An Excellent Blind Date

(Photo credit: OneTable - Emily Pearl Goodstein)


Is there room for innovation in Jewish education & engagement in our communities? What does the word “innovation” even mean? We asked Melissa Balaban of IKAR and Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of Kavana to share with us the nature of their work. They highlight the work in the seven communities of the Jewish Emergent Network  and define innovation in the start-up landscape.


Applications are now open for second cohort of Jewish Emergent Network Rabbinic Fellows. And save the date for their inaugural conference, June 1-3, 2018 in Los Angeles.


Everybody could feel it right away: It was an electrifying shidduch. Suddenly, a group of pioneers — each experimenting and risk-taking in our own respective communities — recognized in each other folks who were doing the same thing, thinking about Jewish community differently, doing it differently.


It was May 2014 when the rabbis and professional leaders from our seven organizations — IKAR in Los Angeles, Kavana in Seattle, the Kitchen in San Francisco, Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York, Mishkan in Chicago and Sixth & I in D.C. — came together for the first time at the Leichtag Ranch in southern California thanks to support from both Leichtag and the Natan Fund. We had a common passion for invigorating Jewish life, and a strong hunch that collaborating with one another would raise the bar for all of us, and maybe for the field as a whole. All of us were trying to address the questions most relevant to contemporary American Judaism, and each of our local communities was experiencing rapid growth. While our experiments looked different on the ground — there is great diversity of organizational structure, approaches, target populations and religious inclinations within our network — we all shared a profound desire to create vibrant and engaging Jewish experiences. Our new driving passion was unearthed — to continue to grow and explore within the context of a robust and supportive network.


After our first gathering, one member of our group described the experience as “a blind date that had gone really, really well.” Over the three years since, the relationships among us have deepened significantly, and a Jewish Emergent Network has officially taken shape. We have begun to genuinely learn from one another — sharing everything from office management best practices to music and spiritual rituals. We have woven a supportive peer network to buoy one another through the challenges of our startup environments. We have articulated ambitious collective goals, such as harnessing our collective power and working together to enhance the American Jewish landscape. We have worked side-by-side to build specific programming, including our unique national Rabbinic Fellowship to train the next generation of innovative spiritual leaders.


As diverse as we are, a shared set of central values animates each of our seven communities. While we do not have exclusive claim on any of these values, we do believe that when applied together, they are precisely the right ingredients for a healthy and vibrant approach to 21st century Jewish communal life. To that end, we are excited to put forward these common values for wider consideration:


