Tribute to Debbie Friedman

January 13th, 2011
Debbie was more than a singer, songwriter and performer; she was a teacher.
 I first met Debbie at the third Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education at UC Irvine in August, 1977. Many of the 700 people there had never heard of her; I knew that she was a song leader working in Texas. Stuart Kelman, Joel Grishaver and I asked her to close the conference. What she did with the audience of educators that evening was absolutely magical. She told us she was proud to be a Jewish teacher. She was funny, with a twinkle in her eye. She sang us a little song she had written for her religious school kids – "Aleph, Bet, Veit." Then, "Not by Might, Not by Power." Then, "Miriam’s Song." And on and on. She insisted "this isn’t a performance, let’s sing together." And sing we did. She taught us the words; she repeated the melody until we had it. She got us on our feet, arms around each other. We were uplifted and inspired.
 It was later that night when I witnessed the generosity of spirit of this remarkable woman. After the concert, she invited everyone to join her in a kumsitz. We sang for hours. Some people brought guitars. Debbie encouraged them to take the lead, to share their music. One of them was a young man from Los Angeles – Craig Taubman. They had never met. As Craig sang "Yad b’Yad," Debbie sat back and smiled a smile of recognition, a smile of welcome, a smile of mentorship.
 Debbie loved teaching and she loved people. She had the gift of creating an instant bond with her "students." Once her music became so universally recognized, her appearances became more like folk rock concerts, everyone singing along on every song. Except one. When Debbie began singing her "Mi Shebeirach" and the crowd began to sing, Debbie would gently hush them. "Don’t sing," she would whisper. "This is for you." What a gift she gave us in that moment.
 There is no doubt that Debbie pioneered what has been called by Rabbi Les Bronstein "a new American nusach." Her melodies transformed worship in hundreds of synagogues across the denominations and touched the souls of countless people, leading many to experience the spiritual goose bumps that come from raising one’s voice in prayer.
 Yes, Debbie taught us to sing. But, most of all, Debbie called on God "to help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing." May her memory and her music always be a blessing, and let us say, "Amen."
Dr. Ron Wolfson
Co-President, Synagogue 3000

“doing jewish stuff” – an experiment called NITA

November 17th, 2010

Nita (Hebrew for, "We will plant, we will grow") is an experiment in "doing Jewish" differently. As one of Synagogue 3000’s Next Dor pilots, Nita has spent the last year plus creating a new model of community led by Rabbi Noa Kusher who describes her rabbinate as "… one part sales, one part emunah (faith), and one part chutzpah – a stubborn refusal to give up on my generation of Jews."

In this S3K report, Kushner reflects on the creation of Nita and its development over the last year. If we do Jewish differently, what does it mean to be a member? How do new communities pay their way? What’s in store for the future?

download the full report

It’s a new world, Golda…

August 19th, 2010

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman comments on Steven M. Cohen’s article about engaging young, American Jews. What do you think?

From Jewish people to Jewish purpose: The new age of social innovation in American Jewish life

January 28th, 2010

Notes from a talk given by Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London, UK, December 2 2009.

There has been an efflorescence of independent, exciting and creative collective Jewish activity carried out by young people in their 20s and 30s in the United States over the past decade. See, for example, The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, Reboot, 2007.  

The new endeavors fit mainly into five major domains of activity, as follows:

1. Independent spiritual communities
These can be divided into two main categories: new independent minyanim (congregations led by volunteers); and rabbi-led ‘emergent communities’, (rabbis starting their own congregations), both of which are non-Orthodox by definition.  Orthodox Jews have always created these types of minyanim; but for this to be happening outside of Orthodoxy is new.  The quality of davening (prayer) within these new communities is often exceptionally powerful and moving, and most represent an effective fusion of prayer, learning and social justice across the different compartments of Jewish life.  Two of the most interesting examples are Kehilat Hadar in New York, and Ikar in Los Angeles. See, for example, Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study by Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, Michelle Shain; S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar.

2. Social justice
There has been sizeable growth in new organizations committed to social justice work. See, Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community by Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar; Nathan Cummings Foundation, 2008.

