed bread together. For shabbat we talk about the significance of parve desserts and hold a hands-on cooking class that can include a raw/vegan dessert like our Raspberry Matcha Green Tea Cashew Cheesecake.
For Chanukah, we visit an olive oil dispensary with oils imported from Spain. We taste eight pairings for the eight nights of Chanukah such as blueberry lemon, or blackberry ginger and Lavender, or sage and cinnamon pear. We learn about each process from cold pressing to extract the oil to the infusing of flavor. We discuss and question the work that goes into each olive; the hours of labor, soil on the farm, and care for this ancient process.
Food tastes so much better when we created it with our love.
Latkes and Babka helps Jews move from fast back to slow, from disconnect to connection, and from in-attentiveness to mindfulness. We are creating a deeper connection with Judaism, with our traditions and with each other.
Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser, Devotaj Sacred Arts, Washington, DC
Devotaj Sacred Arts is a container for radical collaboration of artists, makers, practitioners and supporters that is rooted in Jewish mystical, magickal, healing, and folk practices across space, time, and all the worlds, founded by Kohenet Ketzirah (HaMa’agelet) Lesser.
“The Sacred Arts are an interdisciplinary practice of creating catalysts for spiritual or material change.”
We are artists, makers, and practitioners who do the work of co-creation with the Divine through divination (sacred listening), cræftwork (channeling the sacred into physical form), and ceremony (experiences to empower and transform). We craft new, ancient ways for people to engage with an active, embodied, earth-based, and magickal spiritual practice by building connections to the rich history of Jewish or other ancestral-line practices that were commonplace until only a few generations ago.
Devotaj Sacred Arts develops tools and resources for personal and communal spiritual practice as well as community connections to support those doing this work. We create objects and artifacts that serve not only as spiritual tools in the present, but also as a dialogue between the past and possible future(s).
Current projects include:
- Kesharim K’doshim (קשרים קדושים) / Sacred Connections Mussar which aligns 13 middot (soul-traits) with the months of the Jewish year and with the Netivot of Kohenet teachings. This approach to mussar, not only engages intellectually but also pairs that with embodied and metaphysical practices and awareness of spiralinear time.
- Eht/Aht: a Netivot Wisdom Oracle: This is an oracle card deck and companion book based on the teachings of Kohenet – a Jewish womxn’s movement, clergy training program, and beloved community and was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018.
- Devotaj Sacred Arts Academy: The Devotaj Sacred Arts Academy offers classes and teaching in three core areas divination, cræftwork, and ceremony. Our approach is to focus on fully embodying the role of the sacred artist/ practitioner, rather than focus on a specific medium or spiritual path.
Danielle Levsky, Alliance for Jewish Theatre, Chicago, IL
Alliance for Jewish Theatre is the leading organization for Jewish theatre worldwide. AJT is made up of theatre-artists, theatres, and other people connected to theatre to promote the creation, presentation, and preservation of both traditional and non-traditional theatrical endeavors by, for, and about the Jewish experience. Its mission is to develop, innovate, promote, and preserve theatre with a Jewish sensibility.
In the past year, Alliance for Jewish Theatre (AJT) has found much light in the darkness. In response to the international pandemic of COVID-19 that began in the spring of 2020, we forged the Telling Monologues as an outlet for artists to respond to COVID-19 and Pesach.
Later in 2020, we hosted an incredible virtual conference that had more than 200 attendees from all over the world including Hungary, Mexico, Israel, England, Canada, Uruguay, and all over the US, and included incredible speakers, such as Tony- and Grammy Award-winning producer Mara Isaacs and Tony Award-winning director Rebecca Taichman.
At the time of the conference, AJT Board President Hank Kimmel said: “The conference is a means to bring together a wide range of theatre practitioners who understand the importance of theatre as a means to express the best of Jewish values. We will obviously miss the in-person dynamic this year. However, through the virtual format, we hope that attendees from all over the world connect with each other, take these ideas home and transform them into something wonderfully tangible in their own communities.”
“We are excited about the accessibility the virtual format provides,” AJT Executive Director Jeremy Aluma added. “We have seen a huge increase in submissions this year. The pandemic has destroyed many things, but one of the silver linings is that it’s allowed us to more easily connect with theatre artists making Jewish content from around the world.”
AJT has held its conference annually since 1982. Previous conferences took place across America and around the world, most recently in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Previous featured speakers included Tovah Feldshuh, Theodore Bikel, Emily Mann, Kimberly Senior, and Aaron Posner.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, we added initiatives so that the artists in our community could connect even more easily, through our Public Member Directory, a monthly newsletter, our ever-growing social media footprint on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and a Bulletin Board, where our members can share their theatrical and artistic events.
We’ve also been able to diversify our monthly webinars and online meeting offerings, including an Artistic Director Panel, a Playwright Panel, an Ethiopian Jewish webinar, and multiple playwriting workshops. We established Artistic Director Talking Circles where 25+ Artistic Directors meet virtually 1x a month to discuss various strategies, ideas, and solutions.
AJT has also committed itself to the issues of social and racial justice. In August and September of 2020, it offered members and non-members two virtual Anti-Racism Trainings led by Lindsey Newman, Director of Community Engagement from Be’chol Lashon, and Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D., Be’chol Lashon’s Education Director and a Rabbi-in-Residence. AJT hosted an important and timely panel on Culturally-Specific Theatre and Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-Blackness.
With membership now exceeding 230 individuals and theatres and with our Theatremacher program growing from 6 participants to 34, AJT is poised for even bigger things in 2021. The organization’s increased Board support and new virtual outreach ensures AJT will continue offering the Jewish and non-Jewish theatre communities compelling programming, anti-racist work, webinars, and more.
Eliana Light, The G!d Project, Durham, NC
About seven years ago, I was sitting with a Bat Mitzvah student of mine, looking over her Torah portion, Korach. Understandably, she was confused and hurt. “If God is good,” she asked, “why did ‘He’ react so violently to a fair critique of power? And why did ‘He’ then send a plague to kill thousands more? How am I supposed to believe in such a terrible God?” I didn’t know how to respond, because these were questions that also plagued my mind. Only a few years earlier, my father had passed away unexpectedly, throwing all I thought I had known about God into disarray. I tried to change the subject: “Um, let’s talk about that next week! Take out your siddur, let’s look at the prayers.” When she started chanting “V’ahavta,” my heart sank. I couldn’t believe what I was asking her to do. V’ahavta, you shall love. Love that God, the violent God you just read about, who killed all those people. Love that God.
When I was a child myself, I thought everyone agreed on what God was. It’s only after learning and exploring on my own did I realize that Judaism contains a multitude of beautiful, and often conflicting, ideas about the Divine and our relationship with the Divine. The G!D Project was established to give clergy, educators, and individuals the permission to talk about G!D and the tools to do so. (Notice the shift from “God” to “G!D”- we are exploding a limiting word, and making room for play, curiosity, and wonder.) Why does this matter? Because a vibrant Judaism must be intellectually honest and spiritually rich. This can only happen if we are invited to talk openly about God. I have led G!D-language workshops at synagogues, summer camps, living rooms, and national conferences, and it is always an honor and a delight. When an intentional, inviting, honest space is created, people are eager to unpack their God-baggage and share their stories. And this is not new- I’m pulling from ancient texts, modern thought, music, art, and creative ritual to offer prayer, Torah study, and professional development that speaks to the head and the heart, sharing practical tools for engagement and deep personal reflection.
