DIY Judaism

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The Organic Growth of Independent Jewish Spiritual Communities

by Amy Dean:

"According to the major Jewish federations’ own internal census, Conservative congregations’ membership is in “free fall,” having dropped by 14 percent since 2001. The Reform movement is experiencing similar drop-offs in membership, especially in the 18-34 year old age range. The labor movement’s decline in numbers has been widely documented: a January article in the New York Times announced that union membership in the U.S. workforce had fallen to 11.4 percent, its lowest point in almost a hundred years. While these movements comprised mainly of middle-aged and elders squabble internally over how to regain a foothold, it may not be a surprise that younger people—and in the case of labor, immigrant workers— are busy organizing alongside them. And, as with their predecessors, the new followers of both Judaism and organized labor are reaching out, recognizing and supporting one another.

Mishkan Chicago is one of the new independent spiritual communities; its name echoes that of a group of fellow-travelers that helped the Israelites of old keep their faith alive without the sanctuary of temples and synagogues. “Mishkan convenes in and outside of synagogue spaces—in yoga and dance spaces, living rooms, spiritual centers and backyards—where ever people are gathered in holy intention. We partner with other community groups to further that holy work,” reads a statement on its website.

Mishkan’s popularity with younger Jews seems to have staying power: now in its third year, the group has a dynamic and popular leader in Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, and an impressive menu of holiday-related and regular events designed to welcome newcomers. According to Executive Director Jare Akchin, around 500 people attended each of the group’s high holiday services last fall, and another 150-180 attend Mishkan’s Friday night Shabbat services.

Jews have built similar communities in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Toronto; others may be in development elsewhere. Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen in San Francisco estimates that the people involved in these groups number “well in the thousands. This is a movement driven by people younger than baby boomers, and is nation wide.” Because encouraging drop-ins is a core part of this movement, it is difficult to gauge the impact of these communities by counting membership rolls.

Rabbi Heydemann says that for groups like Mishkan Chicago, being unaffiliated is mainly a pragmatic choice. “Affiliation with a movement costs money,” she said. “And a lot of these groups are operating on a shoestring. Nobody has showed us a reason why we need that.” Heydemann explained that this allows the groups the freedom to tailor their mission locally: “We’re all approaching this from the particular contours of the city in which we live. I’m lovingly referring to it all as independent, homegrown, local, organic spiritual community.”

Heydemann says that despite the highly localized missions and structures of these spiritual communities, though, they have a shared commitment to social justice and progressive issues. The groups also espouse a kind of DIY Judaism that emphasizes ritual, prayer, intensive study, and discussion in equal measure. This open approach, with its appeal to a broad base of those new to Judaism and disaffected younger Jews, has also attracted rabbinical students eager to replicate and nourish the new model. “I trained at Ikar,” says Heydemann. “And we have rabbinic students learning the ethic and approach—there’s already kind of a genealogy of independent spiritual communities.” (