It is striking that funding has grown so much that there may be a professional shortage in this area. 

One of the major debates within the field has been whether social justice work in the Jewish community should have an ulterior motive or not, i.e., whether initiatives should be established partly as a means to deepen engagement in Jewish life on the part of the volunteers, or purely for their own sake.  Probably the leading advocate of social justice work, Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, strongly supports the latter position. She has made clear that the guiding purpose must be to serve the beneficiary. Of course, in so doing, there will be additional Jewish educational and inspirational benefits for the participants. This emphasis on the primacy of purpose is another defining feature of much of the innovative work that is currently taking place.

3. Jewish culture
New Jewish magazines and record labels have been established which fuse together Jewish and non-Jewish culture in innovative and intriguing ways.  Of particular note are Heeb Magazine and JDub Records, to name just two illustrative phenomena. For others and for an assessment of the impact of Jewish cultural events, see Cultural Events and Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, UJA-Federation of New York, 2005.

4. New media
The growth of Jewish culture may partly be attributed to the expansion of the Internet and the decline in production costs, spawning a "pro-am" movement in cultural endeavors of all sorts.  The Internet has allowed new music, videos and films to be produced and distributed at almost no cost.  Much of the recent Jewish innovation focuses on building websites, which typically empower Jews to create their own Jewish lives on their own terms.  As the Internet has become a two-way communications device, online innovations often allow users to participate in interesting Jewish activities that are free of any controlling authority.  Examples include online facilities that allow people to create their own siddurim (prayer books) or access midrashim (Biblical commentaries) in ways that enable Jews to discover traditional texts. 

5. Learning
Possibly the most significant learning initiative, which has had a huge impact on Jewish education in Britain, the US and across the Jewish world, is Limmud.  Its defining characteristics are that it allows Jews to take control of their own learning and Jewish life.  Any model of education that enables this age cohort to feel empowered in this way is likely to succeed.  Divrei Torah are becoming increasingly common, both as a practice and as a way to open meetings.

The ‘ABCD’ of young American Jews
Young people are distancing themselves from aspects of the Judaism of their elders, and responding to what they see as its shortcomings. Embodied within the endeavors outlined above is both a widely held, albeit unevenly shared, critique of conventional Jewish life. The Jewishly engaged but institutionally unaffiliated harbor four objections to the commonly available opportunities for affiliation, objections that may be encapsulated in the mnemonic "ABCD.":

A = Alienating: The young people leading these initiatives feel alienated from the more conventional Jewish world, and wish to challenge many of its perceived norms by offering far more independence of thought and action.

B = Bland and Boring: This is how they view the Jewish lifestyle choices of the older generation. They see conventional leaders as too homogeneous, and disturbingly closed to diversity in social class and family status. The Judaism they seek is stimulating, upbeat, passionate and happy.

C = Coercive: The younger Jews find established Jewish institutions implicitly coercive – aiming to induce younger Jews to marry each other, to conceive Jewish babies and to support Israeli government policies of which they are ambivalent. By contrast, the initiatives they are creating are characterized by an emphasis on autonomy and the respect for individual growth. 

D = Divisive: They find conventional Jewish institutions divisive, in that they are seen as dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from each other, Jewish turf from non-Jewish turf, and Jewish culture from putatively (and artificially defined) non-Jewish culture. In contrast, they seek diversity in people, culture, and geography.  They tend toward the post-denominational.  Similarly, they like to open up the boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish, borrowing freely from non-Jewish culture to create new forms of Jewish culture, and demonstrating clear preferences for activities that happen in non-Jewish spaces, rather than exclusively Jewish ones.


Why is all this happening now?

1. Demography
Half of all non-Orthodox American Jews in the 25-39 age group are unmarried, and this represents the largest population of young Jewish single adults ever.  This demographic is ill-suited to most traditional Jewish institutions such as synagogues and JCCs which focus on in-married Jewish couples with Jewish children.

