Jewish Journal

Emergent Jews

Worshippers create unconventional communities unbound by tradition to reinvigorate Judaism.

by Sarah Price Brown

Posted on Jan. 26, 2006 at 7:00 pm

Jewish Emergent participants eager to revitalize religious worship meet with Christian colleagues at Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

Jewish Emergent participants eager to revitalize religious worship meet with Christian colleagues at Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Photo by Larry Hirshowitz


When Rabbi Sharon Brous leads a worship service, Jews dance and sing and pray -- and talk politics. Her Los Angeles-based Ikar is not a traditional congregation but rather, as she describes it, a "spiritual community" of "modern, progressive Jews" who "boldly reclaim the essence of our tradition" by engaging in soulful worship and social justice.

Brous, 32, is one of a growing number of young Jews across the country who are creating unconventional sacred communities, unbound by expectations of what a synagogue is supposed to be.

About a dozen of these innovative Jewish leaders gathered together for the first time in mid-January at a two-day conference at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. The event was organized by Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit group aimed at revitalizing the Jewish house of worship.

To help guide these "emergent Jews," as Synagogue 3000 calls them, the group invited another network of religious leaders who had embarked on a similar quest -- only theirs was focused on transforming the Christian community.

Nearly 10 years ago, these young Christians were dissatisfied with the typical ways of "doing church." They had grown disillusioned with what they saw as the commoditization of theology by the megachurches, with their sleek marketing campaigns and business-management styles. So they formed a network called Emergent, focused on developing communities of faith that are authentically Christian and engaged with American culture.

Hailing from a variety of backgrounds -- mostly evangelical but also mainline Protestant and Catholic -- these so-called "emergent Christians" refused to align themselves with any political party, calling themselves, instead, postmodern, post-liberal, post-conservative and post-evangelical.

"We're fiercely independent," said Tony Jones, Emergent's national coordinator. "Our primarily affiliation is with God."

Today, Christian emergent communities are drawing young people across the country. Services often feature live bands and take place in coffee houses or bars. Pastors preach hospitality, individual participation and the notion that all of life -- not simply the church service -- is spiritual.

Sharing Songs and Sacred Texts

On a bright Monday afternoon at Brandeis-Bardin, more than two-dozen emergent Jews and Christians sit in a circle. Jones, the Christian emergent leader, explains "how blown away we were by this invitation." To break the ice, he said, he will quote Jesus.

"Well, he was Jewish," some of the Jews respond with a laugh.

After Jones reads from Matthew's gospel, Jeremy Morrison, a 34-year-old rabbi who runs Temple Israel of Boston's Riverway Project for 20- and 30-somethings, said: "Tony spoke about Jesus, so I'll talk about Torah." He speaks of Genesis and says he hopes that today, too, will be a beginning. "I see our time together as an opportunity for us to become free," he said.

To the strum of a guitar, the Jews and Christians join in song, repeating the refrain: "How good and pleasant it is for us to dwell together."

Seeking a Shared Vision Despite Differences

There's a sense in the Jewish community that traditional synagogue services are simply not moving people, particularly young people.

In response, Jews like Amichai Lau-Lavie, 36, have created new communities and styles of worship that seek to reinvigorate worshippers with a sense of awe and spirituality.

Eight years ago, Lau-Lavie, who calls himself an "emerJew," created Storahtelling, a traveling theater company based in New York, which reenacts Torah portions, accompanied by live music. Recently, he started a "ritual lab," a sort of laboratory for sacred experiences.

"It's an event," Lau-Lavie said, "not a service." It can take place in a mall or dance club and include a DJ playing electronica music. The worship experience is nondenominational. "If anything, it's flexidox," he said, a mix of everything.

Dov Gartenberg, a rabbi in Seattle, recently left his perch at a conservative synagogue to start Panim Hadashot, New Faces of Judaism, an outreach organization that welcomes Jews of all denominations and stripes -- single, married, intermarried -- into the community. Worship revolves around what he calls "Shabbat feasts," dinners around town and at his home. Sometimes, he sets up at a table at Whole Foods Market, where he tries to connect with Jews by giving away samples of traditional foods.

At the conference, designed to introduce these visionary Jewish leaders to their Christian counterparts, Jews and Christians broke off into groups. Lau-Lavie took a walk with a Christian emergent from Atlanta, during which they discussed their paths toward God.

