November 17, 2018

JEN’s New Rabbinic Fellows

On July 1, Keilah Lebell, who will graduate this month from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, will become a Rabbinic fellow at IKAR, one of the most celebrated synagogues in Los Angeles.

Her fellowship will last two years, as part of her inclusion in the Jewish Emergent Network (JEN) program. JEN is an organization comprising seven independent spiritual communities around the country that trains early career rabbis to become leaders in the Jewish community, placing them in temporary rabbinical positions.

As part of the fellowship, each of the seven communities hires someone who has worked at a congregation for three years or less. The fellows will work in communities that serve, among others, young adults who are disengaged from Jewish life as well as families with young children. They will lead, revamp and tinker with the synagogues’ social justice, chesed (acts of kindness) and young professional programs in their attempt to appeal to these two sought-after demographics.

Lebell is a member of the second cohort of the JEN rabbinic fellowship. The inaugural cohort launched in 2016 and will conclude in June. Lebell will succeed IKAR’s previous JEN fellow, Rabbi Nate DeGroot.

Lebell, 32, told the Journal she was excited about beginning her fellowship and viewed it as a “residency.”

“You know how doctors have to do a residency after their actual training in school? This feel likes a residency to me; a two-year fellowship, an opportunity to work and be out in the field, but the expectation is that I am learning,” she said. “So I consider this a continuation of my learning, and I am so excited to grow during these next two years.”

IKAR is the only Los Angeles synagogue in JEN. The others are Kavana in Seattle; The Kitchen in San Francisco; Mishkan in Chicago; Sixth and I in Washington, D.C.; and Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York.

“To me, these rabbis who founded these emergent communities are my Jewish superheroes. They are redefining what is Jewish practice and Jewish life, and what Jewish community can really feel like.”   Keilah Lebell

The Jim Joseph Foundation is the largest financial supporter of JEN. In 2016, the grant-making organization provided a $3 million grant to JEN.

IKAR serves as JEN’s fiscal sponsor, accepting financial contributions on JEN’s behalf because JEN is not its own nonprofit entity.

JEN communities share a lot in common, including the fact that none of them pays dues to any major denomination. They are all independent communities.

Tarlan Rabizadeh is a Los Angeles native who grew up in the Persian-Jewish “Tehrangeles” community. As part of the fellowship, Rabizadeh will be serving at The Kitchen, a self-described Jewish startup in San Francisco. In a phone interview, the 32-year-old described the JEN shuls as “disruptors.”

“They remind me of Apple. They come up with a new audio plug and they disrupt the system and I have to go buy new headphones that match my phone,” she said. “They are making us rethink things.”

Although JEN shuls have no formal affiliation, the rabbis in the fellowship are graduating from a variety of rabbinical schools affiliated with the major denominations. Ziegler, from which Lebell will graduate, ordains Conservative rabbis. Rabizadeh is graduating from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, a Reform seminary.

After JEN’s conception in 2016, JEN Program Director Jessica McCormick said there were those who suspected the participating “spiritual communities” — a term often preferred over “synagogue” among these nontraditional shuls — were forming their own movement.

“A big misconception when they launched was they wanted to be a movement. I think they laid that to rest,” McCormick said. “They definitely don’t want to be a movement. I think they like being independent.”

McCormick, who works out of IKAR, said the network’s goal is to elevate the participating synagogues’ activity in order to impact their own communities, the rabbinic fellows and the world beyond their respective communities.

McCormick added that DeGroot’s contributions to IKAR during his two-year fellowship show the impact a JEN rabbinic fellow can have.

“Nate DeGroot breathed new life into the young adults program [Tribe] at IKAR. It hadn’t died, but it wasn’t cutting-edge anymore,” McCormick said. “IKAR had started to age, so the people who were once in Tribe had babies. He re-envisioned the whole thing, changed the face of Tribe and brought a lot of learning to the group.”

Other participants in the second cohort, beginning July 1, are:

• Emily Cohen, who has worked with senior citizens on Jewish environmental activism and will be working at Lab/Shul, an experimental Jewish community in New York;
• Jessie Palkin, who has worked as a rabbinic intern at the liberal organization New Israel Fund and will be serving at Washington, D.C.’s Sixth and I, a nondenominational, nonmembership and nontraditional synagogue;
• Jeff Stombaugh, who will receive rabbinic ordination as well as a certificate in Jewish nonprofit management from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He will work at Mishkan Chicago, a self-described “down-to-earth” synagogue;
• Josh Weisman, who before rabbinical school worked as a grass-roots organizer at various Jewish nonprofits and will be serving at Kavana, an independent community in Seattle.
Romemu, the seventh congregation in JEN, was still in the process of selecting a fellow as of press time.

The rabbinic fellowship has been JEN’s main program since its inception. However, JEN is about to expand its outreach to the larger community. On June 1-3, JEN will hold its inaugural, Shabbat-based conference, “(Re)vision: Experiments and Dreams From Emerging Jewish Communities.” The conference, taking place at IKAR, will introduce the community to JEN’s second cohort and will feature laboratories, galleries, interactive experiments, panels and guest speakers.

While Ziegler’s rabbinic leaders have been formative in Lebell’s Jewish development, the mother of two young children said the rabbis of the independent communities in JEN are like superheroes to her.

“To me, these rabbis who founded these emergent communities are my Jewish superheroes. They are redefining what is Jewish practice and Jewish life, and what Jewish community can really feel like,” she said. “It can feel deeply welcoming and open but also, they are offering a Judaism that demands a lot of the people who walk in.”

Melissa Balaban, executive director at IKAR and the chairwoman of JEN, concurred. She said IKAR and the other six communities in JEN ask a lot of the worshippers who walk into their prayer spaces.

“We share a passion for radical inclusivity, passion for rethinking Jewish models and engaging those who were not inclined to be engaged in Jewish life before,” Balaban said. “It’s not like, ‘People are not engaged in Jewish life, so let’s make it simple and easy.’ It is sometimes challenging. Our services aren’t short.”