2. Growth in Jewish education
The huge growth of Jewish education in the 1980s and 1990s – day schools, camps, Israel experience, etc – has created a vast pool of Jewish social and cultural capital.  When the graduates of these experiences fail to find their niche within existing initiatives and organizations, it is unsurprising that they should seek to create their own.

3. Growth of Non-Governmental Organizations
There has been a huge growth in NGOs and all kinds of self-initiated projects in the wider society in the past couple of decades, and one would expect this trend to be mirrored in the Jewish world.

4. Social acceptance
Greater Jewish integration into wider society and the decline of Jewish vulnerability are particularly important phenomena.  Being Jewish used to be a given, while being American was open to question. Today, being American is the given, while being Jewish is increasingly open to question.  Jewish exclusivity is regarded by the younger generation as increasingly problematic, and many within this demographic are reluctant to participate in Jewish communal activity if their non-Jewish partner is unwelcome.  Part of the wide appeal of Barack Obama to non-Orthodox Jews amongst this group was because of his stand against exclusivism and judgmentalism, and his desire to break down barriers between black and white, Republican and Democrat, etc. 


The community may well need to ‘change or die’.  The change agenda requires three components: a ‘wedge’ – a critical image of contemporary reality, a ‘magnet’ – a vision of how things could look, and a ‘bridge’ – a means by which to move towards that vision.


Steven M Cohen, Director of Research for S3K, discussed the new age of social innovation in American Jewish life at a seminar for Jewish community professionals in December. The seminar was organized jointly by JPR and JHub, the London-based Jewish Social Action and Innovation Hub. The original reflection can be found at

Rekindling Tradition as Life Partnerships End

January 18th, 2010

It is somewhat surprising that researchers have paid so little attention to how people experience divorce in congregations. Studies that do address the relationship between religion and divorce are largely quantitative, measuring divorce numbers. Rarely do these reports consider the personal impact and how (or if) communities support those affected by divorce. Do synagogues know how to handle end of relationship issues?

From 2005 to 2009, author Kathleen E. Jenkins conducted sixty interviews with divorced individuals (eleven Jewish) active in a variety of religious communities. Jenkins interviewed forty clergy (twelve rabbis) and lay leaders. Three of the rabbis had been divorced.

Jenkins includes anecdotes from her interviews that may surprise many in the synagogue community while not surprise others at all. The report concludes with some simple, practical suggestions for synagogues to better serve this distinct community.

Download the full report

Spirituality at B’nai Jeshurun: Reflections of Two Scholars and Three Rabbis

November 5th, 2009

This S3K Report on "BJ," features three fascinating pieces. Professors Ayala Fader and Mark Kligman undertook a very rich and revealing ethnography of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) on New York’s Upper West Side, back in 1998 under the auspices of then Synagogue 2000 and BJ itself. Ten years later, they present a reflection now, of BJ, then. "The New Jewish Spirituality and Prayer: Take BJ, For Instance" discerns the elements of BJ’s synagogue culture in a truly insightful and valuable fashion.

Then, B’nai Jeshurun’s three spiritual leaders – Rabbis J. Rolando Matalon, Marcelo R. Bronstein and Felicia L. Sol – offer their fascinating perspective on the distinctive BJ experience in, "Take BJ from its Rabbis’ Point of View."

S3K cofounder Rabbi Larry Hoffman and S3K Director of Research Professor Steven M. Cohen introduce the companion pieces, adding their views and insights to the mix. These three pieces, compiled into one report, then, combine the perspectives of outsiders and insiders, as well as rabbis and social scientists, upon one of the most intriguing developments in Jewish congregational life in North America today.

Download PDF (and read the rest of the report)

On Quitting: Learning from Failure

October 28th, 2009

by Donna Gerson

This winter, my husband and I quit the Conservative shul that we belonged to for nearly ten years. While the saying – "winners never quit and quitters never win" – resonates in my head, I realize that sometimes leaders need to assess circumstances, cut losses, learn from their experience, and move on.