This balance of depth and accessibility, presented in a warm, playful, and honest way, is the key not only to the success of the G!D Project, but to other facets of my communal and professional life. If we can say anything with certainty about G!D, it is that G!D is One, and therefore we are One. I believe that by transforming the conversation about the Divine and making room for deep spirit in our ritual spaces, we help people remember that they are part of something larger than themselves, bringing us closer to ourselves, to our heritage, and to each other.
Asher Lovy, ZA’AKAH, New York, NY
ZA’AKAH is dedicated to advocating for survivors of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community. We do this by raising awareness within the community about the issue of sexual abuse, scheduling and participating in educational events designed to educate parents about how to recognize and properly respond to child sexual abuse, and by advocating for legislative reforms designed to secure justice for survivors and prevent child sexual abuse in the first place.
We were established in early 2012 initially to respond to the Internet Asifa, a large-scale event within the Charedi community which proclaimed the internet officially banned. Our belief at the time was that if the community had the resources for such an event, it had the resources to address sexual abuse. However, sexual abuse, more often than not, has been be ignored, covered up, the victims disbelieved and the perpetrators supported.
Around the same time as the Internet Asifa, a noted unlicensed therapist within the community was arrested for raping one of his clients. The community actively shunned the victim for reporting the abuse and held a public fundraiser for the perpetrator. ZA’AKAH’s first protest was held the night of the fundraiser outside of the venue. Since then, we’ve spoken to many people about the issue within the community, and what we’ve found was two primary issues. First, people were ignorant of the true prevalence and severity of the issue, and second, they were too scared of communal backlash and ostracism to report it.
Since then it has been our mission to raise awareness of the prevalence and effects of sexual abuse in our community. We oppose the tendency to cover up abuses, we stand with survivors when they come forward and help them withstand the community backlash, and we give survivors the support that they need to seek justice.
We’ve referred hundreds of survivors to legal and therapeutic resources they could trust and we’ve been an active part of the efforts to pass both the Child Victims Act, and Erin’s Law in New York State. The former extends the civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse, and opens a one-year lookback window during which survivors whose statutes of limitations had expired could revive their cases and bring them in civil court. The latter, Erin’s Law, mandates abuse prevention education for all children in the New York State public school system and will be going into effect in school year 2021.
Following these victories, ZA’AKAH is moving forward in supporting more legislation that will help prevent abuse and secure justice for survivors. We are hoping that through our efforts in the coming year, all children—including those in yeshivos across New York State—will receive mandatory abuse prevention education.
We are a small group of committed volunteers, making the most of very limited resources. We show up for each other and, collectively, it has made our important work possible.
Richard McBee, Jewish Art Salon, New York, NY
The Jewish Art Salon (JAS) was founded in 2008 by Yona Verwer to build a community of artists who were either making or were interested in making something called Jewish Art; primarily visual art that creatively engaged textually and/or culturally based Jewish themes. The concept arose out of having participated in several small Jewish art communities, such as Tobi Kahn’s Artist Beit Midrash. Then we attended an exhibition at Hebrew Union College Museum in New York by the Jewish Artists Initiative from Los Angeles, a group created by Ruth Weisberg. At a panel for that exhibition we turned to one another and exclaimed, “This is something that we need to do here in New York!”
Our mission has successfully created a forum for artists, curators, art historians and art writers to exchange ideas and provide exhibitions. The exhibitions and related panel discussions include such themes as Feminist Jewish Art; Spinoza: Marrano of Reason, (Amsterdam); Contemporary Jewish Narratives; Jews and Comics; Though Compassionate Eyes: Artists Call for Animal Rights; Passover and the Consequences of Freedom; Dura Europos: An Ancient Site Revisited Through 21st Century Eyes; The Consequences of Hate Speech; as well as participation as a group in two Jerusalem Biennials (2015 & 2017). All of these events have generated programs, and resources and developed lasting partnerships with the international Jewish Art community.
The two most important aspects of the JAS for members is: 1) organization of member exhibitions (over 20 to date); and 2) member meetings (several per year). The exhibitions, ranging from one artist’s work to a small group of artists to an open call for art, are all tightly curated within the context of a specific exhibition subject. The themes frequently generate art made specifically for the exhibition, thereby engaging the artist in new Jewish concepts. The meetings, every few months, are held in individual artist’s studios, homes or at exhibition venues. They feature discussion of the host’s artwork and exchange of ideas and concepts concerning the challenges of making Jewish themed visual art. Perhaps most crucially, both these member meetings and the exhibitions create an actual community of kindred spirits, a kehillah in fact, of artists engaged in Jewish subject matter. They mitigate the unfortunate sense of isolation and invisibility from the larger art world and, more tragically, from the Jewish cultural universe. In a very real sense, we have become an extended family that provides us with the emotional support to continue to creatively engage in Jewish subject matter.
An unstated but nonetheless essential idea that the Jewish Art Salon cultivates is that a contemporary Jewish visual culture is essential to modern Jewish life. The visual arts communicate and explore our Jewish history, faith and practice in a totally unique manner. In light of the little-known fact that Jews have a very ancient and rich visual culture, today’s Jewish artists deeply believe that the contribution we make with our artworks can enrich and transform Jewish life today.
Deborah Meyer, Moving Traditions, Philadelphia, PA
Inspired that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim—with the world peopled by a multiplicity of sacred possibilities—I founded Moving Traditions so that Jewish community would help Jewish youth of all genders to feel deeply valued and know that it is society, and not themselves, that needs changing. And that Jews have always worked together for change.
Moving Traditions seeks to infuse Jewish life—still limited by patriarchy—with progressive understandings of gender and identity so that all people will experience Judaism as a force for good. Our mission is to embolden Jewish youth by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism, and building connection to Jewish life and learning.
In Moving Traditions’ unique approach, we:
- Weave together in pilot-tested resources three strands: a critique of restrictive gender norms; new disciplines such as social-emotional learning and comprehensive sexuality education; and Jewish wisdom and practice.
- Make change from within traditional and innovative Jewish organizations, partnering with synagogues, JCCs, camps, and emerging communities, investing in and leveraging our community’s potential by training clergy, Jewish educators, and other adults to facilitate our transformative Jewish programming.
This work is urgent. Gendered challenges facing youth are increasing and stress and anxiety are skyrocketing: from the 24/7 social media cycle and pressures to be perfect, disturbing disinformation from online porn, and hate speech and violence rooted in sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism.
By asking critical questions about gender in Jewish and secular life—and by promoting Jewish learning and practice reflecting expansive views of gender—we are discovering that we can embolden youth of all genders to reach their full human potential and to advocate for justice.
I am deeply heartened to see increasing outcomes for teens in our groups—Rosh Hodesh for girls, Shevet for boys, and Tzelem for trans and nonbinary teens. In evaluation surveys over the past three years, Moving Traditions participants strongly agree/agree that they:
• Learned skills to help tackle challenges when things get hard or stressful, increasing from 65% to 81%.
• Experienced Judaism helping them in their personal lives, increasing from 62% to 72%.
• Became more aware of gender stereotypes and inequality in society, increasing from 81% to 88%.
• Are inspired to speak up or take action for positive change, increasing from 76% to 84%.
We are now building two new programs: First, an innovative model of family education at b’nai mitzvah for 6th and 7th graders and their parents addressing potent issues for families transitioning to the teen years, at the time when they are most likely to engage with Jewish activities. Second, CultureShift, training young adult camping staff—many of whom are holding their first paid job, and will go on to become Jewish communal leaders—to prevent sexual harassment and instead create safety, respect and equity at camp.
