Places transformed by people re-inventing everyday life
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
An explosion of creative Jewish social entrepreneurship is giving shape to an emergent Judaism outside the walls of institutional Jewish organizations and beyond the labels of movement affiliation. A new generation is seeking and building dynamic, inclusive, and diverse new organizations and communities that reflect their personal identities and experiences in the world. There are more creative, passionate, authentic, and compelling ways to engage Jewishly than at any time in recent history. (Jumpstart: a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation)
Ein chadash tachat ha-shemesh – “There is nothing new under the sun” – so the Bible tells us in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Does this mean “Jewish community innovation” is a contradiction in terms? How can we speak of creating something new if the Bible says there is no such thing? On the other hand, we know that Jewish tradition has been remarkably adaptive over thousands over years. So what exactly do we mean by “Jewish innovation” and how do we identify it when we see it?
“one of the strangest and fastest-growing phenomena of the Jewish world, one that may be transforming how large numbers of Jews gather and study. . . it may be a new sociological phenomenon” (Haviv Rettig-Gur, Jerusalem Post, 2007).
Limmud is global Jewry’s greatest opportunity and the British community’s proudest export. From a small winter gathering of educators in 1980, 40,000 people now take the opportunity to get involved each year – participating in Limmud activities, on event organising teams, presenting at Limmud conferences, contributing to online debate, and supporting Limmud’s activities financially. Limmud is cross-communal and cross-generational. Limmud is characterised by choice, participation and respect for other opinions.
Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) are the Jewish High Holy Days. Traditionally a time for self-reflection, synagogue attendance is high - even from members who rarely attend during the rest of the year. As the most important days within the Jewish calendar, the traditions, liturgy and rituals have typically remained unchanged from year to year – and the hierarchies of synagogue life are at their most rigid.
However, in north west London, change is in the air…
Brought to life in 2009, Grassroots Jews is an initiative led by a small group of friends, working together to put on prayer services during the High Holy Day services. Not within an existing synagogue, not even in partnership with an existing synagogue, but entirely independently. They have gone it alone. Funds are raised by charging a £45 flat fee for all services (less if that is prohibitive), and they don’t just offer one style of service, but two – a traditional option and an alternative option.
“Everybody on the planet eats. But humans are the only ones who dine; we elevate food, we celebrate it” Thus says Michael Leventhal, founder and director of Gefiltefest - a Jewish food festival and charity that embraces every aspect of Jewish food and its traditions.
Named after the famous Jewish Sabbath dish of gefilte fish (chopped and poached white fish), Gefiltefest is participatory, sociable and very alive. The festival features a full day of cooking demonstrations and tastings, talks and debates, workshops for children, plus online polls to find the best in kosher bagels, challah, cheesecake and more. Most importantly, it gathers people from within a diverse Anglo Jewish Community who, but for a shared interest in things foodie, might never normally meet. The festival also facilitates contacts and builds bridges beyond the Jewish world.
Mitzvah Day is – put simply - the Jewish community’s national day of volunteering. The ‘ask’ is simple and yet unusual: because the one thing you are not allowed to give on Mitzvah Day is money. Instead, it is about giving something far more valuable: time.
On Mitzvah (loosely translated as ‘good deed’) Day, thousands of people around the world take part in hands on projects, without fundraising, to support charities and to build stronger communities. Based on the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedek (righteousness) and gemilut chassadim (acts of loving kindness), Mitzvah Day’s mission is to reduce hardship and poverty, to help the environment and to bring a little joy where it is needed.
Langdon is an independent charity which offers support and enables independence for young Jewish adults with mild to moderate learning difficulties. Langdon currently offers educational, supported living and social facilities to 100 young adults in London and Manchester.
One of our goals is to ensure that the people we support have the same opportunities as their peers, to experience the satisfaction that comes from a good day’s work. We understand that earning a wage is not just about having money, but also a sense of self-worth.
It was on this basis that The Gardening Project was created. The three main aims of the project were to create work experience, provide work placements, and to teach specialist skills; from the use of hand power tools, to money-handling. On a more general level, the project was designed for our people as a stepping stone towards working in and contributing to the wider community, and increasing their employability.
