#Trending in 2019: the Year Ahead for Building the Jewish Future

Happy 2019, fellow builders of the Jewish future!  If you’re reading this blog, you’re part of a bold experiment in which everyone can be a builder.  The question is how we’ll build together – what we’ll build, what tools we’ll need, what works and how we’ll know what works.

All effective builders survey the landscape – the light, the view, the bedrock, what grows, what’s needed.  They build to the land, and the land changes.

As we survey the landscape of Jewish life, we can see what is and what’s next.  We see trends that are exhilarating and inspiring, and proof that amazing ideas need solid ground.  The best master builders know that the Jewish future needs a wise balance of inspiration and perspiration – lofty ideas and strong foundations.

In that spirit, here’s some of what we see #Trending in 2019 for building the Jewish future.

image1Opening Borders and New Conveners.  Spiritual borders will continue to open wider and at a faster pace.  The Pew Study “nones” who question religions in their current forms, who embrace spirituality precisely in questions that yearn for meaning, will inject meaning into a Jewish life eager to include them on their own terms.  Halakhah (Jewish law and practice, literally “the way”) – once imagined to be a fixed province of right-leaning orthopraxy – increasingly will be a forum for spiritual and social progressivity.  As nature abhors vacuums, thought-leaders of border-opening initiatives will draw from the breadth of Jewish life and, in turn, hasten these trends in an accelerating feedback loop of inclusion, creativity and innovation.

image5Social Justice on the Spiritual Calendar.  Tikkun olam (social justice, literally “repairing the world”) will more deeply root as a spiritual practice with beacons on the Jewish calendar.  Inspired by groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Passover (always about resisting tyranny) will drive both individual and collective social action across the political spectrum.  So will Havdalah (ritual bridge between Shabbat and the week ahead), inspired by the #BeALight Coalition.  In turn, emphasized times for social action will infuse spiritual life with meaning and help attract Jews of all generations to the spiritual calendar and spiritual community.

Rebooting Ethics From the Outside In.  Jewish communities are learning (sometimes the hard way) that transparency, accountability and right use of power are never self-executing.  Public trust – the lifeblood of Jewish communal life – requires both high ethics standards (such as Slingshot’s “workplace commitments” for nonprofit Boards) and vibrant systems to enforce ethics standards.  As #GamAni shows, closed ethics systems inside individual denominations, seminaries, clergy associations and Jewish nonprofits inherently are prone to self-protection and groupthink that sap public trust.  While journalists continue holding power accountable, 2019 will be the year to pioneer a new, clean ethics regime for Jewish life – one that elevates reporting, investigation, fact-finding, training and victim support above any single circle of influence or sponsoring context.  Lifting ethics above denominational context, and supporting nonprofits that don’t have their own independent ethics system, can reboot Jewish ethics from the outside in.

image4Adapting to the New Philanthropy.  2019 will be the year that Jewish life adapts to the recent tax law’s impacts on charitable giving – and enterprises that don’t adapt will wither.  “Deduction bunching” is sparking a revolution in philanthropy, with donor-advised funds (DAFs) housed in public charities far outpacing medium-donor private grants.  As this trend accelerates, the grant-making influence of large-scale philanthropies that host DAFs will continue to grow.  Successful Jewish organizations will need to tailor their asks, budgets and relationships accordingly – or get left behind.

Jewish Gluten is Back!  No offense to the gluten-free set, but Jewish gluten is back!  From trendy bagel shops to pierogi stands, Jews are rediscovering Ashkenazic ancestral cuisine in all its high-gluten glory.  Lines are out the door for fresh-baked bagels at DC’s “Call Your Mother” on weekends.  While New York’s famous H & H Bagel shops have closed, the company now ships anywhere.  Brooklyn hipsters are flocking to DeKalb Market for classic pierogies made by the Pierogi Boys.  South Philly is getting challah at Essen Bakery.  (Grab a chocolate babka for dessert while you’re there, unless you’re in Manhattan… where Breads Bakery arguably has the best chocolate babka this side of Poland.)