Shani Mink, Jewish Farmer Network, Ashville, NC
The mission of the Jewish Farmer Network is to mobilize ancient agricultural wisdom to build a more just and regenerative food system for all. We support the social, cultural, and economic vibrancy of modern Jewish farmers by connecting them to resources, relevant Jewish wisdom, and community.
The Jewish Farmer Network engages Jewish farmers—a group that is largely invisible to mainstream Jewish institutions and organizations—providing access to the tools and peers that support Jewish living. For many of these farmers, an agricultural lifepath becomes a departure from Jewish life; they struggle to reconcile the two seemingly disparate aspects of their identity. The Jewish Farmer Network helps them integrate their vocation and their tradition, thereby enriching and deepening their Jewish connection. We practice the engagement that Dr. Beth Cousens advocates for in her November 7, 2019 article in eJewish Philanthropy: a “way of educating, that is learner-centered, rooted in doing, life-based, and radically accessible,” and that results in “an authentic, beautiful, meaningful encounter with Jewish tradition.”
Though there are organizations that support the emergence of Jewish farm-based educators, there are no organizations that support rural Jews individually engaged in agriculture. Hazon, the JOFEE Fellowship, and the Jewish Community Farm Field Building Initiative (JCF-FBI)–who we are grateful to call partners and friends–engage with Jewish institutional farms and community gardening initiatives, but none of these organizations focus on community and identity building among Jews who farm as a way of life. The Jewish Farmer Network brings the wisdom and educational resources produced in Jewish institutional spaces out into the lives and work of Jewish farmers who otherwise might not know that those resources exist, let alone how to access them.
While programs such as Adamah and Urban Adamah engage young Jews interested in getting their hands dirty in the context of a three-month immersive fellowship, neither targets experienced farmers with Jewish heritage. There are many established farmers and farming families that fall outside of the Adamah demographic and we are proud to provide these folks with community-building resources, relevant Torah knowledge, and identity-building experiences to encourage the transition from “farmers who happen to be Jewish” to “Jewish farmers.” We make this distinction because many of our members feel that their chosen path is far removed from the Judaism that they know. Jewish Farmer Network conferences and regional gatherings also provide the much-needed opportunity for community building and cross-pollination between those that came through these immersive Jewish farming programs and those that came to agriculture via a more secular path.
The Jewish Farmer Network believes that Jewish engagement needs to meet people where they are. We are so proud to collaborate towards building a future in which the phrase “Jewish farmer” isn’t met with skepticism and incredulity but, rather, with honor and joy. We seek to perpetuate the legacy of the Jewish people as a people of the land. We are excited to provide Jewish farmers with the spiritual and cultural community they so deeply desire.
Ahron Moeller, Alliance Community Reboot (ACRE), Southern New Jersey
We are still building. The idea is to build a vessel that will hold everyone through the exiles. Like Noah, the name for my son that was born just a few days after New Year’s 2020 in Germany. I came to permaculture design as a way of holding a community focused on sustainable community growing. I am a band leader and Cornell Master Gardner, photographer, and former editor in chief of an Orthodox Jewish weekly newspaper, The (Monsey) Advocate.
My formal Jewish education began with rigid shul service within a community of Hirschians, (my dad is the chazzan in Washington Heights NY, the German Jewish Orthodox stronghold which still davens note for note with the Franfurt nusach). I lost interest in the perfection and preservation of the nostalgia. Perhaps it was just too hard to remember note for note, the songs from the old country. It did not resonate for me, much to my Dad’s dismay. Fast forward 12 years: yeshiva, some college, and living a bohemian hipster lifestyle in NYC. After landing a stint as a sofer (scribe) in the Greenwich Village, I found a shul of mostly 80 something year old men who welcomed my energy and me and my NYU friends found a place eating at their kiddush. Up until last year I was reading the Torah for this shul weekly. A few years later, after having two daughters, (who attend the Upper West Side’s Beit Rabban Day School), I decided that I needed to get back to my roots.
Enter: ACRE, or Alliance Community Reboot, a few pioneers setting out to rebuild a Jewish farm-based community in South New Jersey, on the site of the Alliance Colony, the first Jewish agricultural society in North America. ACRE is building an active farm with strong Jewish and agricultural education components, rooted in the values of sustainability, food justice and Jewish education. I was a journalist working in the ultra-Orthodox community of Rockland County. William Levin, the co-Founder of ACRE, saw my advertisement to create a farming community and he reached out to me to join him and his wife in their seminal days of ACRE. I quit the newspaper to enroll in a Cornell University sponsored Master Gardener program. I also had a passion for photo journalism which gave me the vehicle to practice my love for storytelling. ACRE, a farming community in Southern New Jersey dating back to the 1880’s that has ties to poultry farming and, before that, to agriculture networks for new Jewish immigrants to the United States, became the platform for my eclectic mix of skills. I joined the Board of ACRE and now work closely with William on planning how we will revive this historic Jewish farming community.
Today, portrait photography has allowed me to engage in identity politics. In the ‘Selfie’ Generation, young people are framing themselves in a story where they feel secure, religious or otherwise. Through my lens-I granted myself access up and down the demographics that make up the larger Jewish community -from photo exhibitions on Feral Hasids on display in Berlin, to capturing Kosher foodies in New England. We have over the last three years been honored to host many guests at the farm, where I forage, teach basic garden techniques and offer my own take on how Jews can engage in a sustainable lifestyle.
Rabbi Mira Rivera, Harlem Havruta, New York, NY
Harlem Havruta is a brave space for Jews of Color, allies, and co-conspirators. Co-founded in 2017 by Rabbi Mira Rivera and Dr. Renee L. Hill, it partners with St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the “We Are Not Afraid Church” at 521 West 126th Street in West Harlem. This section of New York City, also known as Manhattanville, is being squeezed on both sides by Columbia University’s expansion and by steady gentrification, pushing out old time residents in a historically black Harlem. We understand our work in the context of the spaces we inhabit.
As Jews in partnership with an activist church, dating as far back as 1824, we nurture relationships by serving in the multilingual Client Choice Pantry Program and the annual all-Harlem Multifaith Thanksgiving Eve community meal with neighboring All Souls Church.
For three years in a row, we have built a kosher sukkah open to all and held a Second Night Liberation Passover Seders where People of Color and our allies in the community are welcome as joyous participants and co-creators.
We grapple with both our Jewish and American traditions in a variety of ways. We delve into Biblical, Rabbinic and Kabbalistic sources for Torah study and ritual incubation through an anti-racism and anti-oppression lens. We have shared the Harlem Havruta methodology of study with groups as diverse as Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy, JCC Harlem, Romemu, and the T’ruah Rabbinical and Cantorial Student Summer Fellowship.
Yossi Rosenberg and Simone Weichselbaum, Kugel, New York, NY
Most Jewish communities in the United States are very homogeneous, especially in the Orthodox world. In April 2018, Simone Weichselbaum — a biracial Jew — ended her engagement to a young man who lived in Riverdale, a white American, modern orthodox Jewish community, where even an Israeli was hard to find. Simone, raised religious in diverse neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn, felt out of place and didn’t mesh, with what she felt was, a provincial, insular Jewish culture. Not only were the skin tones all the same, peoples’ approach towards Judaism, politics and way-of-life appeared uniform too.