As Diaspora Jews (i.e. living outside of Israel), community is our biggest strength. It is our unique and powerful traditions, combined with battalions of Jewish volunteers and funding from Jewish philanthropy, which sustains our synagogues and communal spaces.
However, communities can become staid and introspective. The organised Jewish community has long maintained a focus on Jewish continuity, which many people argue has led us to become preoccupied with ourselves at the expense of our engagement with the wider world. Unfortunately, communal paranoia often prevents us from making common cause with other minorities in this country. The Habo Bike project was born out of a desire to do things differently.
As a member of Habonim Dror (known as Habo for short), a Jewish youth movement that educates about applying Jewish cultural teachings to the task of making the world a better place, Jem Stein feltcompelled to do something about the many problems in our society.
The dinner-party is a symbol of complacent presumption, the last occasion to be associated with genuine dialogue or the jolt of rethinking. But it’s possible to renew the ritual in surprising ways...
It’s something of a truism that the UK Jewish community – like other Jewish communities worldwide – is rife with schisms and conflict. In particular, differences between Reform and Orthodox synagogue movements have been so disabling in recent decades that a considerable part of UK Jewish communal innovation has been focused on finding ways round these divisions.
Even if certain kinds of communal creativity may be stimulated by the attempt to transcend division, there is a striking absence in the innovation that has been generated within the UK Jewish community in recent years: there have been few attempts to find ways to directly discuss our differences.
“The theory of the gift is a theory of human solidarity” (Mary Douglas)
GIFT (Give It Forward Today) is a grassroots, independent charity whose purpose is to encourage and promote a culture of giving and volunteering amongst young people in the community. Our experience was that people didn’t necessarily have the direct motivation to get involved – so we decided to create exciting initiatives to facilitate this.
We set up GIFT (Give It Forward Today) in 2003 together with a small group of amazing and inspirational visionaries - Naftali Schiff, Howard Jackson & Oli White – all three of whom still play major roles. Our experience was that society was increasingly obsessed with ‘I’ – I phones, I pads, I pods!! We felt the importance of opening their eyes to how they could contribute to their communities by exploring their talents.
Kvutsat Yovel is an intimate group of 10 adults and 7 children. Together with another seven similar sized groups, Yovel is part of the largest urban kibbutz in the world – Kibbutz Mishol. Recognised legally by the State of Israel as a ‘Co-operative Society’, members live together, share all finances and hold possessions in common ownership. More importantly, Kibbutz Mishol is a kibbutz of educators – 90% of its members working together in educational projects whose primary goal is long-term societal change.
Yovel began life in a two-bedroomed rented apartment in Jerusalem in January 1999, and 14 years later, a community just short of 80 adults and 40 children will be moving into one building, spanning nine floors of specially-designed spaces to strike a balance between the private and communal.
ROI Community is a global community of Jewish innovators that aims to connect dynamic, creative Jews - and give them the tools, support and space to turn their ideas into innovative work that will change the face of Jewish life.
ROI gathers a range of young Jewish people from around the world who share a vision to improve the Jewish community and society at large. ROI lives and breathes collaboration and we think it is a brilliant model of how funding and resources can facilitate new and exciting associations that have a real impact. Our community members are creating novel ways to engage audiences around the globe - contributing to the fields of education, Israel advocacy, technology, social justice, the arts, environment and more.
This book showcases a small but rich sample of the people-led initiatives in the Jewish community. Common themes include education, social action, spirituality and – of course – food. Unlike the majority of the other Community Lover's Guides, this book is not ‘place-based’. Most of the features are UK based but we felt it was important to showcase projects and communities from across the breadth of the Jewish world. Of course, place and locality unite Jewish communities – but Jews are a people as well as a religion. And to our detriment and great benefit, we truly are an international community.
I recently wrote an essay for a major Jewish organisation - and in it asked whether a model of ‘community’ dominated by institutions could really represent the excitement; radicalism; vigour; innovation and creativity within the Jewish community today.
This book clearly demonstrates that the answer is no!