Our decision to leave our congregation has been part of a larger journey that began prior to my affiliation with the Wexner Heritage Program and intensified over the last year. Raised in a Conservative Jewish home, I turned to Conservative Judaism as an adult more out of reflex than reflection when we decided to join a congregation in the suburbs.

The rabbi at the congregation we just left is lovely – a young, fun, and thoughtful person. Most of the congregants are really nice people who are trying their best to build a community through faith. We had no clash of wills with the rabbi, administration, or congregants. Instead, we found that we simply did not adhere to the belief system that anchors the Conservative Movement.

After years of attending services, I knew we were not Conservative Jews and had no aspiration to become Conservative Jews. Like so many, I suspect, we were simply paying our dues out of inertia. Our son’s bar mitzvah was looming on the horizon. I didn’t have the strength or will to explore other options. The only other congregation in easy commuting distance from our home is a Reform temple that we tried years earlier and did not find particularly welcoming. And, yes, there was a good dose of Jewish guilt thrown in, too. Good Jews affiliated with a congregation; Bad Jews chose not to affiliate. I did not want to be a Bad Jew. So I settled for being a Disconnected Jew.

My first Wexner Summer Institute in Aspen opened my eyes to meaningful prayer options. At first, I wanted to skip the optional morning prayer sessions. Why not catch some extra sleep at the luxurious St. Regis? I didn’t attend morning minyan at home, I reasoned, so why start now? I’m so glad I didn’t take the lazy route. I woke up early, grabbed coffee, and tried the liberal minyan. Coffee is allowed at morning prayers at Wexner, which got me thinking about designing cup holders for pews, but I digress. A-ha! It is possible to gather together, pray, contemplate, and discuss torah in a meaningful way. It is possible for me to engage in ritual that does not feel stale or forced. It is possible to feel a sense of community.

I came to understand that I could connect congregationally, but that my choices back home were not suiting my needs. When I made this observation to a mentor of mine, his response was, "work to change it from within." Easier said than done. Ever petition a synagogue Ritual Committee? Death Row inmates get more due process. Ever try to change a Religious School curriculum or hire a Religious School director? Try wading into that muck for a few weeks.

After a year of soul-searching, I concluded that I cannot (and should not) change the Conservative Movement or my synagogue in particular. In the words of Gandhi, I need to "be the change I want to see in the world." And in this instance, I needed to step away graciously. I am now comfortable in the Land of the Unaffiliated. It may be my permanent residence, but I hope that my family finds the congregational connection we need. First, though, we will engage in a period of denominational palate-cleansing that will renew our focus on home rituals. We’ll research, read, and talk together. Then we are going to explore our options with open hearts and open minds.

I’m proud to say it: I’m a quitter. But I’m taking steps to lead myself toward finding meaning and joy in my Judaism.

Bringing Conversations about Israel into the Life of American Congregations

September 23rd, 2009

Authors Alex Sinclair and Esti Moskovitz-Kalman discuss the new conversation needed in American synagogues regarding Israel. "Israel engagement" has meant lending political and philanthropic support to the beleaguered Jewish State. Today it must in mean something different, something more personal. Add you voice to the conversation!

See the full report at

Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not

September 14th, 2009

Rabbi Michael Wasserman
The New Shul, Scottsdale, AZ

Perhaps the most important message to come out of Synagogue 3000 is its call for synagogues to break with the consumer paradigm. As Lawrence Hoffman has put it, “Whatever authentic Jewish spirituality is, it can find its way into synagogues only if synagogues cease being communities that people join as consumers, buying services with dues” (Rethinking Synagogues, p. 131).

When we put a price tag on synagogue membership, we in effect define membership as a purchase, which turns members into customers. Having made that equation, we cannot blame members for expecting synagogues to organize themselves around the “sovereign self.” When we “buy” something, we value it according to how well it meets our personal needs. The customer is always right. We should not be surprised that members apply that logic to the synagogue, if the synagogue itself frames its work in market terms.