image3People of the Image (not just “People of the Book”). The internet long ago moved beyond text: longform blogs are yielding to visual realms on Instagram and Facebook, where images hold sway.  Jews are still a “People of the Book,” but 2019 will be a watershed year experiencing and sharing Jewish ideas with images rather than just words.  Visual approaches will engage broader audiences and new teaching tools, such as Jewish sketchnoting.  As Jews increasingly become a “People of the Image,” visual tools will offer NextGen engagement and technologies new roles in learning and teaching Torah.image2

Effective Jewish “R&D.”  Innovation means more than “throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”  Innovation is meaningful not because it’s new or avant garde but because it achieves a tangible, replicable impact on Jewish life.  In 2019, we’ll see the most effective Jewish innovators getting disciplined about “research and development” (R&D) – exploring what works and why, what it means for innovation to “work” in Jewish community, and how to replicate results.  Tools of empirical R&D will make their way to both mainline and emergent settings, fueled by funders investing in vital pathways of impactful innovation. In turn, as more would-be innovators create their own projects and communities, the proliferation of these new engagements will reach a tipping point.  Their need for knowhow and quality control will attract them into networks to share ideas and build efficiencies. Conveners for these networks, like Kenissa, will become vital to moving these “communities of meaning” forward.

 

It’s Still About the Team: Re-building Leadership for Community Renewal

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

How can you build a community when the people have known nothing but hardship and slavery? Are promises of freedom and redemption enough? What does a people need to feel safe enough to step forward and begin something new?

These are timeless questions, from Moses’ struggle on behalf of the downtrodden Children of Israel until today, when communities around the globe are being rent apart by war and warlords. Syria and Central America may be half a world apart, but for the civilian populations, the result of a breakdown in the social order is the same – misery, desperation, and ultimately flight to places unknown in the hopes of finding a place to build a better life.

So too with the Children of Israel. They were enslaved for so long that when Moses brought God’s message of redemption they were unable to listen, because they experienced “shortness of spirit and cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:9

God’s promises to free the people, deliver them, redeem them, and take them into the land that God had promised to their forefathers, fell on deaf ears. They could not imagine building a new reality for themselves.

Even Moses was dispirited, and complained to God that the people wouldn’t listen to him, and moreover that he was “a man of impeded speech.”

Building something new takes courage, motivation, and the ability to stick with a task despite setbacks and impediments. Even the smallest projects require a concerted effort. To build a community? That takes many people working towards the same goal, each taking responsibility for their own part of the job, knowing that the disparate elements will come together to create a single whole. It takes leadership at all levels; one visionary alone cannot create a new reality without the support of others, both leaders and followers.

God knew that Moses was the right person for the job, but also knew that Moses couldn’t do it alone. So God built what today we would call a leadership team, consisting of God, Moses, and Aaron. And, according to modern feminist midrash, the team included Miriam, called niviyah, prophetess, when she led the women in song after the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Together, God and the three siblings were able to build up the peoples’ confidence until they were ready to leave Egypt. The ten plagues were more than a display of power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The plagues – which affected only the Egyptians and not the Children of Israel – were signs to the slaves that their cause was just, that their leaders had the strength and courage to help them build a new reality for themselves.

As we read the story of their flight from slavery to freedom, we know that there will be bumps in the road. Again and again, the peoples’ will fails them, and it will fall upon the shoulders of their leaders to ensure the success of their audacious venture. Although most of the time it is Moses who takes the brunt of their complaints, both Aaron and Miriam will have opportunities to step forward and help lead the people.

This is the genius of the leadership team that God built, and it offers a blueprint for today’s community-builders. Each of the siblings had different gifts. Moses had terrific leadership skills, but he couldn’t do it alone. He needed Aaron’s talents as a peace-maker and Miriam’s strengths as a nurturer.

