On Jewish Engagement and Connections: Talk to the Jewish Community Development Task Force, UJA NY
Talk by Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
to the Jewish Community Development Task Force
UJA-Federation of New York
October 11, 2012 / 25 Tishrei 5773
INTRODUCTION: I gave this talk as part of a panel of four, all representing organizations of interest to the UJA-Federation of New York Task Force on Community Development. We were to focus especially on one chapter in the recently released Jewish Community study, an every-ten-years study of the Jewish community in the New York area, especially the five counties of New York City, two on Long Island, and Westchester. Our task was to describe our organization’s particular mode of connecting to often-unconnected Jews and to address aspects of the study that were most relevant for us. Here is the relevant chapter for your interest:
http://www.ujafedny.org/get/196900/ Jewish Engagement and Connections
I was pleased to have this chance to describe Kolot and to think about the questions of Jewish engagement as they apply here. Note that I had only a few minutes for the talk, so rather than highlight specific ways in which Kolot is broadly inclusive, I read the Mission Statement aloud.
Good afternoon, and thank you for having me – and by extension, Kolot Chayeinu and our Locally Grown Shabbat – join you for this conversation. I wanted to start by telling you a little about Kolot Chayeinu and Locally Grown and then briefly addressing some of the issues raised about engagement and connection in the Jewish Community Study.
Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives is a progressive Jewish community which turns 20 this year. It began with a vision - my vision – for a café that would engage then-unengaged Jews in formal and non-formal learning, arts and culture, and yes, even some prayer and ritual, along with coffee, food, and conversation. There are many reasons why it became a real synagogue instead, but two major ones are: that people really wanted more ritual than I expected to address the real issues of their lives, and that early on we developed a school for children – 5 of them the first year – and that reality shaped the future. It is good for new projects that engage folks in their 20’s and 30’s to think about how you will respond when those folks start having children.
Seven years ago, we at Kolot went through a deliberate process of many months and created a mission statement and a set of values. You can read it all on our website – kolotchayeinu.org – but I wanted to read you the mission, as it is a good description of who and what we are and want to be, and will lead us into the conversation about engagement.
KOLOT CHAYEINU MISSION STATEMENT
Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives is a Jewish congregation in Brooklyn, where doubt can be an act of faith and all hands are needed to build our community. We are creative, serious seekers who pray joyfully, wrestle with tradition, pursue justice and refuse to be satisfied with the world as it is. As individuals of varying sexual orientations, gender identities, races, family arrangements, and Jewish identities and backgrounds, we share a commitment to the search for meaningful expressions of our Judaism in today’s uncertain world.
This same diversity is clear in Locally Grown Shabbat, our now three-year-old kabbalat Shabbat program for people in their 20’s and 30’s. It was begun by our then student rabbi and engaged people that first year with learning about some aspect of Jewish food and eating, a lively and brief service, and a potluck dinner with local wines; teachers and davening leaders were also all from Brooklyn. The food issues have receded a bit since that first year, but leaders are still from Brooklyn, and the grant you gave us – thank you!! – also provides for a new online calendar for young Jewish Brooklyn, so we are growing locally in that way as well. The calendar is planned to launch November 1. One of our two Locally Grown Coordinators says that Locally Grown engages young Jews by creating an open space to engage through community, food, study and questioning, and the opportunity to explore many styles of davening through varied leadership by local young Jewish leaders. Locally Grown also wrestles with a desire to form a solid community by engaging a small core and growing outward AND a desire to bring in a lot of people by engaging well-known and charismatic leaders and teachers; it is a good and important struggle.
All of this gives me an optimistic view of the Jews in our area, young and not so young. I of course bow to the reality of some lessening of signs of Jewish engagement that are clear in the Community study, but I am also hopeful in three ways:
1) First, I am intrigued by the category called “Just Jews” – the folks who are not members of congregations and not so involved in other Jewish institutions or activities either. I am intrigued because Kolot Chayeinu – and Locally Grown- is full of those people. Some are members, some are in a secondary orbit, some come occasionally and many think they are members even if they are not. That is hard budget-wise but good community-wise. I urge us all not to disparage the “Just Jews,” but to encourage them, listen to them, learn from them. From our vantage point, many of them are “just Jews” in another way: Jews whose primary connection is to action for justice, which they see as a completely Jewish way.
2) Second, I am fascinated by the statistic about Jewish households that include at least one person who is not white: 12% of the Jewish households surveyed have that description, meaning some 87,000 Jewish households in the city and surrounding areas include at least one person who is not white. At Kolot Chayeinu, we developed a task force on race (before the study was out) because this statistic is very real for us and we white Jews have realized we have a lot to learn if those non-white Jews or seekers are to feel they have a home in the Jewish community.
3) Third, I don’t see disengagement as much as I see yearning, people saying to themselves something like, “I am Jewish, I want to be Jewish, but so much about Judaism turns me off.” Or, “I wish there were a Jewish place or way to find comfort/answers/response to the things that really matter to me.” The Jewish Meditation Center in Brooklyn works, for instance, because so many Jews young and old were already meditating, usually in an Asian way, and this let them keep meditating but do it as Jews, which is what they want to do. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice draws hundreds of young Jews who make that work and the community that grows around it their Jewish community. I want to say a word too about the rabbinic role: Roger Kamentz, in his Jew in the Lotus, reported speaking to a Jewish woman who had become a Buddhist. He asked her why, and why not stay with Judaism. She said, “To me, Judaism is an old man saying no.” I do not want to be an old man saying no, and I think we rabbis need to think more about how and when we can be flexible, even as I acknowledge that we all draw some lines.
We join with groups such as the JMC or JFREJ or the Jewish Farm school; we are s happy to be part of your new film Feast Forward. We talk them up and urge connections, rather than circling our wagons. This year we are looking at new ways to be creative and engage those who have not been so engaged. And on Kol Nidre we had a standing-room only crowd of over 1000 people for the services our 360-member congregation organized. They come for our open doors, no-ticket policy, and they stay, I think, because of what we offer once they come through those open doors. Our open door policy yields an outpouring of donations too. And our fair share dues plan feels like a gift to young people especially who find their often low salaries reflected there. The same is true for our individual membership policy, which has meant that one member of a couple can join if the other does not want to or is not ready to, whether the other partner is Jewish or not. Often the second partner joins later, sometimes not. Locally Grown participants have not been urged to join at all, and we will be thinking about how best to approach that issue as the program grows.
What we know is that over and over again people say to us, “This is the first synagogue I have ever joined. I can’t imagine joining any other.” That is gratifying, and may offer wisdom beyond our moving walls.
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