Simone’s best friend, Yossi Rosenberg, in an attempt to cheer her up, started organizing diverse, boisterous, Shabbat meals where they live in Manhattan. Yossi’s goal was to recreate the opposite of what Simone experienced in Riverdale: Build a series of meals, aimed at mid-career professionals like themselves, that invites a variety of cultures, opinions, and ethnic backgrounds.
The meals were a success. Yossi and Simone started to model their community-building efforts after a Jewish group called Chulent, where they first met in 2008. Chulent’s philosophy is to create a pluralistic, welcoming environment, for Jews from all sects and traditions. Over time, however, Chulent moved away from being a place that attracts creative Jewish professionals, and morphed into a social service program for disenfranchised, ex-religious Jews.
Kugel was named to honor Chulent — the community that birthed Yossi and Simone’s friendship. Fifteen months since Kugel’s first event in November 2018, the organization has reached scores of Manhattan Jews, mainly those from their late 20s to early 40s. Now on its 12th event, Kugelers — as they are called — say they are attracted to Kugel’s non-judgmental vibe. Although Kugel doesn’t consider itself a kiruv organization, Kugel strongly believes in maintaining Judaism’s sacred traditions. All of our food and wine is kosher and we work closely with Orthodox rabbis who lead either kiddush, havdalah, or benching (Grace after Meals) at each of our events.
Both Yossi and Simone grew up modern Orthodox, and while they no longer adhere to all of the details and regulations of halachot (Jewish law), they strongly believe in the heimisch culture that makes Orthodox Judaism special. What started as a way to heal heartbreak, has turned into an organization that’s now filling a need within Manhattan’s Jewish community — creating a space where Jews of all levels of observance and ethnic backgrounds can unite as one.
Jacob Ruden, Jewsic City Shabbat, Nashville, TN
Jewsic City Shabbat’s mission is to create a space for people to come together for Shabbat services outside of traditional synagogues and denominations and in the style of Jewish summer camps. Our goal is to maintain a thriving, growing group of young professionals who want to experience their own Judaism in a meaningful way through music, prayer, and community.
One of the most important elements of Jewsic City Shabbat is that its location and format are tailored to our core demographic–young Jewish professionals who are generally unaffiliated with synagogues (although we are open to participants of all ages). The program is hosted in different homes across Nashville each month. By hosting in spaces that are not affiliated with the organized Jewish community, no one feels like they may not “belong.” Each event includes a catered meal, which allows our busy demographic to come together and schmooze over Shabbat dinner with the community monthly. The core of our event is the 45-minute musical service that follows dinner. We create a new prayer book for each Jewsic City Shabbat, so no two services are ever the same. We incorporate prayers and melodies from multiple streams of Judaism as well as secular sources. Our prayer books include song chords so that anyone can bring an instrument and jam along. Our current average attendance is 40 people, although that number has continued to grow exponentially since our start in early 2016. We have a core group of regulars who attend every event, which has allowed Jewsic City Shabbat to blossom into a strong community of prayer and intentional Jewish practice.
The group is run by four young professionals who are involved in other areas of Jewish Nashville leadership as well. In addition, Jewsic City Shabbat leaders often partner with other Jewish organizations in the community. Partnerships help to get a more diverse group of attendees to each event and to reach a wider number of people within the Nashville Jewish community.
Jewsic City Shabbat’s motto is: “We are rooted in tradition, but not at all traditional.” As the only non-denominational option for Jewish religious life in Nashville, we fill a major missing need in the Nashville Jewish community.
Lauren Schreiber Sasaki, Jewish&, Toronto ON
“We’re not cobbled-together fragments. We’re not a pie chart sliced up into percentages of our different identities. We’re whole, interwoven, and we’re always enough.” Jennifer Crawford on Jewish&
Jewish& is a programmatic umbrella that serves to gather individuals, couples and families who identify as Jewish and multicultural or multi-faith, to come together for Jewish education, exploration and celebration. It was launched in Fall 2019 at the downtown Toronto-based Miles Nadal JCC (MNjcc).
Interfaith and Multicultural Jewish families have always been a part of the MNjcc community and in the larger Toronto Jewish landscape. Jewish& represents the first time in the history of our centre that this micro-community has been programmed to in an explicit, consistent, and affirming way. To date, the approach to this population in our institution as well as in other parts of the Jewish community has been “our doors are open and all are welcome”. This inclusivity catchall has not been enough to inspire trust for those community members who have been told for years, through words and actions, that that they do not count.
With Jewish&, we are seeing that this same micro-community is beginning to look to us for affirmation and guidance. Jewish& validates and supports people and families who hold multiple identities including Jewish and, in doing so, encourages the development of Jewish identity and a Jewish future that includes all.
What is in our secret sauce?
- It is critical that inclusion work be led by someone with the same lived experience as the community they’re cultivating. I myself am a parent of “Jewish& children”, and have been a part of my “Jewish& relationship” for 15 years.
- Now that our community consists of multiple generations of “Jewish& families”, we feel it is important to make space for those who identify as “Jewish& individuals” – not only families or couples.
- This program serves to create a safe space where discussions around identity grow organically, rather than trying to reach a specific end goal. We are not here to convert; we are here to support.
- Another key component is the shift in language, from one that quantifies (half-Jewish, quarter-Jewish) and qualifies (patrilineal, matrilineal) identity to one that is radically inclusive and leaves room for multiple co-existing identities.
- Given that many families are detached from the organized Jewish community, word of mouth and social networking is key for communication. Our online community keeps the conversation going between events.
- The program seeks to reflect the backgrounds of participating community-members, while simultaneously making space for the infinite iterations of Jewish&.
Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, Nafshenu, Cherry Hill, NJ
Soul work. Relationships. Connecting souls to souls. Redefining Jewish life. This is Nafshenu. Our soul.
In 2014, the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey completed their population study and found that 58% of the Jewish community was unaffiliated with synagogue life and that 48% of children are enrolled in supplementary religious schools or day school. So, along with ten families who believed that we could change the landscape, we created Nafshenu in July of 2017. After the 5780 High Holy Days, two years later, we are 100 families strong.
Nafshenu seeks to redefine and reimagine Judaism in an ever changing, broken, and modern world. We believe that Judaism can and must be relevant and spiritual, provide inspirational learning, build organic community and be a powerful voice for social change.
We exist to nurture each soul to:
- Develop a healthy spiritual life;
- Connect through engaging and experiential learning opportunities;
- Fulfill the Jewish mandate to pursue social justice; and
- Be a part of an organic and authentic community where you are never alone.
We are a community that acknowledges that there are multiple access points to Jewish life and each person is welcome, without judgment. Among us are believers and doubters, those with years of Jewish learning and those who are just beginning, social justice activists and those looking to find their own voice. We are comprised of different backgrounds but come together as one community.
Shabbat is special to us. Before Nafshenu, our families were not Shabbat observant or service attendees. Now, they take part in creating the experience. They set up and take down. They sponsor and bring the meals. They bring their kids and their parents. Shabbat with afshenu is an opportunity to pray, study, sing, and enjoy a meal together.
Our interfaith and social justice work is another aspect of Nafshenu that is special to our community. We have strong interfaith ties and hold programs and attend rallies to support issues and causes we care deeply about. We created a Shavuot/Pentecost program with our local Lutheran Church where we prayed and learned from one another. We created and held a vigil with many interfaith leaders after the Pittsburgh Shooting. Every Yom Kippur, our friend, Pastor Wiggins, joins me for a joint sermon addressing the state of our world and how to make positive change. Our kids have rolled on the carpets of Mosques and their kids are comfortable doing the same in our community.