As a pulpit rabbi, I quickly learned that I could not lead my congregation without the help and support of a strong group of lay leaders. Together, we have built a community that encourages its members – both long-time and newcomers – to step into leadership roles.

As our community grows and we build new lines of connection amongst ourselves, we keep in mind that building a community is an ongoing process, and requires a constant influx of new members, new ideas, and new leaders.

This does not mean that transitions are easy.  Change can be frightening. It takes strong leaders to help communities flourish and welcome new people, new ideas, new ways of viewing the world.  

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Today I believe that our nation is at a crossroads, floundering as our leaders refuse to understand the value of welcoming people who are different, and who have forgotten the stirring words of Emma Lazarus that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

Sadly, the people seeking refuge in our nation today are not being met with open arms. Instead, they are met by walls and barriers, both physical and psychological. They are trying to enter a country that has chosen to turn them away, to deny their humanity and treat them like vermin, not human beings.

People are flocking to our borders, seeking safety and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. Like the Children of Israel in the desert, they are undertaking arduous, dangerous journeys to a place they have never seen.

The crimes against humanity that are being perpetuated by our own government are tearing down what America has striven to build. It represents an utter disregard for the promise that the builders of our nation made to themselves and to their descendants, that this would be a place where new ideas could take seed and the social experiment that is democracy could flourish.

The challenge is clear. Our task is to seek out and support leaders who are willing to rebuild that which is in danger of being destroyed. May we be blessed with the courage and strength to do so.

 

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By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Calling Us To Becoming

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, Moses has an encounter with the bush that burns but is not consumed. A Voice speaks to him from the bush, telling him to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for the children of Israel.

IMG_0037When Moses asks who shall he say is sending him, God responds  אהיה אשר אהיה / ehyeh asher ehyeh — sometimes translated “I Am That I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be,” or “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” In this name of God there’s a deep message for us as builders.

When Torah names God’s-self as “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” Torah teaches us that God is infinite becoming, infinite change, the One Who Is Becoming Itself. And we who are made in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) partake in this divine quality of becoming. We too have the capacity to be creating, and building, and growing, and renewing, and becoming. 

We who seek to build the future of Judaism need to be attuned both to our own becoming (our personal / internal / spiritual growth and change), and to the becoming and change that are part of Judaism’s growth and renewal in every age. An overfocus on our own personal becoming can feed a spiritual narcissism that’s all about “me, me, me” — which is why we need to ensure that our own becoming is in service of that larger becoming to which the Jewish future calls us.

IMG_0035Tradition teaches that in every era “the Voice continues to sound from Horeb.” (1 Kings 19) Revelation wasn’t a singular thing that happened once and then was done. It’s always happening, as God is always becoming, as we are always growing and listening and receiving. Reb Zalman z”l used to say that God broadcasts on all channels — and we receive that broadcast when we attune ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound.

And as we attune to that broadcast, we’ll hear the call to grow and change and build: not for the sake of ego, but for the sake of the future of Judaism itself. In every age, it’s incumbent on us to build a Judaism that’s authentic, balancing ancient with new. In this age, one of the calls we hear is to build a Judaism that embraces all gender expressions. That’s some of our tradition’s “becoming” that couldn’t be fully expressed in earlier eras — but we can build that Judaism now.

We can build a Judaism that truly uplifts all of our various diversities as reflections of the Infinite in Whose image we are made. We can build a Judaism that balances backward-compatibility with innovation, not for innovation’s own sake but for the sake of a Jewish future that’s open to the holy’s renewing flow. And we can build a Judaism that’s profoundly ethical not only in word but in deed, a Judaism that centers the obligation to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

IMG_0036The future of Judaism is always under construction, and we all have a role to play in building it, if we’re willing to listen for the Voice that calls us to integrity and to the hard work that integrity demands. God told Moses (Ex. 3:5) to take off his shoes because the place where he was standing was holy. In the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, that verse instructs us to remove our habits. What are the old habits we need to shed in order to be ready to build and to become?