  1. Experimental Spirit & Risk-Taking: We have each embraced an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to rethink many basic assumptions about nearly every aspect of our organizational structures, from ritual and spiritual practice to staff structure and space. While we all have experienced failure and disappointment in some of these areas, we have not been constrained by fear but rather inspired by what we have learned from those missteps. For example, the Kitchen embraces this experimental spirit in an attempt to broaden appeal and connect Jewish content with more people in the San Francisco area. Shabbat and holiday celebrations have been held at unique locations, from Chinatown and Golden Gate Park to the Presidio and the SF Mint; Shavuot has been reimagined and features an elaborate scavenger hunt, with teams combing the city for clues to help them better understand the Book of Ruth. After consulting with IDEO (a lead design-thinking firm), the Kitchen created its own siddurim and machzorim, featuring elements such as stickers, pull-out imagery and liturgical poetry written by Kitchen-ites. Both are now in version two, and the iterative process continues.
  2. Radically welcoming: Each of us recognizes the profound blessing of diversity in our Jewish communities and has made it mission-critical to embrace porous boundaries, commit to egalitarianism and engage dynamically with Jews of all types and stripes. Lab/Shul explicitly describes itself as “God-optional and everybody friendly”—which has helped it reach a diverse audience of both engaged and less affiliated Jews of all backgrounds, ages and orientations. Lab/Shul describes itself as an artist-driven “congregation of the future,” that pays critical and careful attention to the physical atmosphere created to ensure that the experience of being at any service or event touches all of the senses. At Mishkan, a volunteer “Love Team” is responsible for ensuring that everyone who walks through the door feels loved and welcomed. Team members can function as schmoozers, openers and closers, holy shleppers. The volunteers choose jobs that are suited to their skills and talents as well as provide necessary services for the community. Together, the Love Team’s presence helps ensure that whoever walks through the doors at Mishkan will feel seen, known, helped and radically welcomed.
  3. Rooted in tradition: All seven organizations derive our foundation from the ancient technologies of Jewish tradition, while being willing to challenge, innovate and evolve within the framework. At Kavana, for example, the bar/bat mitzvah process is understood as an opportunity to dive deeply into Jewish learning and meaningfully mark the child’s entry into Jewish adulthood. In the context of a pluralistic community, this necessarily looks different from family to family: One young adult may lead a Shabbat morning service and chant Torah and haftorah (the classic!); another could host a film-screening event in a small theater to show a stop-gap animation film she’s created about her Torah portion; and yet another might lead an elaborate table-ritual in his home to teach guests about the layers of meaning around the Shavuot holiday. These ceremonies look very different (and often quite nontraditional), but it is a deep connection to Jewish text and tradition that serves as the thread binding these together.
  4. Content-rich: Along with our proclivities toward creativity, each of our organizations is committed to deeply impactful practices that are informed by Jewish wisdom and texts. Active learning and engagement with Torah are integral to all of our programming. For example, while Sixth & I brings thousands of millennials through the doors for art and culture events, waiting lists for serious Jewish learning classes are long and legendary. Four nights a week, Sixth & I is teaching Torah! Running the gamut from one-off classes for 25 participants to 70+ students studying in nine-month-long experiences, and ranging in content from Talmud classes in English to the flagship Jewish Welcome Workshop, and from interfaith connection groups to facilitated conversations about Israel/Palestine. Sixth & I provides as many different entries into Jewish learning as it has the capacity to offer.
  5. Judaism as a vehicle for justice: Claiming a Jewish moral voice has been a driving motivation in each of our organizations and we all see Jewish technology as both a path for spirituality as well as a road map for how we interact with the world. Many of the rabbis of our seven organizations have claimed a prominent place on the national stage preaching Judaism as a method for narrowing the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. For example, Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR has earned a national audience, as evidenced by her TED Talk on reclaiming religion that has now been viewed by over a million people. And IKAR has a full-time director of community organizing on staff to actualize the justice the rabbis preach into measurable social change. IKAR’s rabbis and community have become leading voices in speaking to the moral issues of our day through a Jewish lens.
  6. Optimism: The seven organizations have helped each other recognize possibilities for our communities, the Jewish world, and society at large. For example, at Romemu, the clergy team models what it means to leave cynicism at the door since there is plenty of it in NYC outside of the sanctuary. Romemu believes that optimism is inherent in committing to daven together. From the moment the rented sanctuary space is transformed from a church to a shul (a shurch!), the community lifts up the prayer together, weaving song and liturgy as a community. While prayer means something different to each person in that space, when you come to Romemu, you hear everyone singing, clapping, moving, reaching together. People emerge from the prayer space transformed—and carry this energy of transformation out into the world.


People ask us all the time if there is a “secret sauce” contributing to the growth and success of our individual organizations and our network as a whole. The answer is yes: In addition to actively and intentionally learning from each other, each of our seven organizations has thoroughly operationalized the six values listed above, and we are disciplined and thoughtful in applying them, day in and day out, to the work we do. This means consistently staying laser-focused on these values, whether we’re setting up a coffee cart for Shabbat morning schmoozers, applying an intentionally artistic eye to the worship space, gathering folks to do justice in the local community on a weeknight, or planning a High Holiday experience that makes spirits soar.


Of course, we know that these shared values are not unique to our network and we believe that these are the foundational values critical to the next iteration of Jewish life, when the next generation pioneers its own Jewish landscape. A landscape that will be relevant, compelling and inspiring to our kids may look nothing like what we are doing now. But, based on the rapid growth and success of each of our seven organizations, we think that these animating values will be central operating principles for others who share our passion for ensuring a dynamic future for the American Jewish community.


The Federations in the cities of the Jewish Emergent Network communities have been extremely supportive of our start-up organizations with funds, technical and even moral support. They have helped nurture our desire to experiment with our approaches while remaining part of the greater conversation about Jewish life in our cities. While all of our organizations have formed and developed outside of traditional movements and communal structures, these partnerships with Federations and other legacy institutions have been critical to our success and we all look forward to more deeply exploring opportunities to work together to continue to invigorate Jewish life across the country.