As a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Yitzhak Nates had a vision: to create a place where people could embrace Judaism, yet be open to one another, despite their sexual or even religious orientations.
He planted the seeds of his dream while a senior at the Wyncote institution, and it's apparently beginning to sprout now. What started as Friday-night meetings in volunteers' living rooms six years ago has evolved into the Narberth Chavurah, a 20-family group that meets every other Friday at the Yoga Garden, an exercise studio in Narberth.
"We're a Jewish community that welcomes everyone to come and bring their entire self," said Nates, 43, married and a father of two. "Being Jewish isn't intended to limit us."
After an upbringing in a Reform household in Westchester, N.Y., Nates studied economics and philosophy at Middlebury College in Vermont. But as a 20-something traveling through the Mediterranean, he woke up one morning in Italy with a sudden need to be in Jerusalem.
For the next decade or so, Nates traveled between the United States and Israel, seeking to establish a career in international relations or conflict resolution. He spent some of his time working on a kibbutz, and for an Israeli civil-rights party and various U.S.-based peace organizations, such as New York's International Center for Peace in the Middle East and the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C.
He also developed a passion for studying Jewish texts.
But it was his brother's death from cancer about 15 years ago – as well as his work with relief efforts after Florida's Hurricane Andrew in 1992 – that caused him to ask "those big life questions," and inspired him to become a rabbi.
Nates enrolled in RRC in 1995. In his last year there, he met a handful of couples – some lesbian, some interfaith – within the local community that sought a place where they could feel at home in a Jewish context, even if they weren't Jewish. The Narberth Chavurah was the solution, but Nates had one more detour before it would all materialize.
He left the area for a three-year stint to do congregational work in Chico, Calif., where he said he was the only rabbi in the county. He returned to Narberth two years ago and started the group. Just last October, it secured the Yoga Garden as a more permanent meeting place.
"We are a truly avant-garde Jewish community," said Nates. "We're based on an openness to all kinds of learning."
The chavurah, he explained, begins its Friday-evening services sitting in a circle, singing songs and lighting Shabbat candles. Toward the end of the service, participants stand up and, led by a fellow congregant, practice Qigong, a Chinese meditative exercise involving slow movement of the body with slow breathing.
Nates admitted that more traditional Jews may find doing yoga-like poses as part of a Shabbat service out of the ordinary, but felt it works for his group.
"It's tangibly visible how connecting this practice is. Everyone quiets down and becomes focused, becomes present. That's what Shabbat is about," he said.
As for growing the chavurah – and perhaps one day even getting a more permanent home – Nates said he'd love to see the group grow, as long as it remains committed to its beliefs: the centrality of community and the realization that everything in the world is connected.
"As long as the group is working with these pillars, I'll feel at home, and connected and eager to be a part of what we're doing," said the rabbi. "Right now, we are in a good place. We are enjoying the intimacy and the relationships we're developing, learning about ourselves."