Just as God is always-becoming, so must our Judaism be always-becoming. Never static; always growing toward being a greater expression of our highest values. One of the values that animates us at Bayit is radical inclusivity as we seek to build a Judaism that can sustain our hearts and souls even in changing times. When you tune your inner radio to the Voice that continues to sound from Sinai (and from the burning bush), what values call you to build?

What do you want your Judaism to be becoming?

 

By Rachel Barenblat and Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Every Team Needs a Build; Every Build Needs a Team

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

The Torah portion known as Vayechi offers the conclusion of the dramatic family narrative of the book of Genesis. Jacob knows he will die soon, and calls in his family to provide them with blessings. Encoded in these blessings is an essential piece of sage advice about how to build thriving communities that live on after the death of a charismatic founder: members must recognize that everyone has a role to play that’s unique to their particular talents and interests. In building language: every build requires a build team, and everyone on the build team has gifts to bring.

Though this parsha is titled “Vayechi,” “and he [Jacob] lived,” it’s actually about Jacob’s death. The Midrash explains: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: the days of the righteous die, but they do not die… It does not say, ‘and Israel drew near to die,’ but ‘the days of Israel drew near to die.’” This midrash is saying that though we die physically, we can live on through the lives we have touched and through the things we have built that can continue to transform the world

The same message appears in Joan Baez’s song “Joe Hill,” about the famous union organizer: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me says I but Joe, you’re ten years dead. I never died says he, I never died, says he.” The song and the midrash express the same truth: a builder’s spirit lives on through what they have built. And this week’s parsha offers a lesson on how to keep that spirit alive: each inheritor of any builder’s vision has a unique role to play.

Right before he dies, Jacob calls together all of his sons, each of whom will go on to found one of the twelve tribes. To each he gives an essential piece of wisdom about their particular role to play in the sustenance of the people of Israel — for example: “Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor…” or “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise.”

Throughout Genesis, Torah has explored the question of who inherits a builder’s legacy.  Isaac and Ishmael fought over Abraham’s legacy. Jacob and Esau fought over Isaac’s legacy. In each of those first two generations, only one brother could inherit. Here at the end of Genesis, Torah offers a new answer, and a way for community to remain intact. Everyone inherits Jacob’s legacy in their own unique way. Everyone has a role to play.

Jacob’s wisdom is embedded in Bayit’s founding principles. Every build needs a team, and “[m]ore than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.” As we do the work of spiritual building — both building the spiritual future, and doing the actual building in a way that expresses our spiritual values — we must value each person’s unique gifts and skills. We must build in a way that honors teamwork and collaboration. We must build with recognition that spiritual building isn’t a zero-sum game where only one person can inherit. On the contrary: the only way to build the spiritual future for which our hearts and souls yearn is together.

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There is risk in this kind of building. The Occupy movement, which had great potential for social and political transformation, fizzled in part because excessive egalitarianism led to a leadership vacuum. In science fiction terms, if everyone is an identical drone in the hive, you wind up with Star Trek’s The Borg. Better, if Star Trek is the model, to be like the Starship Enterprise — “boldly going where no one has gone before,” and doing so in a way that includes and honors a wide variety of skills, talents, and roles.

That’s the blessing that Jacob gave to his sons: permission to each bring their own gifts and skills to the work of building the Jewish future. That’s the blessing that we seek in our day, too. Every build team needs an architect, a blueprint, a variety of differently-skilled craftspeople — and the right balance of following visionary plans, and being willing to adapt the plans as needed. May we, like Jacob’s sons (and like the crew of the Enterprise!), honor our variety of skills, gifts, and roles. Then we can build with audacity and humility in appropriate balance, “boldly going” where the future calls, with firm foundations that will help spirits soar.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Power Tools for Spiritual Building

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

The first weeks of Bayit’s Builder’s Blog harvested keystone principles about building the Jewish future – from primordial foundations of building, to where and with whom spiritual neighborhoods create community.

