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'Emergent' Trend: Folks Find a Home, Unconventionally

December 24, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Sarah Messinger (left) leads a discussion in her home -- this one on the holiday of Chanukah -- as part of Shireinu, a new group that's neither a synagogue nor a chavurah. Photo by Greg Bezanis
Laurie Adelman Smith had searched for years for the right place to give her three children a Jewish education. The 47-year-old fitness instructor, who'd had little Jewish involvement throughout her own life, had met with several local rabbis, but never felt an intuitive connection to any of them.

All that changed, though, when Smith met Shira Stutman, then a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.

The personal spark that developed between the two not only resulted in the Bat Mitzvahs of her three daughters, but ultimately led Smith, along with her non-Jewish husband, Scott Smith, somewhere she'd never been before -- to a Jewish community where she felt comfortable and accepted.

Always a little uncomfortable with her own status as a Jew -- her mother had converted to Judaism, but had said that she never felt fully part of the tribe either -- Smith found, in a charismatic young rabbi and the small group of families that developed into a community, an unconditional validation of her Jewishness.

"There is no question of who I am, where before I did question it," said Smith. "I was looking for education. I was looking for someone to teach our family about Judaism and give us deeper insight. We found meaning and felt connected."

The transformation came about through Kesher Shalom, a four-year-old, Abington-based, alternative Jewish community spearheaded by Stutman, who was ordained several years ago. The 19 families at Kesher -- many, like the Smiths, interfaith -- comprise something between a proto-synagogue and a 1970s'-style chavurah.

Kesher Shalom is one of several such groups that have popped up in the region over the past half-decade. They lack formal connections to a particular denomination and present themselves as more intimate, less structured alternatives to mainstream congregations.

Nationally, these communities have attracted both those with nominal Jewish affiliation and those who come from more religious backgrounds, even Orthodox. They appeal to an array of individuals and families. Some are finding their first Jewish home; others have long been members of more traditional congregations, but are searching for something different.

A 2007 study by the organization Synagogue 3000 has classified them as "rabbi-led emergent communities." The study found that more than 20 such communities were created nationwide between 1997 and 2007, some focusing on prayer, some on social action or learning.

The growth of emergents has coincided with people wanting smaller communities and closer interaction with a rabbi, said Joshua Avedon, co-founder of Jumpstart, a California-based organization that focuses on emergent spiritual communities. More than ever, he said, people want to assemble their own Jewish identities, and seem less likely to adopt pre-existing labels.

"These communities fail or succeed based upon their ability to meet the needs of the people who show up," he said. "The beauty of it is that, because they are proliferating so wildly, that if you walk into one and it doesn't speak to you, you can get on the Web and just go find another one."

'Engaging a Group of People'
But are the "emergent" congregations really so different from established ones? After all, countless synagogues began with just a few families meeting in someone's home.

"I really do think that we are engaging a group of people who would never set foot in a synagogue," said Stutman, who also heads the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

Kesher Shalom gatherings -- they're explicitly not called services, even when they meet on Shabbat -- happen about once every six weeks and combine a segment of musical prayer followed by discussion. At the members' behest, Stutman has been taking them through the timeline of Jewish thought; at a recent Chanukah event, they analyzed sayings of the Baal Shem Tov.

The religious-school model is also a big draw. Students receive one period of instruction an hour a week.

"Radically welcoming" is the descriptive term for emergent congregations used by Avedon of Jumpstart.

"It is about trying to build an organic community that is welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds and lowering the threshold to entry, but raising the bar for participation," said Avedon, who's also one of the founders of Ikar in Los Angeles, one of the better known emergent communities in the country.

That's what the husband-and-wife team of Rabbis Jeff Eisenstat and Sarah Messinger had in mind when they started hosting services and programs in their Gladwyne home in October.

Shireinu, as the couple's group is known, combines spirited prayer, text study and debate with socializing.

"We're really winging it. The only real model for this as far as we can figure out -- that is spearheaded by clergy -- is Chabad," noted Messinger, who last spring left her position as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Wilmington, Del. More than anything, she wanted a chance to work with her husband again; they'd worked together years ago at a congregation in Florida.

"We don't know if we are a chavurah or a congregation. We'll see how it goes," Messinger said, noting that they're looking for other space to hold events because the group may have outgrown their house.

In addition to people who have never had much of an attachment to a specific Jewish community, Shireinu is also attracting people who have long had other Jewish affiliations, but are now seeking something different.

Judy and Harry Willner have belonged to Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood for years; in fact, she teaches at the religious school there. But now that their youngest son is in college, they say that they're looking for a more low-key Jewish alternative and have attended several Shireinu events.

"We don't know what we want," acknowledged Judy Willner. "We just enjoyed this. It was a different way to celebrate Shabbat."

Another alternative community created in the past few months is Darkaynu, a Warrington-based group that is led on a volunteer basis by Rabbi Jon E. Cutler, who recently left Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel, also in Warrington, to become a hospice chaplain. The new group features a full jazz band during services, and so far has catered to slightly older families.

"I just never felt I fit in," George Colton said of several congregations that he's tried out. He and his wife, Cindy Colton, have become regulars.

Other local emergent examples include the Narberth Chavurah and the Lerhaus Institute in eastern Montgomery County. Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in West Philadelphia, was counted in the 2007 study. But it now has 80 families, and by most accounts, is no longer considered emergent.

Studies have shown that it's become increasingly uncommon for people to worship in the same kind of synagogue that they grew up in; as the number of options continues to grow, the search for community or a religious niche has become even more complex.

The idea of small-scale congregations isn't new, according to Riv-Ellen Prell, proffesor of Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota.

At the turn of the last century, they were more common than larger congregations. Large suburban synagogues and religious movements reached their zenith in the 1950s and '60s, she said: People then were really "identifying with an up-and-coming, emerging thing."

The chavurah movement of the 1960s and '70s -- unstructured, egalitarian, lay-led prayer communities -- mirrored the general counterculture, and arose largely as a response to the impersonal suburban synagogue. This has clearly influenced the independent minyans -- largely created by Jewishly educated young singles in urban enclaves -- and the rabbi-led emergent groups.

Stutman remains somewhat ambivalent about Kesher Shalom's model, though she's adamant that some would be lost to the community if the option didn't exist.

Her group doesn't demand as much from members in terms of time and money, but it also doesn't provide as much, as a typical synagogue would, she said.

"There is something to be said to forcing people to work in a community that has a set of norms and a set of expectations," she said of the shul model. "Nowadays, more and more families are looking for a personalized experience; there are blessings and challenges there."

Stutman recently delivered what, for many Kesher Shalom members, was some difficult, even disheartening news; she and her family are planning to move to Washington, D.C. If so much of what draws people to such a group is the rabbi, can it survive without her?

Cari Kraft, 50, who chairs the group's steering committee, said that while the departure will prove a huge loss, the momentum must go on. As such, a search committee to fill the part-time position has been established.

Kraft acknowledged some initial concern, but said that she realized "what we have created is something none of us want to give up." Her son became a Bar Mitzvah there last year. Her husband, Todd, is not Jewish, but is active in the group.

Members can be "an atheist one day, an agnostic another and a believer the next," said Kraft. "We approach the question of God without fear. The whole point was to create a synagogue that worked in our lives."

For Smith, there is little doubt about the future.

"We have some strong, committed people," she said, adding that "this connection that has been started, the seed that's been planted I believe will continue to grow." 

 

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