A Jewish incubator called Hakhel (from the Hebrew “kehillah,” or community) is helping young Jews around the world support new expressions of Jewish life through intentional communities.
Hakhel was established in 2014 as a partnership between the Jewish sustainability nonprofit Hazon and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. Headed by Israel-based Rabbi Aharon Ariel Lavi, Hakhel currently boasts 109 communities in 80 cities in 28 countries around the globe, including five in Southern California.
A professional community organizer and social entrepreneur, Lavi told the Journal intentional communities are “a group of people who share space and time, vision and values and mission. They live in proximity to one another and meet regularly; they share a set of values and an internal culture; and they use these things as a platform for social activism to make the world around them a better place.
“Hakhel was inspired by the crisis of loneliness in the Western world on the one hand, and the success in which Israeli society has dealt with it since the 1980s,” Lavi continued. “Communities have always been important. They are, in fact, the second most important component in Jewish identity after the family.”
Lavi said because of the ever-changing job market, which often sees people (especially young people) moving around a lot, it can be hard to make lasting friendships. And that’s where Hakhel steps in for those seeking Jewish connection.
Hakhel, he said, nurtures people’s growth with mentorship, funding and network-building, including weekly group calls that allow the different communities to discuss what they are doing and to learn from one another.
“Hakhel was inspired by the crisis of loneliness in the Western world on the one hand, and the success in which Israeli society has dealt with it since the 1980s.”
— Rabbi Aharon Ariel Lavi
The five Hakhel communities in Southern California are Career Up Now in Los Angeles, composed of professionals mostly working in the high-tech field; Or Gavoah in Encino, which brings people together for group Shabbats and other events; RuJuLa in Chatsworth, which connects hundreds of Russian-speaking Jewish families in the Los Angeles metropolitan area; Beth Jacob Irvine Community in Irvine; and Urban Kibbutz SD in San Diego.
Avital Khazanov, who runs Or Gavoah, started hosting Shabbat dinners in her backyard last September. Born and raised in Ukraine, Khazanov moved to Los Angeles nine years ago but missed the Jewish community she had grown up around, so she created the community she wanted. That first Shabbat dinner “was an open event for everyone to join, regardless of religion,” said Khazanov, 30. “I invited my friends and told them that they could bring friends. We had 50 people in my backyard. People [asked] me to do more. That means there is a need.”
After connecting with Hakhel in October last year and becoming part of the incubator, Khazanov now hosts events once or twice a month.
“I always have an open space, accommodations [a Kosher meal] for the religious people,” she said. “A lot of singles come to my Shabbat because they are looking to meet somebody and explore their network. I feel that people are looking for the right people to be friends with and feel safe and comfortable.”
Khazanov is leading her first spiritual retreat, focusing on self-care, this month and said she loves that she can bring spirituality and Judaism together to help people grow and learn something new.
Career Up Now currently is based in Beverly Hills but also has communities in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Boston.
“Our primary demographic is emerging professionals, and yet we are an intergenerational community,” said 39-year-old co-founder Bradley Caro Cook. “We have a high ratio of community leaders to [mentor] emerging professionals. Our oldest community leader is [about] 87.”
Career Up Now, he said, focuses on members spending time together, supporting one another in the business world and beyond, and looking into the Jewish traditions to find answers to the questions that trouble society today.
“It is important to emphasize that we are not trying to build a Jewish underground,” Lavi said, “but rather find a way to connect the new emerging communities to the existing networks and institutions. We need to seek unity and not further splits within the Jewish people.”
Those seeking to create a new Hakhel incubator can fill out an application form on the organization’s website (hazon.org/hakhel). Incubators can start with a core group of just three or four people. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. According to Hakhel’s guidelines, if accepted, Hakhel offers “matching mini-grants, professional consulting, and learning trips to Israel for individual communities and community leaders”; networking of “communities through conferences, peer-learning, trainings and seminars”; and the development of “content and educational materials to further develop the field and the discourse of Jewish intentional communities and to support the work of our communities.”
“What we are looking for is a real need on the one hand, meaning that there are unaffiliated Jews who might be looking for this,” Lavi said. “We would not support someone who simply plans to cannibalize an existing community in order to grow his or her own community. The second thing will be a sense of confidence in the founders’ ability and motivation to lead this process to success.”