Now it’s time to build – but what and how?  Parshat Mikeitz offers answers: first build a granary to store food for the future, and powerfully organize community to make it work.

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Torah’s plot is familiar.  Pharaoh lifts Joseph from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Joseph foretells of famine. Pharaoh empowers Joseph to save Egypt.  For seven years, Joseph stores grain as a pikadon (reserve) (Gen. 41:36).  As the 19th century Malbim recognizes, this reserve was as much for the land as for the people: otherwise both would starve (Malbim Gen. 41:36).  

Because Pharaoh and Joseph acted with powerful resolve, Egypt had a future and therefore so did the Children of Israel, who came to Egypt in desperate search for food when famine hit.  Had Pharaoh and Joseph not acted, there might be no Jewish future.

Had Pharaoh not empowered Joseph to build Egypt’s reserves, there might be no future.  We learn that effective leaders must delegate, empower, trust and back away. This same pattern will repeat to build the Mishkan: God tells Moses and also empowers Betzalel (Tribe of Judah) and Oholiav (Tribe of Dan) (Ex. 31:1-6).  Building requires diversity and teamwork.

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Had Pharaoh not lifted Joseph from jail, there might be no future.  Pharaoh instead might have turned to his royal court, well-known people of seemingly high stature.  Sometimes needed skills, tools and powers come from outside our native circles and comfort zones.

Had Pharaoh acted mainly for himself, there might be no future.  Pharaoh easily could have sought to protect his own hide, but instead he and Joseph acted to save others.  (Granted, they later centralized power and dispossessed land owners: we’ll get to that.) Effective builders cannot legitimately use power to build only for themselves.

Had Pharaoh sunk in despair or blindly clutched optimism, there might be no future.  Both despair and excess optimism inhibit needed action. Effective builders must harness the power to see needs clearly and act decisively.

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Had Pharaoh and Joseph not enforced structure, there might be no future.  Had each Egyptian been left to decide how much grain to keep for oneself, there might be too little: the result would be starvation, violence and national decline.  Rules matter and must be enforced for the public good. Without wise use of power to enforce rules, people needlessly suffer.

Spiritual building requires both the power of vision – without vision, we perish (Proverbs 29:18) – and the power to translate vision into reality.  Spiritual building balances powerful physical and societal forces always at play: only in careful balance can structures and systems stay stable and nimble, sturdy and with just enough give in the joints to move when they must move.  To balance these forces, spiritual building needs the power to uplift and deploy expertise, teamwork and discipline. Thus, wise spiritual building requires capacity to design and enforce structure lest powers become unwieldy or abusive, or appetites exhaust finite resources, or inertia drive structures off shifting foundations.

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Builders with these power tools can build and thrive for the future.  Builders without these power tools will starve and die out: they will have no future.

I confess discomfort with these words.  With 25 years of experience in public life, I know that power risks danger: left to its own devices, human power tends to aggrandize itself and grow rife with abuse.  Even Pharaoh and Joseph, whose decisive action saved life, also used the crisis to dispossess Egyptians and seize their land (Gen. 47:13-20) – which has fueled much debate about the Biblical economics of coercion and opportunism.

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Especially today, when abuses of power seem like daily news items, cynicism about power and “powerful” people has become a fixture in modern life.  Our challenge and opportunity – and the urgent call of this time of Jewish, societal and planetary change – is to rectify our collective relationship with power.  Too little power to effect change and we’ll starve both spiritually and literally. Too much power wielded wrongly, without balance from outside itself, also can destroy.

It will take tremendous power to reorient political life and spiritual life to build better for the future.  Thus, if we’re to build a better world, first we must shed fear of power.