Afterward, Lau-Lavie talked with excitement about how significant this was. "My grandfather, who was a rabbi, probably didn't take a walk together with a fellow on a different path," he said. But here he was, taking "a walk on the wild side."

Shawn Landres, research director of Synagogue 3000, wandered from group to group. "I overheard somebody asking what it means to have a calling from God," he said. "That's new, I think, Jewishly, to encounter people who are not afraid to talk about that urgency, that sense of mission."

"I think it's helpful to think of Christianity and Judaism as sister religions," Landres added. "Really, we are heirs to the religion that was practiced by ancient Jews in the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, our solution as Jews was the Torah." For Christians, it was Jesus.

The Jewish and Christian emergent leaders echoed this feeling of compatibility as they sat together, distilling their experiences in front of an audience of established, mainstream Jewish leaders, who had been invited to observe.

Both "emergent" Jews and Christians share a progressive outlook, a philosophy of welcoming and hospitality, a commitment to community and social justice. Both are using creativity to build engaging, spiritual communities.

Still, some of the Jewish leaders expressed unease about collaborating with a group that, ultimately, might believe that the second coming of Jesus depends on Jews' converting to Christianity.

"They have a religious vision that deems my religious expression ultimately secondary," said Morrison, who teaches young people Torah over beer and wine in Boston. "I need to know where they stand."

Jones, the Emergent leader, tried to dismiss the concern. "The goal of a dialogue with peers of another faith is surely not to convert them," he said.

At this point, anyway, the dialogue is just beginning. The first date is over, and now both groups must decide whether to lean in for the kiss, as Synagogue 3000 research director Landres put it. The Jewish leaders say they would like to meet again -- but next time, just among themselves. They need to get to know one another before they can collaborate with emergent Christians, they say.

As for Emergent coordinator Jones, he said he would like a second date. "But," he added, "I think it's more up to [the Jewish emergents] than it's up to us."

Synagogue 3000 Shifts Focus to Leaders

Synagogue 3000 is a new group aimed at revitalizing American synagogues. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit has organized a leadership network of 18 visionary rabbis, cantors, musicians and artists. Their task: figure out what it takes to engage committed worshippers and attract the unaffiliated.

So far, the group is getting tips from unexpected places. Last June, the Jewish leaders met with Christian evangelical Rick Warren, founding pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest and author of the best-selling "Purpose-Driven Life." In November, the network met in Houston with Ronald Heifetz, a leadership expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Synagogue 3000 also created a network of Jewish "emergent" leaders, who are starting nontraditional spiritual communities. Earlier this month, Synagogue 3000 brought this group together with their Christian counterparts and the Jewish leadership network at a two-day conference in Simi Valley. A fourth summit is scheduled for March in New York.

In addition to creating leadership networks, Synagogue 3000 established this month the first academic institute for synagogue studies. It aims to answer questions that have not been adequately addressed, such as why people go to synagogue, how to create spiritual experiences and what a synagogue space should look like.

Synagogue 3000 is the latest incarnation of Synagogue 2000, a group founded more than 10 years ago by Ron Wolfson, who teaches at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and Lawrence Hoffman, a rabbi and professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

The two shared a vision of what synagogue life could be like in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jews affiliate with synagogues more than with any other institution in the Jewish community, they agreed. But synagogues have not achieved their goal of igniting a spiritual spark in many worshippers.

Too many Jews were joining synagogues only when their children needed a religious education or a bar mitzvah. For many Jews, synagogues seemed unwelcoming places, cold and cliquish.

Wolfson and Hoffman set out to transform congregations across the country, creating a group called Synagogue 2000. The group worked with nearly 100 congregations, guiding them through a four-year process of change. But change had a price: about $7 million in grants and donations.

In 2003, Synagogue 2000 took a year and half to evaluate what it had learned and to determine the best way to move forward. The group decided that guiding congregations through a lengthy change process was too expensive. They also realized that change only happened when the leadership wanted it; willing congregations were not enough. "The clergy could make it or kill it," Wolfson said.

So, Synagogue 3000 was a born, an organization dedicated to revitalizing synagogue life by cultivating spiritual leadership. --SPB

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