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(Re)Visioning Jewish Prayer, Ritual and Inclusivity

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

What is the role of a rabbi in serving a community? 

“I think it’s the job of every teacher or leader to take Torah and translate it to our time and place. Connect heaven and earth — that’s it. It’s not an easy job but that’s our job. We have to know who we’re translating for.” 

These words from Rabbi Noa Kushner, founder of San Francisco-based religious startup The Kitchen, came during a discussion on “Post-Tribal Judaism: From Birth to Death and In Between,” at (Re)Vision: Experiments & Dreams from Emerging Jewish Communities, a conference co-hosted by the organizations of the Jewish Emergent Network from June 1–3. The gathering was attended by 150 rabbis, synagogue board members and lay leaders, funders and other Jews from across the country.

The three days of activities included interactive sessions, panels, guest speakers and opportunities for networking, davening, singing and creating community. Sessions were held at The Mark and Morry’s Fireplace, and Shabbat was hosted by IKAR, the L.A. member of the network, at Shalhevet High School. In addition to IKAR and The Kitchen, the network includes Kavana in Seattle, Mishkan in Chicago, Sixth & I in Washington, D.C., and Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York City. 

“These organizations came together out of a longing for camaraderie and then realized they could deepen impact and raise each other up,” said the network’s program manager, Jessica Emerson McCormick. At the conference, she said, “I heard conversations ranging from sharing best practices to ‘Let’s get on the phone before the chagim and connect in a spiritual way; let’s be there for each other.’ The networking that happened was very rich and very satisfying; we can only raise each other up, all of us.” 

The Jewish Emergent Network was founded in 2016. Its first program, a rabbinic fellowship, aims to create the next generation of entrepreneurial, risk-taking, change-making rabbis. (Re)Vision marked the conclusion of the fellowship’s first cohort and the beginning of its second. The network’s first four years were funded through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. The Crown Family, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the William Davidson Foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Natan, and Maimonides Fund have also provided support. 

The program included sessions with titles such as “This, Too, Is Torah: The Spirituality of Branding & Marketing” and “Ritual 360: A Ritual Prayground Masterclass,” and “Dear Rabbi, %@$& You,” in which rabbis shared negative feedback they’ve received.

During the “Post-Tribal” discussion, Rabbi Shira Stutman, from Sixth & I, said the definition of “tribal” has changed, noting people also feel strongly connected to political perspectives, sports teams or even tattoos. “Judaism is not our only tribe. … Judaism has to look different.” 

Kushner added that she wanted to “start a movement of serious Jews. If you are for real, then I will stay up late and get up early to work with you,” she said, acknowledging that relational work “takes time and energy and there are no shortcuts.”

“Many people we serve are seekers who have been disconnected and are looking for ways to tap in,” Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul said during the session titled “Navigating the Minefield of the Great Jewish Taboo: Let’s Talk About Israel and Palestine.” “Israel used to be the connective tissue,” Lau-Lavie said, “now it’s the most divisive issue. Israel needs to be part of the recipe. We have to figure out how to do ‘both-and,’ giving people the connection of spirit so they can understand Israel in a nuanced and deep way.” 

Introducing “Pastor or Prophet,” a session on rabbinic roles, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz from Congregation Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis said, “All justice work is pastoral; it’s just done in public.” 

In this session, IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous referred to the Torah as a “fundamentally political document” and later noted that although people are “capable of hearing complex and nuanced ideas” they have to prioritize human dignity, and “there is no room in the tent” for those who do not.

Kavana’s founder, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, said, “All justice work begins deeply with self-work, being able to examine our privilege but implicate ourselves morally in the causing of traumas against other people.” 

“We need to deliver challenging information in doses and language that helps people take the next step,” added Mishkan founder Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, who previously served as an IKAR rabbinic fellow.

Rabbi Chai Levy said she attended the conference looking for inspiration during a period of transition in her career. She is moving from Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif., to Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. 

“I was impressed and inspired by how clearly the leaders were able to articulate their unique vision for each of their communities,” Levy said. “Each one has a driving question that their community seeks to answer. … Traditional institutions can learn from their attention to ‘user experience.’ ”

Naomi Less, Lab/Shul’s associate director and founding ritual leader, said she appreciated “the myriad ways each community approaches spiritual practice. My soul is refueled when I pray with these cherished colleagues. The musical moments of spirit are beyond description.”

The core of the conference experience was the Shabbat hosted by IKAR, which included services, a multifaith program on Friday night, and on Saturday, a conversation with Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) on “What Does Moral Leadership Look Like in a Time of Crisis?” Lieu shared his frustrations with what he considered the lack of progress on gun reform, and he denounced the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

In other moments, the conference enabled participants to create their own havdalah spice jars or rituals for important life transitions. And Lab/Shul’s SoulSpa multimedia afternoon prayer program featured “Storahtelling,” a reading of verses from the upcoming Torah portion, with Lau-Lavie and Less guiding a dramatic, audience-engaging re-enactment of each verse after it was read. 

“I was really moved by how energized we all felt about what is possible in the Jewish community,” said IKAR executive director and Jewish Emergent Network chair Melissa Balaban following the conference. “Everyone left with a list of dozens of ideas to implement in their own communities, including me. It really felt like a gift to learn from and with such an extraordinary gathering of people doing creative and impactful work all over the country.”

Staff Writer Ryan Torok contributed to this report.

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