Study is an important component for our families. Not only do our children study with us, but our adults do as well. In lieu of a formal sermon, we study every Shabbat morning following the Torah reading. Our community studies both written and oral Torah, making meaning and relevance to our life today. We are currently training adults to become adult B’nai Mitzvah and create a Jewish literacy for themselves. Some have even engaged in the new cycle of Daf Yomi to their own surprise.
Our secret sauce is: people.
Rabbi David Shneyer, Am Kolel Judaic Resource Center, Rockville, MD
Since the last 1960’s I’ve devoted my life to creating new Jewish communities, projects and communal institutions that address the needs of those alienated from mainstream Jewish institutions as well as those individuals seeking new avenues to explore and express their Jewish identity. My personal needs and my love for Yiddishkeit and amcha have motivated me to serve in this way. My primary organization/community, founded in 1990, is Am Kolel. While it has a membership, most of the people we serve are not members. We are a Judaic Resource and Renewal Center that has served as a temporary home for some, and a more permanent home for others. We have grown organically, responding to many different needs in the Jewish and larger community. We have provided innovative learning opportunities for thousands of individuals in the greater DC area, numerous opportunities for engaging in social and environmental justice efforts, incubating new communities and providing experiences and training in old and new ways of expressing Jewish spirituality.
The ingredients of the “secret sauce” have included empathy for the needs of others, a strong grounding in Jewish learning, the mitzvah of inclusiveness, a dedication to tikkun olam, music, singing and the arts, a love for nature, a loving hevre and loving donors.
Rabbi Rachel Short, Ahava ‘Aina: A “love-land” Synagogue, Mountain View, Hawaii
To be the change
We need to see
In a place like Hawai’i
To connect with The One
I share open and honestly
Vulnerably and freely
I never planned to be a Rabbi. I was a Holistic Healer. A Yoga and StandUp Paddleboard Yoga Leader. A Reiki Master Teacher. Long before I was ordained, my mom jokingly called me a “modern day Rabbi.” My Jewish roots were somewhat distant until I went to Israel and my divine mission found me. I was on a Jewish path — I just didn’t realize it.
Like many Jews in their 20s and 30s, I would have been more likely found in a yoga class than in a synagogue. My calling to become a Rabbi was driven by my desire to create a space that I would choose to engage and attend. Young Jews will spend money to attend festivals, yoga classes, etc., but not to be a synagogue member. I create events, festivals and engaging activities rooted in Judaism, Kabbalah and spirituality that people want and choose to attend.
My personal mission is to Be the Divine rainbow radiant reflection of G-d’s love and light. To connect all with What Is. To stand up for What Is. To reconnect us with ancestral and spiritual wisdom that is within us. To create a space in Judaism of which I would choose to be a part. For the Highest Good of All. I knew I was called to Hawai’i to open a spiritual healing center…it just never occurred to me that would be a modern day “synagogue.”
I founded Ahava ‘Aina, in 2016 as a community congregation. Our mission is: Tikkun Olam – to heal the world, be of service, share Jewish culture and tradition with our community, and establish the first and only Jewish Community Center and synagogue on the Big Island of Hawai’i. As my board often reminds me, I am Ahava ‘Aina. But what is it that makes Ahava ‘Aina different? What is it that makes Rabbi Rachel different?
For one thing, Rapping with Rabbi Rachel. Yep, that’s right. I rap. All those years of my dad yelling at me for listening to Eminem clearly served a higher purpose. My divrei Torah, or sermons, typically are a rap.
I believe everything is about kavanah, or intention. The intention of Ahava ‘Aina is to be a land of love. Ahava means love in Hebrew. ‘Aina means land in Hawaiian. I wish to create a space of love, because to me, that is what HaShem is. This space is all inclusive. All faiths, beliefs, and ages are welcomed and encouraged to be a part of Ahava ‘Aina.
I believe the body we are in now, in this lifetime, is a vessel for our spiritual path. We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience. One of the ways I find the deepest connection to What Is, is through Yoga. (I actually believe each Yoga pose is a Hebrew letter and we are communicating with the Divine through our moving meditation.) I incorporate Yoga and meditation into most of my “services,” so the body and mind are coming together as One, to be One, in love land. As a Holistic Healer, I also incorporate elements such as Reiki, essential oils, affirmations, journaling, and much more into my “services.”
Who am I?
I guess we shall see
But here right now
Just grateful for this opportunity
Yoshi Silverstein, Mitsui Collective, Cleveland, OH
Mitsui (מיצוי – Aramaic – Activation of Potential)
Mission: Mitsui Collective builds resilient community through embodied Jewish practice and multiracial justice work, with select programming specific to Jews of Color.
Work: Mitsui Collective is a new start-up building to catalyze communities of practice centered around collective needs for physical and spiritual wellness, social connection, and nature connection. Grounded in Jewish ethics, traditions, and embodied practices, it is fundamentally open to any and all spiritual seekers.
Mitsui strongly prioritizes centering community around those historically placed at the margins of North American Jewish life, including but not limited to Jews of Color and other non-Ashkenormative Jews, LGBTQ, interfaith / intergroup families, and those of varied socioeconomic status. We view diversity and representation not just as a checkbox but as a vital building block for vibrant, resilient community.
Mitsui Collective aims to be a thought-leader and collaborator throughout the North American Jewish community by delivering embodied Jewish learning both crafted entirely by Mitsui Collective and infused into larger programs (conferences and convenings, professional trainings) through direct programs and consultation.
Particularly when Jews of Color are gathered, whether for JOC-exclusive programs or as part of larger multi-racial gatherings, Mitsui will be a program partner for crafting experiences centered around JOC needs and desires. This includes general consultation on best practice for JOC inclusion and targeted programming focusing on wellness & spirituality offerings, professional and leadership development, and skillbuilding around resiliency, self-care, and personal ecology.
Mitsui Collective is also actively involved in local and regional JOC community building in partnership with Edot: The Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative
Creating a vibrant and diverse community of practice is core to Mitsui Collective’s long-term vision and ability to activate communities in the work of resiliency-building. Mitsui Collective Cleveland will ultimately be built around three community hubs that create multiple 21st century touchpoints for engagement and community connection with high frequency and consistency:
- Wellness (movement and fitness; nutrition education; holistic health workshops;
- Urban AgroEcology (urban farm education; forest garden; outdoor playscapes)
- Sustenance (communal cafe / dining / mess hall; general store / commissary)
Spiritual / mindfulness education and practice will infuse the core pedagogy throughout these hubs. Membership structures will be adapted from a blend of successful models in CrossFit and Yoga communities, farm and grocery cooperatives, and Jewish institutions. Financial needs will be considered for any and all interested members and may be offset by work-trade opportunities and scholarship funds.
Vibrant public programs based on e.g. Shabbat and Jewish Holidays, speaker series, families and young adults increase touchpoints for community engagement and partnership with the broader Jewish community.
A thriving Jewish future in the face of 21st century challenges requires innovative experimentation and adequate resource allocation. Mitsui Collective will be a community at the intersection of self-care, movement, health, wellness, nature connection, and spiritual transformation. Built off the success of related communities and organizations, this new model will serve as a laboratory and model for a culture shift increasing our capacity to build resilient, diverse, deeply rooted and thriving Jewish ecosystems.