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Power is a tool, and we must not fear to use the right tool for the right job.  Like most tools, the practical and moral value of power depends on how we use it.  Power tools comes in two forms – control (power over) and capacity (power to).  Builders must use both kinds of power tools in balanced and careful measure: one without the other builds nothing

That’s the deep meaning I find in the Chanukkah haftarah about Zerubavel, Persian governor of Judea who laid the Second Temple’s cornerstone after return from exile in the early 500s BCE.  Zerubavel received an angelic message: “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says God” (Zecharia 4:6).  He learned that power flows from the Source: as the angel continued, only by that power flow can ground become “level” on which to build the future (Zecharia 4:7).

Power tools – both the power of control and the power of capacity – are holy.  They don’t belong any of us: they come on loan from their Source, and we must use them in that spirit.  

IMG_3637Only by skillfully using these power tools could Pharaoh and Joseph build and fill granaries for the future of Egypt and the Children of Israel.  Only by responsibly using power tools on loan from their Source could Zerubavel “level” the ground and begin building the Second Temple. Only by using our own power tools likewise can we build wisely for the future of Judaism, and for a planet that urgently needs wise use of power.

So power up, everyone.  Use your power tools wisely: it’s the only way to build.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

The Neighborhood of Spiritual Life

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Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

Most architects and builders say that where they build shapes what they build.  As for physical structures, so for spiritual ones: where we live can powerfully shape our Jewish lives.  

My parents chose to make a home in a suburban town that was mostly Jewish, what we endearingly call a shtetl.   My public high school was nearly 90% Jewish. The bagel store was next to a kosher deli.  Several synagogues were in walking distance of our house. Within our walls were indicia of a Jewish home.  Our books were most often written by Jewish authors: Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Leon Uris. Friday dinner was baked chicken and Sunday dinner was Chinese.

My identity formed by immersion in a community where the ideas and values shared began from Jewish reference points. Yiddishisms helped define relationships, social status informed politics, and everything was measured by what is good for the Jews. In a community so heterogeneous, being Jewish was both comfortable and cautious.  

Today fewer progressive Jews experience that kind of close knit community, Outside of Orthodox Jewry, more Jews live in culturally diverse and spiritually depleted communities. Social change is driving a new demographic reality still reverberating through Jewish life: when Jews can live most anywhere, many will live far from communities with strong Jewish centers of gravity.  What will geographic dispersion mean for Jewish life? As Jews disperse, what will happen to Jewish community?

We’ve been asking this question for centuries: today’s Jews aren’t the first to move. What can we learn from history’s builders about building on the move?

Finding New Neighborhoods

In this week’s Torah portion (Vayeishev), Judah, son of Jacob, moves away from his family and settles in foreign territory (Gen. 38:1).  He takes a Canaanite wife and lives among the Canaanites.  Maybe Judah wished to distance himself from his brothers’ awful treatment of Joseph.  (Only Judah stood against killing him.) Or perhaps Judah wanted to advance his financial position.  To Rashi, Judah and Hirah, an Adullamite, entered into an economic arrangement (Rashi Gen. 38:1), and only then did Judah find a wife and begin raising a family of his own.

Rashi’s explanation resonates.  Throughout history, Jews wandered in search of stability and opportunity. Jewish connections as merchants and traders made Jews vital to state economies and planted Jewish neighborhoods around the globe. Today, progressive Jews also make homes based on opportunities, even if opportunities bring them to places with few other Jews.

Judah’s move to a new neighborhood didn’t work out so well. Two of his sons died. He became estranged from his daughter in law. He lived apart from his birth family and without their support.  Maybe his move made him wealthy but it offered him little peace or spiritual sustenance.

Jewish history teaches that a thriving life depends on healthy connections that link individuals to what community can offer.  Our ancestors knew that vibrant communities were so vital that they limited where Jews can live (Sanhedrin 17b):

A Torah scholar may only live [somewhere] with these 10 things: a beit din (court)…, a tzedakah fund…, a synagogue, a bath house (mikveh), a bathroom, a doctor, a craftsperson, a blood-letter, a butcher, and a teacher of children.