The vocabulary of consumerism is so deeply ingrained in American synagogue life that we often take it for granted. How often do synagogue leaders speak, without irony, of their programs and services as their “product,” and their outreach as “marketing?” But that vocabulary undermines attempts to make the synagogue a place of deeper meaning.  To the extent that synagogues embrace the language of the marketplace – i.e. of private benefit – they find it difficult to speak with credibility of mitzvah. If we wish to revitalize the synagogue, to cultivate a sense of meaning and belonging deeper than a vendor/customer relationship, we must use a different vocabulary.

The call by S3K to move beyond the consumer paradigm resonates very deeply with me, as co-founder (with my wife Rabbi Elana Kanter) of a synagogue that has done that at a very literal level, by eliminating membership dues. When we launched The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona in 2002, one of our core principles was that membership would not be for sale, and hence all giving would be voluntary. The New Shul’s message on membership was, and is, that financial support is not the price of belonging, but an expression of belonging, part of a broader sense of shared commitment that defines participation in a spiritual community. Our alternative – and we believe the only real alternative – to spiritual consumerism is a culture of mutual responsibility, or, in a word, community. For the past seven years, our members have supported the shul (complete with payroll and building mortgage) entirely on voluntary pledges. Because membership is not a purchase, no one asks  “What am I getting for my money?”

We have found that moving beyond the vocabulary of the market is tremendously validating to those who have the greatest potential to revitalize non-orthodox Judaism, those who are searching for religious meaning in commitments that transcend the self – or, to put it another way, who understand that their deepest need is to be needed. Their sensibility can be called “post-liberal” in that they take their personal autonomy for granted, and hence feel no need to hoard their freedom, to resist commitment. Their autonomy has evolved from freedom from to freedom for. This post-liberalsensibility, in which voluntary obligation is not an oxymoron, is at the heart of the neo-traditionalism that informs many of the new emergent communities that Synagogue 3000 has studied (see Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants, Steven M. Cohen et al, 2007). 

To be sure, post-liberal Jews inhabit mainstream synagogues as well. Often, they are the heart and soul of those institutions. But ironically, even as they strengthen mainstream synagogues with their energies, they often find themselves out of sync with those institutions’ public vocabulary. The language of the market, which their synagogues rely on so heavily, does not describe their own involvement.  They pay their dues like everyone else, but they do not think – or at least do not wish to think – of the money as payment for services rendered. They hunger for a language that can give voice to a deeper sense of mitzvah.

Restructuring our synagogues so that they speak the language that those Jews truly wish to speak, that use the vocabulary of shared responsibility, ought to be a priority for us. So I say amen to the call by Synagogue 3000 to transcend the consumer paradigm. 

The picture gets more complicated, however, in that many of the practical prescriptions coming out of SK3 – ostensibly designed to meet that goal – seem to be at odds with that vision. Much of the S3K literature calls for customizing synagogue experiences to individual tastes, and marketing programs to specific interest groups, drawing on the retail and entertainment industries for inspiration.  Lawrence Hoffman, in his model of the non-orthodox “Experience Synagogue,” forgoes any notion of shared commitment (at least as far as worship and/or learning are concerned), and emphasizes personalization instead. He envisions people taking advantage of a wide menu of synagogue offerings according to their individual tastes, much as they shop for clothes (Rethinking Synagogues, pp. 174-175). 

If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers? Aren’t we inviting them, in effect, to “buy” spiritual experiences? How does this differ from the paradigm that we are attempting to break with?

I am not suggesting that models like the “Experience Synagogue” have no place. To the contrary, there is clearly value in upgrading the existing consumer paradigm, in offering more attractive programs and services to the tentative and uncommitted. Religious consumerism will be with us for a long time, and, as long as it is, we need to do a better job of – yes, marketing what are in essence spiritual products. My point is not that we should reject that work. It is that, even as we support that work, we must recognize that it is very different from the other task that we have set for ourselves, the task of creating communities that move beyond consumerism. Enhancing the consumer model, figuring out how to do it better, is not the same thing as transcending it.

It seems to me that there is a tension in the Synagogue 3000 literature between means and ends, which calls for clarification.