Kohenet Bekah Starr, Bekah Starr Art, Beacon, NY
I am a Sacred Artist.
In creating visual art & ritual I weave the magical, mystical, often hidden, wisdom of the Hebrew people, and the Divine Feminine, in a way that allows me to be a translator for people. I use embodied artistic practices to assist us in being present to spiritual moments.
In my fine art creation, teaching, and ritual craft, I weave the elements – earth, air, water and fire – as a foundation to search for the hidden truth. As a weaver, I see the narrowing of the fibers, the thinning of the veil, as an opportunity to weave what was into a fuller embodiment of what is to come. The letting go and gathering of the sparks — the clay of life, the fibers of the universe — it is one and the same. I invite weaving as a ritual practice for transformation, beauty, and insight. I am also a weaver between cultures, rooted in my own tradition and spinning bridges to share and connect with others. Like the weaver who sits at her looms every day, we can re-weave the world as we want to see it. Infusing our weaving with love and hope and justice and peace and spaces for a better world. With my hands, I create.
The radical act of honoring women’s bodies is part of my offering of empowerment to the world. I seek justice through honoring bleeding bodies, in capturing the gorgeous realness of a human form, in gathering womxn to express themselves. In tending ritual, I support people to find their unique voice and let that voice be heard!
The cycles of the moon — and the seasons of the earth — empower and guide my priestessing and sacred arts creation. Knowing that the moon and I are made from the same cosmic dust allows me to find rhythm and presence in my life. When I am in harmony with the knowledge of the moon and I as one, the ease of life is possible.
It is my intention to live a life in prayer. To notice the beauty in everything. To always feel my connection to source flowing through me. I am witness to the divine presence of all that is life, source, and creation. I am part of the plan to make the world whole again, to gather the holy sparks and put the light back into the vessels. I am a piece of cosmic dust, a weaver of spirit and beauty.
Rabbi Eddie Sukol, The Shul, Cleveland, OH
The Shul is predicated on an expansive understanding of ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel. Our approach is to love and accept all Jews wherever they place themselves on the continuum of Jewish identity and however they perceive of themselves as Jews.
The Shul is deeply grounded in the concept of “ba-asher hu sham,” (Genesis 21:17), being present to a person (or family) and providing assistance in a manner that meets their needs and on their terms. The Shul was founded in 2007 with the vision to create and foster a compassionate community that celebrates the fullest expression of Judaism by designing experiences for lifelong learning and observance of Jewish tradition and ritual.
We see it as self-evident that the existing synagogues and temples within our community meet the needs of many, but not all. For those who have not found their place within the Jewish community and the existing brick and mortar synagogues, The Shul provides an alternate point of entry. From its inception The Shul has placed its greatest emphasis on Jewish learning. Spiritual practice, ritual observance and t’filla, are part of what The Shul provides, but it is not the primary focus. What we do in the spiritual/religious arena we do well, but it is not, with the exception of the High Holy Days, the most significant aspect of The Shul’s efforts.
Initially The Shul’s outreach focused on baby-boomers. An overwhelming number of them expressed a variation of the following: “I went to religious school but I didn’t learn anything.” Now, at a different stage of life, they have the interest and inclination to engage (for some to reengage) with Jewish learning. The Shul developed learning modules that were appropriate for adult learners who were sophisticated thinkers, yet at an entry level in regard to Jewish thought. While appreciative of the value of learning for learning’s sake, the real goal of studying Jewish texts and thought was ‘applied Judaism,’ that is, to understand how the principles embodied in our sacred tradition inform the experiences of our daily lives. This approach has proven to be highly popular and inviting.
As The Shul has matured, our learning initiatives have expanded to focus on individuals from youth to old age. Individual, small group, and family learning modalities are utilized. The power of interpersonal relationships is at the heart of what makes The Shul attractive to those who choose to become involved. Those associated with The Shul would say that what appeals to them and keeps them involved is their personal connection to the rabbi, as teacher, pastoral caregiver, and ritual guide, particularly for ceremonies that celebrate life’s most significant moments.
The Shul began as, and remains, a small-scale operation. This is by design. We have neither membership nor mandatory dues. Voluntary contributions are encouraged. The Shul has been fortunate to be the beneficiary of the support and generosity of a committed group of individuals and families. The Shul occupies a modest niche within our community.
Rabbi Sarah Tasman, The Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity, Silver Spring, MD
The Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity is a center without walls that offers in-person and online opportunities for those seeking meaningful, accessible, and personalized learning, spiritual coaching and rabbinic support. Our offerings integrate modalities of Jewish mindfulness, ritual, creative expression (including writing, visual art, and mixed-media art) meditation, yoga, poetry, rabbinic and modern texts. Our in-person opportunities include classes, workshops, retreats shabbat and holiday gatherings, and women’s wellness groups. Private services are also offered for rabbinic counseling, couples coaching, visioning for partnership/family life, building an inclusive Jewish home, marking life transitions and officiating life cycle events. We welcome participants who are exploring Judaism, new to Jewish practice, part of an interfaith Jewish couple or family, and those looking to deepen their spiritual practice. One of our core programs is a monthly art and spiritual workshop-gathering called Align which incorporates seasonal wellness, meditation, and spiritual writing.
The concept of Jewish creativity is at the heart of this project. I first learned of this a value when I was a rabbinical student at Hebrew College nearly a decade ago, when the school was redesigning its mission statement. One of the values in the Hebrew College mission statement is called Yetzira: Fostering Jewish Creativity and it is defined as follows: “Judaism, at its best, is a creative, intellectual and spiritual encounter among the individual, the community and the received tradition. [Hebrew College] encourages and empowers learners to see themselves as both inheritors and innovators — active participants in the unfolding story of the Jewish people. We embrace music, literature and the visual and performing arts as sources of inspiration and as vital modes of Jewish discovery and expression.”
As a world view, Jewish Creativity is about seeing Judaism as a creative endeavor and seeing the myriad of ways of being Jewish and practicing Judaism as something wonderful. Jewish creativity is what has allowed Judaism to continue throughout history, time and space. It is this legacy of richness that sees Jewish practice and the Jewish community as vibrant and what allows Judaism to flourish. It is from this place of Jewish creativity from which I was ordained and the lens through which I view the world of Jewish learning and practice. It is an embrace of design thinking and a growth mind-set. It is how I approach teaching, officiating, ritual creation, providing rabbinic guidance, and building an inclusive Jewish community. It is also about giving participants the opportunity to express themselves in new ways and to connect with Judaism through a variety of creative, experiential and embodied modalities.
The vision of the Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity is to guide and support others to discover their own chochmat lev – their own creativity and connection, their unique way of expressing themselves, and their own special way of finding meaning in Jewish practice. Through our offerings and services, we nourish the chochmat lev in each person. And in doing so, help our participants and community members live more integrated, inspired, and meaningful lives.
Anike Tourse, Mixed Operations (MO), Los Angeles, CA
Mixed Operations (MO) is a production company of mixed people producing motion picture films, television and web series that appeal to diverse audiences and explore social justice themes. Mixed Operations is led by Jewish woman of Color, Anike Tourse, and operates in partnership between multicultural artists, activists and community members. Mixed Operations works towards expanding representation for Jews of Color, both in front of and behind the camera and specifically in creating stories around the Jew of Color experience.
