By Steve Silbert.
By Steve Silbert.
With gratitude to our many collaborators, partners, friends, colleagues, teachers, advisors, and fellow builders:
Our mission, and vision, and animating principles. Our inspirations, and our advisors. Our partners, and our funders. What we’ve done during our first year, and what we aim to do in year two. Where we’ve been, and blueprints for where we’re going.
Comments / questions welcome. We look forward to building with you in 2019.
(Download the PDF file above, or go to the Annual Reports page on the Bayit website.)
From the beginning, we’ve wanted to have an advisory board for Bayit — a diverse group of thoughtful, creative, smart people to help us steer our work. It’s good to have brainstorming partners. It’s good to be able to seek advice. And most of all, we want to avoid groupthink.
Bayit’s builders are diverse in certain ways (different denominational and spiritual backgrounds, for instance) but we have a lot in common. We see the world in shared ways. That’s a good and valuable thing in a group of partners and collaborators, but it also means we’re likely to miss things. We wanted an advisory group in part to help us think outside our own box.
We took a few months to think about what we would want from such a group. We took another few months to ponder who we would invite to join such a group. A couple of us spent a while batting around possible titles for such a group, because we agreed that “advisory council” sounded too formal. The name we settled on was Sounding Board. To us, that connotes a group who will listen, offer suggestions, and help us refine our thinking and our plans.
The folks on our Sounding Board aren’t responsible for what Bayit does or doesn’t do. They’re not setting Bayit policies or attending our Board meetings. Rather, they’re our thinking partners, invited to give us honest opinions and diverse viewpoints when we reach out with questions both theoretical and practical. They’ll help us think outside our own box. Sometimes they’ll disagree with us (or with each other), and that too will be for the sake of heaven.
We’re starting with a group of eleven extraordinary individuals, anticipating that our Sounding Board will grow over time. Members of our Sounding Board teach at or lead multiple seminaries and institutions of higher education, among them Yeshivat Maharat, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Academy for Jewish Religion (NY), Vancouver Theological Seminary, the ALEPH Ordination Programs, and Washingon University at St. Louis.
One member of our Sounding Board is a co-founder of the National Havurah Committee, an organization that for decades has been revitalizing Jewish living and learning. Some are spiritual entrepreneurs who have founded new communities, paradigms, and institutions, from The Well to Hevria to to Hineni: the Mindful Heart Community. Some are leaders in congregational contexts. Some are mystics, contemplatives, teachers, writers. All are builders.
We’re honored that this group of amazing individuals is willing to think with us, brainstorm with us, argue with us, and expand our perspectives as we build. Welcome, Sounding Board.
“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid.
I’d never built a gingerbread house from scratch. Fortunately the internet is full of advice on how to make a gingerbread house that has a reasonable chance of staying up. Step one was research. Learn what my forebears have done: what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what principles undergird the successful attempts so I could do my best to replicate them.
Rabbi Google suggested that in order for a gingerbread build to be successful, one needs templates (like these, provided by the New York Times) — and one needs to plan ahead. The most reliable recipes call for mixing a fairly stiff dough, baking house components, and then letting them rest for a few days to grow solid enough to be used as building materials.
Fortunately my son got the gingerbread building bug early enough in his winter break that we had plenty of time to research building techniques, shop for ingredients, make our dough, and let the cookies cure. If you want to build a sukkah or host a seder or celebrate Shabbat, you too can draw on the wisdom of received tradition… and if you get the idea a few days in advance, mah tov (how good that is!), because it gives you time to question, learn, and lay in supplies.
A gingerbread bayit’s pieces need to be planned, measured, baked, cured, and assembled — that part takes readiness to follow a plan and accept the wisdom of received tradition. And then it needs to be decorated — that part takes creativity. In the collaborative duo of my son and me, one of us was more interested in planning and the other was more interested in decoration. (I’ll let you guess which one of us is which.) Meta-message: in assembling any building team, make a point of balancing skills, competencies, and interests.
Our sages had a lot to say about the appropriate balance of keva (structure or form: think the structure of a service, which is always the same) and kavanah (intention or heart: the emotion that we bring to the pre-established words, or the creative / interpretive versions of those words we can offer alongside or instead of the traditional ones.) In all of our building — whether we’re assembling a morning service, a Tu BiShvat seder, or a gingerbread home — that balance is how we enliven the forms of received tradition. Just don’t smear royal icing on your siddur.