Choice Does Not Always Mean Consumer Choice

Rabbi Alan Brill
Seton Hall University

On Sunday nights, I am glued to my TV watching the hit show Mad Men The show ostensively focuses on an ad agency in 1962 portraying the rise of advertising and consumer culture in America. But the real story is the sense of falling and anxiety that occurred when the certainties of the nineteen fifties gave way to the individualism of the 1960’s. I find that this post “ Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not” confuses the plot with the real story.
In the 1950’s people learned to accept culturally constructed institutions and model ideal attitudes whose expectations might not have been experienced privately. In the 1960’s people started to seek their own individual directions and overcome the split between the institutional and the personal. They moved from dwelling to seeking. By the 1980’s and 1990’s this individualism became the norm.
Jews aspired to a collective idea of peoplehood and accepted institutional attitudes toward Judaism, family life, and society. Mordechai Kaplan’s important re-evaluation of Judaism was based on the descriptive ideas of Durkheim in which individuals express themselves in collectives. But what comes after Durkheim, and the evident decline in self-definition through Jewish institutions?
Charles Taylor in his recent work A Secular Age points out that Durkheim’s approach — in which individuals expressed themselves in collectives and institutions — no longer holds true in its original meaning. Religion today, Taylor argues, can be found in “the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals seize on in order to make sense of their lives.” Taylor stresses the complex ways in which religion is now even more a part of our daily lives, and the importance of a multiplicity of practices and interpretations to deal with this variety.
In the post –Durkheim reality described by Taylor, we need to reframe the issue away from peoplehood to individual meanings and smaller social units, in short, religion in the human life.  We need to think in terms of changes based on the small changes of meanings and moral orders.
Take, for example, the variety of religious experiences and moral orders that could be found among the pews in a single congregation on Yom Kippur 2009. We will find people from whom Judaism is of varying importance in their daily lives, but for whom the content of that Judaism is different and varying. There will be those who adhere to old-time theology, those for whom Judaism is about being a politically conservative ADL supporter, those who are progressive, another who stresses social action, another who understands reality using 12-step language, and another who eclectically combines Chabad, feng shui, and Buddhist spirituality, those who are uplifted through art, and even moral majority Jews who embrace Judaism for its strong “family values.” There are dozens of other Jewish moral orders, no congregation has even half of them. People choose to obligate themselves to these diverse meanings because they help make sense of their lives.
Recently, many analysts of the Jewish community have picked up the phrase “spiritual marketplace” (first used a generation ago) and proceed to compare the Jewish choices made by today’s Jew to the choice of a “grande soy latte” in Starbucks – a simile implying a degree of pampering and meaningless luxuries. Viewing Jews making life decisions as Starbucks customers, their policy proposals emphasize the need to reach younger Jews through better marketing. However, religious choices, as Robert Wuthnow has stressed, reflect an attempt to create meaningful lives and a structure of moral orders. Multiple choices do not lead to the banal market pluralism, but to a variety of constructed finite religious identities. 
When entering the contemporary spiritual landscape, the contemporary Jew experiences not three or four denominations, but dozens of flavors. Synagogues and Jewish organization become specialized into single products for specialized audiences. So of course, people enjoy the Synaplex model because it gives them a possibility, a chance, to experience what they find meaningful. If they are lucky, they can find their personal vision validated.
To return to the original issue of equating choice with consumer choice, we need to look at moral orders and meanings created.
Seekers, as Wuthnow categorized them, are not a single category but are many approaches and many moral orders. While some still seek naturalism, other seekers embrace traditional concepts of God. The literature in the field of spirituality divides spirituality into anywhere between four to ten different types. Many of the books from Alban Institute place the number at four.
Rabbis need to know that these different types of spirituality are not interchangeable and that congregants are not choosing them just for consumerist variety. Some congregants seeking certain forms of spirituality are actually repelled by some of the others. No one congregation can attempt all of the current varieties of spirituality. No Rabbi can offer all of them. But there is shopping because there in fact several different unique types of spirituality, each with their own sense of meaning, not because they have internalized the marketplace values.
The blog post asked “If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers?”
The answer is no!  Judaism is capacious and has the possibility of many meanings constructed and many moral orders formed. That is, unless, the vision is to return the community to the 1950’s. We watch Mad Men to remind ourselves how much we have changed.