Our current feature film project is America’s Family, a narrative feature film of the five stories of one family separated by one border on their journey to reunite. As one of the stories in America’s Family unfolds, Salvadoran patriarch and world class chef, Jorge Mario Diaz, unexpectedly seeks sanctuary in a Reform synagogue when ICE raids his home on Thanksgiving. As Jorge builds a relationship with the Sephardic, Portuguese rabbi, he also becomes a part of the congregation grappling with what “welcoming the stranger” really means. Jorge lives at the synagogue for several months while his American born son (who is also the family attorney) works on adjusting his immigration status. While in sanctuary, Jorge (and his five-star catering company) caters the Bat Mitzvah for one of the temple members as his contribution to the community. All of this takes on an even deeper meaning when, through conversations with the rabbi, Jorge discovers that he may be a descendant of Spanish Jews forced into Catholic conversion and thus he himself may have Jewish heritage.
America’s Family is a docudrama, a feature narrative inspired by real people and real events and is a collaboration between professional artists, activists, and community members. We will film most of Jorge’s story at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in conjunction with the congregation. We believe this will be an opportunity for this community to experience civic engagement by way of communal creative expression, a chance for the synagogue to engage with its values of diversity and inclusion and, specifically, the representation of Jews of Color, and to employ production as an extension of the temple’s immigrant and refugee support work. We are also excited for temple members to connect with mixed status and deportee families and to directly contribute to the film education that supports them.
Mixed Operations film projects in development include a short documentary film, JOC: A People and a Movement which provides a brief history of Jews of Color in America and the Jews of Color Movement worldwide. Another project in development is an untitled short narrative film based on the experience of Jewish educator and social justice leader, Yehudah Webster, who was accosted by Chabad community members and accused of stealing a Torah.
As women filmmakers of Color often lack access and visibility, in our company there is a strong emphasis on mentorship and representation, both in front of and behind the camera. Our production company members and supporters are most compelled by our diverse storytelling. It is also critically important to us that diverse, multicultural people are at the helm of our projects, involved in key decision making and given a great deal of freedom and support to create their best work.
Katie Vogel, Havayah, Cincinnati, OH
Havayah wasn’t founded by an organization or institution seeking to engage young people. And we were intentional about not conflating an organization with a community. But while we began as a small dinner party for eight people four years ago, we’ve grown to a community of 50 regulars, 150 irregulars, and an organic newsletter presence that reaches nearly 2,000 individuals each week.
Havayah was founded by two individuals who moved from Chicago to Cincinnati and who didn’t want to live in the city. We were outsiders in a region whose Jewish community is often defined by insiders. While my co-founder moved back home to California in year two of our efforts, the purpose of what Havayah is accomplishing is fundamentally the same: We’re solving for an epidemic of loneliness and communal disconnect that’s facing the Jewish community and society at large.
We knew that we needed a community and not an organization. So, we focused on building relationships and building the skills of our community. We asked people what kind of programming they wanted. We got to know people. We asked for introductions. For commitments to show up. Havayah didn’t get off the ground because we spent money on marketing or outreach. We relied on community organizing at its purest and most practical form. We knew that we were hungry for meaningful Jewish life, community, and learning, but we also knew that we couldn’t build a sustainable community by programming for two or three people.
Additionally, we centered a sit-down dinner followed by a community tisch that makes the case that kosher food should be delicious, authentic, and locally-sourced.
All of our programming is community-led and driven. We haven’t hired staff because we don’t think it’s necessary at this point in our evolution. This has led to the development of a singing community initiative, a secular beit midrash, and an introduction to basic Hebrew class, in addition to cooking and baking classes that empower people to make Jewish food central to their spiritual and nutritional practices.
We’re building a community that doesn’t require a car or living in the suburbs. Our community is about gathering around amazing food, celebrating Shabbat and holidays, and reclaiming traditional Jewish practice in contemporary contexts.
Sarah Weinberg, Kol Sasson, Skokie, IL
The vision of Kol Sasson is to be a vibrant, inclusive, thoughtful, observant and generous community with joyful tefillah. We strive to transform Jewish lives through critical inquiry within the traditional framework of halakha. These ideas could be applied to many organizations. So what makes us different? Why has this partnership minyan in Skokie, IL succeeded in meeting weekly and on chagim for over a decade?
Kol Sasson embraces tension and the acceptance of different ideas. We push the boundaries to encourage men and women to participate in ritual and leadership roles as much as possible, while also having clear rules for decision making, which has helped us weather many storms. We hold space for people who struggle with ideas around gender, egalitarianism, mechitzah, observance of extra days of yom tov, etc. and respectfully allow for individuals to challenge what we do, while leaning on halacha and a traditional framework to make decisions.
An example of our balance is that we aim to imbue tefilla with beauty and kavanah and members bring new tunes to incorporate into our davening, while at the same time, we stick to the traditional structure and content of the service. Ultimately, it is the hard work, talent, and consistency of a small group of individuals who have gotten us far, but by diffusing leadership both ritually and in governance across the community we have developed the depth to continue into the future and to support and nurture our community.
There may be an element of forced compromise which has contributed to our success. Kol Sasson fills a niche role in a generally conservative, shomer shabbat midwestern community. People attend for a variety of reasons, but we recognize as a collective the need to work together and balance each other out. Children in our minyan attend a variety of day schools and public schools and all interact happily together in shul. In this respect, there are elements of Kol Sasson which remind me of living in a small town, although we are part of a much larger community.
We have entered the stage where children who were born into our community are now becoming bnai mitzvah and getting married. For those folks, this may be the only spiritual community they have known. As we observe these types of lifecycle events together, we continue to create deeper bonds.
Rachel Weinstein White, Fig Tree, Brooklyn, NY
Fig Tree is an independent Jewish education program for children ages 3 – 13. The purpose of Fig Tree is to provide a rich and accessible Jewish education to kids from interfaith, interracial and/ or secular backgrounds- or simply to families seeking a Hebrew School alternative. Our mission is to instill pride and encourage growth of Jewish identity in our students, rooted in a strong foundation of Jewish religion, culture and heritage.
The “FIG” in Fig Tree is actually an acronym, which stands for Foundation, Identity and Growth:
- Fig Tree provides our students with an enriching and inspiring Jewish foundation;
- We give all kids the space and tools with which to develop their own Jewish identities (however they choose to define them);
- We nurture and celebrate our students’ spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth, throughout the journey.
These are lofty goals! How do we strive to achieve them? (We know these are questions that many Jewish institutions face.) Fig Tree looks at Jewish education in a new way. But that doesn’t mean our content is “fluffy.” Students of all ages receive rich, dynamic weekly lessons in: Jewish values, holidays and life cycle, prayers and blessings, Torah, and Hebrew language- all while cultivating deep appreciation for Jewish heritage, culture and history. At every grade level, Fig Tree kids explore what it means to be Jewish experientially, through art, sensory play, drama, story-telling, music, and even science. Above all, Fig Tree classes are fun and engaging. Our students are excited to arrive to class each week (and often don’t want to leave!).
Fig Tree meets students- and families- where they are. We do this literally: we have locations in five different Brooklyn neighborhoods, so families don’t have to travel far to get to us- and we accommodate hectic family schedules by offering a choice of class days throughout the week. We also do this in less tangible ways. Our diverse families come from across the Jewish spectrum and over 25% of our families identify as being of color. We practice radical inclusivity: any person, of any background, can take any class at any time. (This includes welcoming new B’nai Mitzvah students at any grade.) Our events are free and open to the public. Our curriculum reflects our commitment to tzedek, featuring texts, primary sources, games, and music from diverse Jewish and non-Jewish sources. Our community participates in meaningful service work throughout the year, via partnerships with local non-profits. Our commitment to meeting the real needs of 21st century families while remaining rooted in tradition and text is what, we believe, has made Fig Tree a success.