Jewish tradition includes the concept of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying a mitzvah.” This is the reason for elaborately decorated ritual items (candlesticks, kiddush cup), sacred spaces (sanctuaries, sukkot), and other meaningful objects (tzedakah boxes, mezuzot.) In making our ritual items and sacred spaces beautiful, we show extra love and care for the tradition, for our Creator, and for ourselves.
If you’re building a gingerbread bayit, this is a principle you’ve got to apply, along with gumdrops, rainbow sprinkles, and powdered sugar “snow.” No two gingerbread houses are the same, and that’s the whole point: the walls may be cookie-cutter, but their decorations shouldn’t be. And my son’s taste in gingerbread house décor may shift as he grows.
Just so with all of our building, edible or not. As a kid I loved the Passover seder because I got to belt out the Four Questions and then I got to hunt for the afikoman and get a prize. As an adult, I’ve loved building my own haggadah, and I thrill to the question of how to work toward freedom from constriction not only on an individual level but on a communal / national one. Making the seder “my own” means something different in my forties than it did in my twenties or in my childhood. And that’s as it should be. Responsiveness to our own change is baked in to the tradition.
Authentic spiritual life asks us to take all three of these seriously. To plan and learn and question and research and build. To honor wise structures and solid foundations even as we let our spiritual creativity soar. And to bring beauty, and our own growing and changing hearts, to everything we build.
Gingerbread sukkah next fall, anyone?
By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.
Bayit’s core group of founding Builders is denominationally and spiritually diverse — and that was a conscious choice on our part. Spiritual diversity matters to us. Jewish life is made out of many different priorities and practices and ways of “doing Jewish.” From the beginning, we knew we wanted Bayit to reflect that diversity too.
The organization’s founders have roots in, and a track record serving in, every major branch of Judaism from Reform to Orthodoxy. Some of us are proud denominational Jews. Some of us self-identify as post-denominational or trans-denominational Jews. Some of us are both / and Jews, identifying as denominational Jews and as part of the transdenominational Jewish renewal movement. We grew up secular, religious, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox. Those of us who are rabbis attended both denominational seminaries and transdenominational seminaries. Those of us who are laypeople come from backgrounds that span the denominational spectrum too.
Beyond our denominational diversity, we’re also spiritually diverse. Some of us are mystics who write love poetry to the divine, and some of us are rationalists who find most mysticism uncomfortable. Some of us experience God through music, some through liturgy, some through philosophy, some through poetry, and some aren’t sure we experience God at all.
Some of us have spent years immersed in non-Jewish spiritual practice, including Zen and transcendental meditation. Some of us have spent years immersed in Yeshivish (a.k.a. “ultra-Orthodox”) learning. Some of us use feminine God(dess)-language, some of us use masculine-God language, some of us use gender-neutral language for the divine, and some of us do all of the above depending on situation, audience, mood, or the phase of the moon. (Just kidding about the moon. Mostly.)
Some of us daven (pray), given the choice, entirely in Hebrew. Some of us daven, given the choice, entirely in English. Some of us would prefer diving into a daf (page) of Gemara to davening at all. Some of us hold a second ordination as mashpi’im (spiritual directors) and are trained to companion others on the journey of ongoing spiritual formation. Some of us write poetry, some of us write music, some of us write blog posts, some of us write quarterly reports and nonprofit documents. Most of us fit into at least two of the categories listed above.
These various diversities aren’t accidental. As our dreams of this organization began to coalesce, we agreed that spiritual diversity was not only a strength but a necessity.
We’re also aware that while our spiritual diversity spans a wide spectrum, we’re not yet a sufficiently diverse group on other axes (especially race, sexual orientation, and gender identity). The next post in this series will explore other diversities, including the ones where we’re still laying the foundations for future growth.
It’s fun to work with colleagues who aren’t all coming from the same place, spiritually speaking. Because we come from different denominational backgrounds, and favor different modes of spiritual practice, we’re able to recognize and meet the needs of a broad cross-section of the community. Because of our differences, we know in our bones that there’s not one “right way” to do Jewish or to do spiritual life. Because we learn so much from each other, we know in our bones that we will be enriched as we learn from all of those whom we serve.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The founding Builders at Bayit include both laypeople and clergy. We are rabbis and laypeople, lawyers and educators, fundraisers and administrators, rooted both inside and outside the denominations. I am a layperson working with a group that also includes talented and enthusiastic clergy, and together we aim to help define and redefine our collective Jewish story. Why would I want to even consider doing such a thing?