Even 1,500 years ago, our ancestors knew that we can’t depend on ourselves alone. A flourishing life needs justice and charity system, houses of worship and purification rituals, health care, art, quality food, education and more.  Only from these core supports can we build strong and vibrant lives. And lest we think that these principles apply only to some, our tradition made clear that everyone can be a “Torah scholar,” so these ideas apply to all. Everyone needs others.

Much has changed in 1,500 years, but not bedrock spiritual principles. More now than ever, we must be wise architects of our lives. We must drive posts of social strength deeply into our spiritual bedrock. We still must tend the community’s master plan, review its spiritual zoning, and carefully measure distances to core  institutions. As realtors say, it’s still about “location, location, location.”

But I worry.  I worry that as social structures weaken and people scatter, Judaism is losing one of its strongest pillars: a community focus.  While Judaism also uplifts each individual body, heart, mind and spirit, Jewish lifeblood is still community. It’s about the interaction between neighbors that we identify as Jewish, like taking responsibility for each other in times of need and meeting at the gym in the Jewish community center.  It is about how we host Jewish book clubs and proudly declare our charitable giving on plaques and in synagogue bulletins.

Rapid social change, family dispersion and weakening of community institutions fuel loss of meaning and an epidemic of loneliness.  We’re losing not only Jewish neighborhoods but also the Jewish idea of “location” itself.

Rebuilding Jewish Ideas of Location

As technologies continue to reshape every aspect of life, we’ll want to steer their impacts on Jewish ways.  We can adapt. When 1950s Jews moved to suburban areas too far to walk to synagogue, the Conservative Movement decided to allow travel by car for the purpose of sustaining a praying community.

Technology is accelerating quickly: science advanced more since 1950 than in the prior 500 years. Today high-speed internet can stream Shabbat services, make virtual shiva minyanim and connect teachers with students anywhere.  Whole libraries are instantly available online.  E-commerce can ship most ritual items and kosher products anywhere.

So maybe we don’t need to live down the street from the kosher butcher anymore (if we still eat meat), but Jewish life is far more than conveniences and proximity to Jewish institutions.  It’s still about Jewish rhythms, values and ideas. How will we, our children and their children experience the rhythms of Jewish living and learn Jewish values and ideas without residing down the street from each other?  How will we feel and teach the strength of community if we don’t bring soup to sick neighbors, make shiva calls and build Jewish community centers?  Digital connections can be real, but the greatest power of enduring community is the commonplace visceral experience of in person contact.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m not afraid of the questions.  We’ll need to figure out how to harness technology to build new “locations” where we all can dwell together in the diversity of communities that we can’t simply turn off.  We’ll need to confront technologies and cultural dynamics that disconnect us more than they connect us. We’ll need to learn how to drive the pillars of our lives into Judaism’s communitarian bedrock even when more and more pillars are made of pixels.

I’m also unafraid of the bold experiments we’ll need if they progress alongside personal connectedness.  Yes to online talmud study and let’s try virtual minyanim, so long as we will still value our shared in person experiences from attending a chuppah to hosting a Yom Kippur break fast. We just might have to travel a bit further to get there than did our grandparents’ generation.

If we restructure our tradition with an awareness of the benefits of physical community, then the neighborhood of the future will feel every bit like home.

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By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building Collective Spiritual Foundations: Re-Mixing the Cement

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Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

Look under any building and you’ll see its foundation.  Look deeper: you’ll see architectural plans. Look even deeper: you’ll see some impulse that the builder wanted to bring to life.  Look even deeper than that: see the values, hopes and assumptions that shaped the impulse to build.

We learn this: as we build the spiritual future, sometimes we must re-build the values, hopes and assumptions of building.  Only then can we be sure to build on a foundation that’s stable and strong for today rather than just yesterday.

That kind of vision, and the courage to re-vision the foundation, might be the most important tool in the spiritual builder’s toolkit.  This week’s extraordinary Torah portion (Vayishlach) teaches me so: it’s visioning and building for tomorrow, not for yesterday, that matter most.