We are excited to be one voice in the tide of inspirational Jewish communities who are reimagining Jewish education and fellowship!
Melanie Weiss, The Center for Small Town Jewish Life, Waterville, ME
The Center for Small Town Jewish Life has three objectives. First, we are committed to the idea that all members of Jewish communities, regardless of geography or socioeconomic status, deserve high-caliber Jewish learning and experiences. Second, we are committed to intergenerational community, in which people of every age learn from and with one another in a holistic and mutually beneficial way. We design our programs enable and supports that kind of community. Third, we are committed to integrating academic Jewish studies into our work. It that way we create a partnership between local communities, informal Jewish life on campus, and small-town Jewish life across Maine and other parts of America.
Based in central Maine, the Center serves both the local communities of the state and the college students who attend the state’s public and private colleges. Our special sauce resides in three specific orientations to the world and ways of viewing our work and ourselves. First, we do not believe that Jewish life in small towns is in any way less than Jewish life in big cities, with the exception of how we’re funded. We are strongly committed to the idea that the periphery has as much to teach the center(s) as vice-versa, and we want those in our communities to be proud of themselves. As part of this commitment to dignity, we intentionally create pricing structures that minimize as much as possible the need for participants to request scholarships.
Second, our view of “Jewish community” is expansive. Regardless of halachic principles, specifically related to the question of: “Who is a Jew?” we are firm in our belief that there are valuable contributions made to the Jewish people and to our own smaller communities by community members who are not themselves, Jewish.
Third and finally, we believe that a model of Jewish community that is contingent on giving away or providing all things for free misses the point of what is valuable. We emphasize responsibility and participation, reminding everyone that their participation is truly needed for our communities to function.
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 wondering and wandering Jews and their families and friends to discover what is personally meaningful. Jewish Gateways offers a home 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 that they can help shape, and then 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 that they “should” do because their parents were Jewish, because “it’s good to give your children a foundation”, or other, not-so-compelling reasons.
We offer Jewish activities that are intellectually honest and spiritually sophisticated, that speak to people with a range of Jewish knowledge, including those with almost no background at all. 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 being “lacking” in some way. 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 our community. We help participants connect Jewish learning and practices with their own desires for wisdom, community, making a difference in the world, and other issues in their lives that Judaism might speak to.
We see Jewish tradition as belonging to all of us and we try to make this as real as possible. Our activities for children 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 that 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 co-creating activities with them 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 that as an emotionally-charged barrier. At the same time, we do not seek to offer experiences for families and individuals to choose as consumers. We are creating a model that is more open and flexible than a synagogue and that invites participants to choose and create their own connections to Judaism.
Lori Ayela Wynters, Shir Ta’ev, New Paltz, NY
The mission of Shir Ta’ev is to engage intergenerational Jews, and other seekers interested in Jewish wisdom tradition in an embodied, intersectional feminist practice of spiritual direction, using Jewish texts, hasidut, poetry, expressive arts, story, specifically elements/principles of Playback Theatre, Psychodrama and Aikido, and embodied pedagogy.
Over the years, many friends, colleagues, students and co-workers who are not Jewish have approached me after I offer a workshop or teaching from Jewish wisdom tradition and say to me: “I think I’m Jewish”, or “I think I want to be Jewish”, or “I’ve always been drawn to Judaism.” These are not people who really want to convert. Rather, they want to learn and study with Jewish teachers and with other Jews and learn from the Jewish wisdom tradition. They want to feel that they are not appropriating hasidut or Kabbalah, that they are learning the deeper meaning of the Hebrew words, helping them deepen into their Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible. These are people who are in search for the sacred in their lives and they are open to exploring it through Jewish lens. There are also many Jews, myself included, who want to learn from this embodied, intersectional feminist, creative arts, personal story, politicized perspective with other Jews and from seekers from other wisdom traditions. Shir Ta’ev is one such learning community.
Practicing spiritual direction from these lenses offers an engaging and meaningful practice that invites us to consider what questions, yearnings and untapped knowings call forth the sacred in life. This approach invites us to reflect on what practices, relationships and connections bring us deep meaning and what work in the world are we being called to engage in and explore. Shir Ta’ev is a respectful, spacious place of belonging, to explore, process, deepen and question our experience of what we consider sacred, whether or not we consider ourselves religious or spiritual.
Some of the most important elements that have made Shir Ta’ev inspiring to its participants is that it meets the needs of Jews and of other, seekers of the sacred. We come together in small, intimate groups, engage in deep listening and practice embodied knowing and arts-based learning and meaning making. Some use this space to heal from intergenerational trauma.
All wisdom is welcomed: Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu as well as poetry from a broad range of perspectives. Most spiritual direction programs that are interfaith are still primarily Christian centered. Shir Ta’ev centers the Jewish wisdom tradition, while using many vehicles of expressive/creative arts to engage with the practice of spiritual direction.
Cat Zavis, Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) and Tikkun Magazine, Berkley, CA
Tikkun uplifts Jewish, interfaith, and secular prophetic voices of hope that contribute to universal liberation. A catalyst for long-term social change, we empower people and communities to heal the world by embracing revolutionary love, compassion, and empathy. We promote a caring society that protects the life support system of the planet and celebrates the Earth and the universe with awe and radical amazement. The Network of Spiritual Progressives works to build a social change movement—guided by and infused with spiritual and ethical values—that unites individuals and organizations (that are often siloed) to transform our society to one that prioritizes and promotes the well-being of the people and the planet. Our focus is on love, justice, peace, and compassion instead of money, power and profit.
We use three strategies to catalyze the creation of a loving and just world. One, we revolutionize spirituality – merging spiritual and psychological wisdom to ignite the healing transformation of our world. Two, we shift discourse – harnessing rigorous intellectual analysis to decode pressing social issues. And three, we take action – building bridges and activating communities for long-term positive social change.
Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have been at the vanguard of speaking about the importance of integrating spirituality and politics for over three decades. Integrating spirituality and politics requires us to not only resist, but also to put forth a vision of the world we all want – one guided by values of love, compassion, empathy, kindness, generosity, and justice. We advance sophisticated psychological and spiritual thinking and analysis that help us understand how the Right effectively manipulates people’s needs so that they vote for politicians that actually harm them economically, politically, physically, and environmentally. We also promote radical, visionary policies and approaches that can ignite transformative changes, such as our vision of a world based on a New Bottom Line of love, kindness, generosity, caring for each other, and caring for the earth. This New Bottom Line is a first major step toward shaping a progressive politics that actually underlies what motivates people to join liberal and progressive politics and social change efforts even when not so explicitly stated. Our research shows that explicitly stating this broader vision will expand the reach of progressive efforts to those who have been turned off or disengaged from progressive and Left politics.
For the past seven years, we have been leading trainings for spiritual activists called, Radical Love and Prophetic Empathy. These trainings help people understand how we got here and how we can turn our country around. It emboldens people to speak truth with an empathic heart and prophetic vision. We empower people to tap into their depth of love and truth-telling to re-awaken all of us to the true God-essence of who we are and who we are meant to be, to the reality of the devastation of the life-support system of the planet, and to our dehumanization of one another and thus of ourselves as well.Is this page useful and interesting? Please consider sharing it with your social networks!