My answer to that question is rooted in my own spiritual journey. For many years I had nothing to do with my Jewish roots. I was so far removed from Judaism that the only way I knew it was time for a major holiday would be to read about it in the newspaper or see it covered on the local TV news. The Judaism I had known was vacuous. I believed it had nothing to offer.
I wandered in the proverbial wilderness for decades, looking for a spirituality that was meaningful, that was urgent, that was “modern,” that felt real. I was looking for a practice that didn’t feel stuck in the past, but could incorporate the best of history with the modernity of today. I was seeking a way to more fully understand, to more deeply experience, and to know the awe of creation.
I found a path back in to Judaism through the trans-denominational phenomenon known as Jewish renewal, and that path led me to collaborating with the other builders at Bayit.
What excites me about we who are building Bayit is that we are all deeply committed to a Judaism that seeks to be be personally transformative, wonderfully rich, and deliciously communal. We aim to connect seekers with spiritual technologies that can meet their needs. We aim to build both with and for those who want more, and need more, than may have been offered by the Judaism they inherited.
To those who have found Judaism empty, we say: stay and experience how much more Judaism can be. For those who are already deeply practicing your Judaism, we say: join us in going deeper still. Bayit can assist all who want to take a deep dive into their Jewish life and into spiritual life writ large.
As we build together, we intend not to be bound by convention. We intend not to be bound by what was done before or what worked or didn’t work before. Ours is a boundary-crossing approach, a post-denominational approach: an approach that intentionally brings together clergy and laypeople, congregations and solo practitioners, traditional pulpit contexts and “pop-ups,” people and communities rooted across the denominations and also people and communities rooted outside of the denominations.
To whet your appetite: one of our initial keystone projects is an Innovation Pilot program, a spiritual lab where a variety of congregations both across and beyond the denominational spectrum will try out new ideas and practices, and will report back on what worked and did not work and what might be done differently next time.
What ideas do you have for what Bayit might do and be? There are no “should” or “musts.” We are open. We are excited to partner with individuals and organizations. We will be there with and for one another as we explore new ideas/tools/approaches that help to continually renew our Judaism and make that Judaism every bit as relevant today as it was for our ancestors.
My hope, my aspiration, my prayer, is that we at Bayit can provide tools and spiritual technologies to enable people to fully and deeply experience all that spiritual practice can offer. Core to our philosophy is the idea that all of us can be (indeed: must be) builders of the Judaism that the future needs us to co-create. Building a renewed Judaism is not the task of clergy alone. It needs all of us, taking up our tools together.
בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים
כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת.
“For seven days, you will dwell in booths:
All the citizens of Israel will dwell in booths.”
Master Builders who preceded us refined principles for building the Jewish future in their own days and ways. Bayit’s keystone values evolve from theirs, much as their values evolved from their teachers, up through Jewish history’s centuries of architects, builders and decorators.
Here are some values by which we aim to align all that we’ll build together. Fittingly for builders, we anchor these keystone values in Torah’s call to build booths and dwell in them for the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
“All … will dwell in booths” (Lev. 23:42). The upshot is clear: an authentic Jewish future worth building must be for “all.”
“All” invites everybody and excludes nobody. “All” refuses qualifiers and disqualifiers. “All” is radically inclusive: whoever you are, you’re welcome.
“All” shouldn’t be a radical idea. If inclusivity seems radical, it’s because inclusivity hasn’t always been so, well, inclusive. Consider what you believe Jewish life most asks to be built. Whatever your ideas about who isn’t part of it, or can’t or won’t be part of it, those ideas point to what’s most important to build. The Jewish call is to include the excluded.
“All” also means that we’re “all” builders, not just dwellers. A desert-wandering tribe (then), and a globally dispersed Jewry (now), are too large and diverse for any centralized team of sukkah builders to do the building for everyone. Thus, the only way for “all” to heed this call to dwell is for “all” to pitch in and build – and to expand the very idea of building to include “all.”
It’s not only “do it yourself” (DIY) Judaism, but that there’s no other Judaism except DIY. The Jewish call is the call to do. “All” are called to “make” Shabbat (Ex. 31:16); same for tzitzit (Num. 15:38); same for a sukkah. To Rabbi David Ingber, “We need a Judaism with calluses on its hands and dirt under its fingers.” Essentially, we need a Judaism with builders’ hands.
That’s our first principle: we’re all builders. In Talmud’s words, “and all Your children will be … builders” (B.T. Berakhot 64a). Everything we do must inspire and support the universal call to build, the experience that is the foundation of Jewish life. Continue reading “Keystone Values for Building the Jewish Future”