On a recent Friday night at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, Nefesh, an outreach temple that was incubated as a project of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT), was stretching its wings as a newly independent community.
About 150 people gathered to mark the end of another week and the beginning of Shabbat while founder Rabbi Susan Goldberg danced, sang and prayed with them.
“It was buzzing, the room was electric,” said Beth Pickens, a Los Feliz resident and a Nefesh lay leader. Pickens brought a group of new people to experience the Nefesh service. “They said, ‘OMG, I’m in, I want to do this again.’ ‘I didn’t know temple could feel like this.’ It exceeded all of our expectations.”
Goldberg also led the project in its previous incarnation, in her former position at WBT.
“Nefesh began as a service and then became a community,” Goldberg said. “The hope now is that it will continue to do outreach in a neighborhood where there isn’t a temple, serving a community that’s not being served.”
“It’s a Jewish community for Jews who feel like they can’t be part of the Jewish community, myself included,” Pickens said. She found Nefesh when she moved to the area in 2014 and a friend recommended she seek out Goldberg at WBT.
“Rabbi Susan’s sensibility and what she’s like as a rabbi creates the container for everyone to have a Jewish experience,” Pickens said. “I have a lot of Jewish friends who are not interested in participating in ongoing Jewish life. My spouse is not Jewish and doesn’t want to go. Judaism isn’t something I want to do alone. You can have an internal Jewish spiritual life, but it’s also about community, doing things together and showing up as a group and for each other.” People who go to Nefesh, she said, “are showing up and want to be doing this together. These are the people who want to be in relationship with each other.”
Goldberg, who grew up in Silver Lake and Echo Park, said Nefesh is designed for those in the Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz surrounding neighborhoods who have not felt drawn to or included in Jewish life because of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, or because they have a desire for spirituality, creativity and deeper meaning.
“Nefesh began as a service and then became a community. The hope now is that it will continue to do outreach in a neighborhood where there isn’t a temple, serving a community that’s not being served.” — Rabbi Susan Goldberg
The Silverlake JCC serves as fiscal sponsor for the community and will host many of Nefesh’s gatherings. A previous Friday night service was held in Griffith Park, and according to NefeshLA.org, Rosh Hashanah morning services will be held at Friendship Auditorium near Griffith Park and Yom Kippur services at the First Unitarian Church on 8th Street.
The services are led by Goldberg and Nefesh musicians Duvid Swirsky, Sally Dworsky and Ari Herstand.
“They have skillful hearts and incredible skill as musicians,” Goldberg said, adding that they write “original liturgical music and also use secular music as part of the service as relating to the teaching.”
Swirsky, officially Nefesh’s cantor and band leader who grew up playing for the band Moshav, said Goldberg’s “enthusiasm for making the music an essential piece of the spirituality” drew him from the start.
“I believe that music, at its best, when it is honest, soulful and real, becomes prayer. That is what we try to create at Nefesh,” Swirsky said.
The Nefesh membership model speaks not of “members,” but of “kin,”and contributions are based on a percentage of household income. And if financial commitment represents a challenge for someone, “Nefesh’s practice is that they can reach out to us. No one is turned away,” Goldberg said.
Nefesh also continues Goldberg’s devotion to social justice work. One of its first events was a candlelighting ceremony at the Lights of Liberty event in July at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. Goldberg said Nefesh is building relationships with interfaith clergy and leadership, in particular with New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, and has worked with clergy on social justice actions.
“Rabbi Susan models how to be involved and show up in your local city, how your Jewish tradition directly relates to something like ICE detention,” Pickens said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “At the same time, there’s a full way to be part of Nefesh even if what you’re doing in your life isn’t political. [Social activism is] a point of entry but not the only point of entry.”
Another entry point is personal reflection.
“The way Rabbi Susan structures Jewish lifecycle [events] is thinking about individual middot, the soul traits, of the Mussar tradition,” Pickens said, explaining that during the High Holy Days, Nefesh participants select a trait they will focus on for the coming year, both individually and in small groups.
Attendees range from those in their late 20s and early 30s to those with children and “some baby boomers who never fully got what they were looking for in the Jewish community. … It’s about what they’re seeking rather than their age,” Goldberg said.
“Whoever makes their way to Nefesh will find an open, loving, socially conscious and deeply spiritual community full of beautiful music and friendly people,” Swirsky said. “I think these vibrant communities that we have in Los Angles are vital for our souls. Yes, we are connected in a million ways through social media and the internet, but we as humans long for deeper connection and this is what is available at Nefesh.”
Pickens said, “I describe Nefesh as a Jewish community that promotes a spiritual interior and community, with a good mix of Jewish tradition and contemporary interpretation.”
“In a lot of Jewish institutional spaces, people are implicitly or explicitly asked to check their experiences at the door and only bring forth their Jewishness,” Goldberg said. “But at Nefesh, there is this implicit and explicit sense that we welcome all the parts of who you are.”