City Rabbi Goes Country

August 11th, 2009

I put on my hiking boots and followed the Adventure Rabbi onto a trail through the wildflowers.   I expected a beautiful hike into one of Boulder’s canyons… but I didn’t realize that as I was taking in the Rocky Mountains, I’d also gain a new insight into my generation’s quest for meaningful Judaism.   

Rabbi Jamie Korngold is the Adventure Rabbi.  An avid skier and lover of the outdoors, she created the Adventure Rabbi program with her husband, Jeff Finkelstein – a mountain climber and expert skier with many years’ experience on ski patrol.  (There are Jews on ski patrol??  Who knew?)  The Adventure Rabbi Program:  A Synagogue Without Walls is a community for Jews who "like to do Jewish" outside.  They celebrate Shabbat and holidays skiing, hiking, camping and learning Jewish texts and values off the beaten track.  The Adventure Rabbi Program is a Jewish community without walls, in which the participants take seriously their responsibility to welcome new people, to learn about each other, to celebrate together, and to study Judaism.  It is a community that brings together all kinds of Jews– the in-married, the out-married and the non-married; men, women, kids; real athletes and some urban folks who don’t mind getting a little shmutzy.  This is a real Jewish community– the kind I would want to join! And most interestingly, it is a community where lots of folks who usually feel unwelcome in synagogues – single 25-45 year old women and men (hello??!! anybody seen these guys in a synagogue recently?) want to learn, share, participate, and help build a Jewish community.  

How on earth did an urban rabbi such as myself stumble upon these outdoor Jews?  Rabbi Korngold was invited to participate in S3K’s Emergent network – a group of innovative rabbis building unusual Jewish communities.

So, as I followed Jamie onto the trail through the wildflowers, we talked about Jewish prayer.  Judaism has done a lousy job over the years of creating a prayer language that feels accessible.  Think about it, our images of God from our liturgy are not images most of us can identify with:  Who is this God on high who took us out from slavery with an outstretched arm?…  And what does that even mean?  Now we’re faced with the reality that going to shul and sitting through services is not meaningful to many people either because they have no personal internal prayer life at all or because they do, but they’d rather be somewhere other than a synagogue to pray.  Synagogue membership is down.  Young people, in general, are not joining synagogues– especially not the unmarried ones– and very especially not the guys. BUT,  we so want community, we want to celebrate Shabbat together, we want to learn about Judaism, we want to build meaningful Jewish identities – and we crave the relationships both bein adam l’chavero – between people – and bein adam l’makom – between us and  God – that Jewish communities can help us build.  

What does this have to do with the Rocky Mountains?  I’ll tell you.  Here’s what Jamie and I talked about on our hike:  The wilderness allows people to use vocabulary that would feel cheesy, sappy or otherwise overly poetic anywhere else.  In nature, we’re allowed to use words of awe.  It’s the only place where that vocabulary is widely accepted and can be used by "in," "out" and "non"-marrieds and by women AND men.  Exclamations of wonder and awe are easy to say and hear when standing next to a hanging glacier or a tiny purple wildflower growing up from the parched desert.  People get used to using vocabulary that expresses gratitude, awareness, searching when we’re surrounded by nature. And once those words enter our vocabulary and we feel safe using them…  they can be used in a Jewish context, too.  How easy it is to be thankful for beauty that we see, to raise questions about the inexplicable, to ask for help climbing over a huge boulder when we’ve all agreed that awe-language is appropriate.

And not only that. Once it’s ok to share the beauty, the questions, the scale of things, we realize that we’re a part of it – tiny in some ways, mighty in others – and all dependent on each other.  Walking up what seemed like a vertical wall of slickrock in Moab, I looked up to find a hand waiting to help me, before I ever had to ask.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman
Director, Congregational Engagement

Socialized through Gregarious 42