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This paresha opens as Jacob is to face his estranged twin brother, Esau. Jacob will wrestle with… someone. He will reconcile with his brother… sort of.  His daughter will be raped and his sons will exact what they wrongly think is justice. Our ancestors lived rich and eventful lives!

Much of Jacob’s life was the wrestle for which he’d be re-named, the name that Israel carries today.  From the start, Jacob wanted what wasn’t his: first-born privileges, strength, power the blessing of a father to his own first-born son.  Then at Peni’el (“God turns to face me”), Jacob wrestled.  Was it a dream? a meditation? a physical-level encounter?  Whatever happened, it wrenched his hip, and he’d never walk the same way again.

Jacob’s hip injury got my attention, because usually wrestling injuries most affect the shoulder.  Why the hip? Maybe Jacob’s limp reminded himself – and us – that Jacob changed. Jacob no longer could walk in the world without a subtle but clear message to others that he’s different.

Modern social science and psychology teach that vital to any communication is body language.  Jacob’s limp is an outwardly visible token of an inner message. Seeing Jacob’s limp, we can see Jacob’s change from afar.  As Baal Shem Tov’s disciples taught, “legs” and “habits” hail from the same Hebrew word (regel).  Habits are difficult to change, but aspirations can change in a flash, a moment of clarity.  Maybe so for Jacob: he saw a light – Peni’el: God turned to face him.  He emerged limping on his legs (“habits”): in just one night, new aspirations were born that would begin to grow immediately.

Jacob next saw his brother.  He responded to seeing Esau’s army not with fear and dread but with conciliation, embracing and crying.  Teshuvah, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

For a brief moment: their reunion passed and they parted.  In the words of poet and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat,

“And again the possibility

Of inhabiting a different kind of story

Vanished into the unforgiving air.”

What do we learn from this?  While often Jacob is a model for us, not all of Jacob’s life is equally worthy of emulation.  When the occasion presents to build a bridge of healing to the past, build it – and then travel it as fully as you can.  Don’t let the moment go.

Jacob was right to seize his “Esau moment,” but what if the Jacob-Esau encounter hadn’t ended?

Imagine a different history if Jacob had built a future with Esau.  What might have become of Dinah? Of Shechem and their men? Jewish-Israelite history might have looked very different.

Too many Jews today aren’t finding a nourishing spiritual home in the Judaism they inherited. This is almost inconceivable to me: Judaism has been at the forefront of building bridges to the Eternal, rethinking our place in this universe, and in Rav Kook’s words, “Making the old new the new holy.”

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Think about it.  Since when did Judaism forget its own history of remaking itself?  The judges, prophets, Mishnah and Talmud all were new in their epochs.  Rashi (11th century) was new in his day; Maimonides (12th century) was new in his: he even wrote a “Second Mishnah” that to his mind was clearer and more evolved than the first!  Zohar and the Jewish mystics were new (1300s – 1500s). Hasidism was new (1700s- 1800s). The Reform movement (late 1700s and early 1800s). Denominations. The State of Israel.

Do we forget that every encounter with history changed Israel’s path?  Do we forget that we’ve been building for thousands of years? We rarely seem to forget when we limp, but too often we seem to forget that we’re on a Change Mission.  Always we’ve built a new future – not an old one! And now in the 21st century, today’s time of spiritual challenge perhaps unlike any other in our history, we must re-learn that lesson for tomorrow.

The Judaism we need for tomorrow doesn’t leave Jacob’s “Esau moment” behind.  We must ask: what and whom are we excluding in spiritual life that now we must help re-include?  To me, the values, hopes and assumptions that shape the impulse to build that kind of inclusive future trace back to the moment that Jacob and Esau parted without building a future together.

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As spiritual builders, we must be courageous enough to see whom we’ve left behind and make teshuvah.  This “return” doesn’t mean just apologizing and crying: it means re-including – not leaving again.  Only then can we build the Judaism that tomorrow really needs – a richly spiritual and inclusive Judaism that unifies and heals.

 

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By Steven Green. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.