Jewish Innovation, Life-Long Learning, and Where We Are

I recently participated in a three-day consultation in the U.S. with an organization called New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative.  Headed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz, innovative Jewish leaders from across North America were invited to come together to share what we’ve been learning, what we are building, and to address central questions and challenges we face as we imagine and build toward the Jewish future.  I was invited to be part of this group for wearing three innovative Jewish hats at once — being the rabbi of our creative and inclusive community; being the co-founder of Encounter; and as a composer and leader of prayersong, mindfulness-based spiritual practice, and workshops that integrate Jewish text, movement, voice, and writing.  It was utterly inspiring to be in room filled with brave, thoughtful leaders creatively enlivening Jewish life in so many different ways.

For the past number of years, Rabbi Schwarz has been mapping the “megatrends” in Jewish life as large, mainstream “legacy organizations” like Federations and huge synagogues are struggling to stay afloat and are increasingly felt by many, by younger Jews in particular, to be out of touch with the interests, commitments, and yearnings of contemporary Jews.  In response, grassroots start-ups, independent minyanim and batei midrash (houses of Jewish learning), Jewish arts collectives, social justice communities, and institutes for Jewish spiritual practice have been springing up and changing the face of Jewish life.  New initiatives are gathering Jews in unexpected places, like theatre spaces, Jewish farms, and cross-fit gyms.  They are taking Jewish social action beyond the needs of global Jewish communities to engage with the intersectionality and interdependence of different populations and issues, engaging Jewishly with Standing Rock, the Tar Sands, and global human trafficking.  They are mining Jewish sources and practices to open Jewish hearts, minds, and bodies in meditative silence, ecstatic dance, artistic expression.  And they are replacing a tribal sense of belonging and transactional forms of membership (you pay and receive services) with communities that have porous boundaries, that draw seekers in search of meaningful relationships and experiences, and that shape membership through covenantal commitment (mutual obligations and commitments).  One rabbi shared the process in his shul of doing away with membership fees altogether.  Instead, every member meets with the rabbi and makes a brit/covenantal commitment of what they wish to gain from relationship with the shul and how they will contribute to it.  Take a look on the NPSCI website to get a taste of the range of projects participants have created.

As he’s been consulting with and learning from the wide range of new communities and projects that have been developing, in his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, Rabbi Schwarz lays out five key strategies (or, as he calls them, ‘portals’) that form the heart of the North American antidote to the spiritual crisis in Jewish life.  These are: chochma (the wisdom of sacred texts); kehillah (meaningful community); yetzirah (creativity); tzedek (advancing justice); and kedusha (experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and sacred purpose).  He asserts that most initiatives integrate all or most of these to some extent, while each initiative tends to focus on the intersection of a few of these in particular ways.

We did an interesting exercise at the consultation that I invite you to try right now.  Think about the DJC and draw a Venn Diagram (you know, those intersecting circles) that includes the ‘portals’ listed above.  How would you describe what the DJC currently is and what we excel at?  How would you illustrate the picture of what you love about the DJC and why you participate?  Would kehillah be the overarching circle with all the others as smaller circles intersecting within it?  Is your connection to the DJC primarily about kedusha — seeking experiences that move and inspire you like the High Holy Days or bnai mitzvah celebrations?  AND what would you like the DJC to become in the next five years:  Stronger in our connection between social justice and Jewish learning?  More depth of learning that are expressed through artistic creativity and our relationships with one another?  How might we imagine inspiring every member in our community to develop a personal curriculum of learning, growth, and exploration in these various areas so that the whole community is energized, connected, and engaging with Judaism’s wisest and most courageous insights to respond to the world we live in and the lives we lead?

As this year has been focused on the theme we kicked off at Rosh Hashana — Becoming a Community of Life-Long Learners — it was exciting at this consultation to reflect on the significant movement we’ve been making in the realm of Jewish learning in our community.  Forty-eight people, Jews and non-Jews, have taken the Ritual Leadership Learning & Training intensive and can now lead rituals in our various services on behalf of the community, though we want and need more of you to join the revolution!  We have had such a strong turn-out at the Shabbat morning learning series The Many Faces of the Imageless God that we plan to continue with in-depth study of several of the Jewish thinkers we touched upon.  Our recent series on Jewish Social Movements has examined historical and social changes from a hundred years ago whose impact is still resonating today.  The Jewish Meditation Circle has also had a steady turn-out as we’ve been exploring mindfulness practice through the lens of Jewish spiritual wisdom.  And this list doesn’t include the engaging work of committees, growing the community’s learning and involvement through social justice, films, books, and Jewish culture.  So much is growing and I am inspired by the web of other groups and communities across North America that are simultaneously innovating and deepening knowledge and meaningful connection.  And there is so much more to envision and create together!

The DJC’s Board retreat will take place on April 23rd.  There we will start to map out our vision for the next five years.  What are your ideas, interests, and commitments to what the DJC can become?

Please join me at a special pre-Pesach workshop — Transforming Fear: A Workshop in Text & Movement on March 28th from 7:00 – 9:00 pm.

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