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Nowhere is it written that a good Jewish education has to come in a formal place of study. But for many folks, the only options they have for giving their children a Jewish education is to either join a synagogue or enroll in a local Hebrew day school.
The Sunday School for Jewish Studies in Newton, Mass has shown us that doesnâ€™t have to be the case.
The Sunday School, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, is over 40 years old, â€śbut has no bricks-and-mortar presence.â€ť Instead, with prayer books and hired teachers, they meet in rented space in Newton, greatly reducing costs usually associated with religious schooling â€“ particularly bar and bat mitzvah training, which is the schoolâ€™s focus. And with the growth of interfaith families, alternative options for bar/bat mitzvah students are important, especially when they approach us when they are 12 or 13 and there is little flexibility in our mainstream institutions to accommodate them.
Rabbi David Kudan, who has worked with the Sunday School for the past couple of years, thinks offering this kind of flexibility is a great way to engage families who might be looking for a non-traditional Jewish setting:
â€śI think itâ€™s very important to support people who are seeking a way to express their Judaism,â€™â€™ said Kudan. â€śI feel, as a rabbi, I have an obligation to the entire Jewish community to be of service and assistance.â€™â€™
Education coordinator for the school Dori Stern believes the schoolâ€™s atmosphere works because â€śJudaism is finding ways to change and evolve. There are so many ways to be Jewish and people are coming to realize that.â€ť
While the school offers families a â€śless formal, and less expensive,â€ť bar and bat mitzvah outside of the traditional synagogue structure, the idea of alternative Jewish affiliation in general is something thatâ€™s been gaining a lot of traction in recent years. There are more and more articles about independent prayer groups, congregations that meet in peopleâ€™s homes rather than a synagogue, and online affiliation. All of these have one thing in common â€“ they have lowered barriers to participation and given people more options for finding a connection to the Jewish community. This is a key point. At JOI, we have learned that as the diversity of the Jewish community grows, traditional boundaries of Jewish life are transcended. The best way to keep up is for institutions to reach beyond the boundaries as well and engage people where they are.
The end result of efforts like these should be to inspire a strong and lasting Jewish identity. Giving people more options to explore their heritage in a way thatâ€™s meaningful to them will help us reach that goal.
We often blog and write about the importance of offering â€śfree samplesâ€ť of Jewish life. We think it is so important, that we even made it one of the Ten Principles of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. Usually we talk about this in terms of free High Holiday tickets, discounts on membership, and other goods and services. But what if everything were free? Moving away from dues-based engagement in Jewish organizations is a big step, and one California group took the plunge. Cognizant of the fact that most area Jews are unengaged by the Jewish community, Rabbi Naomi Levy founded Nashuva, a Los Angeles Jewish communityâ€”not a congregation, sheâ€™s quick to point out.
She began the community in 2004 with monthly Friday evening Shabbat services in area churches who generously shared their space with Nashuva. She also developed social actions projects to rally people together. Today, there is no â€śmembershipâ€ť and, therefore, no dues to join Nashuva. Revenue instead is based on the free-will contributions of those who participate. Nashuva is also not affiliated with a particular Jewish religious stream, so everyone is welcome. Individual approaches and levels of observance are irrelevant. But the barriers Nashuva transcends donâ€™t end there. Levyâ€™s online High Holiday services impacted on nearly 200,000 viewers from around the worldâ€”proving that the internet can be a powerful tool for connecting to Jewish community.
One area Nashuva is still negotiating is intermarried familiesâ€”who are invited to become part of the community. However, the question of bar and bat mitzvah for children of non-Jewish mothers has raised some questions for Levy, who was trained as a Conservative rabbi. Nashuva is considering an interesting approachâ€”the creation of a pluralistic umbrella with connections to rabbis of various religious streams who would be comfortable taking on responsibilities for life cycle events for families with whom they are comfortable.
Nashuva is a work in progress, but with hundreds of people attending an average Nashuva Friday night service, itâ€™s clear that many are interested in its low-barrier approach to Jewish community life. We at JOI are excited to see how Nashuva continues to develop its approach to what we at JOI call Big Tent Judaism.
A few years ago, JOI developed a program for the holiday Shavuot called â€śUp All Night.â€ť Using the Shavuot tradition of staying up all night to study Torah, the program would take place in a large bookstore with a coffee shop, where you can host book readings or an accessible presentation on Jewish topics while offering free coffee/refreshments throughout. The idea was to create a low barrier event in a public space in order to attract unaffiliated and unengaged members of the community.
According to a recent article in the Washington Jewish Week, numerous synagogues in the D.C. area used Shavuot this year as a gateway to low-barrier Jewish engagement. At the synagogue Sixth & I, for example, attendees were given the opportunity to make a â€ślox and cream cheese pizzaâ€ť since itâ€™s traditional to eat dairy foods, or partake in a â€ś10-pose group yoga sessionâ€ť that recognized the 10 Commandments. The point was to offer activities that would resonate with the younger generation. Said Jen Keys, a Schusterman Insight Fellow working with Sixth & I:
I think we’re appealing to a crowd that is really looking to grasp onto something, get some relation to the holiday, but are not sure how or in what context. We provide the right environment to pick and choose and really personalize it.
Shavuot, which fell on Thursday evening through Saturday of last week, was chosen because itâ€™s an important â€“ yet often overlooked â€“ holiday on the Jewish calendar. By bringing it to the forefront like this, Jewish communal professionals have a better chance of reaching a population that is looking for something different, an alternative Jewish experience that will help lead to deeper engagement.
Still, we believe the unique aspect of our â€śUp All Nightâ€ť Program â€“ holding the event in secular venues â€“ is an aspect more organizations should emulate if they truly want to share their Shavuot programming with a less affiliated audience.