This unit explored the innovative and exciting new spiritual communities of the Jewish Emergent Network. It expanded their sense of what is happening in today's Jewish world; allowed them to engage directly with the communities they were studying; and pushed them to think seriously about what they want for their own ongoing communal involvement.
New Directions in Jewish Community: The Jewish Emergent Network (JEN)
Most high school students are exposed to a very limited range of Jewish institutions and experiences. This is determined mostly by the range of their parents’ communal involvement, mainly established synagogues and affiliated youth groups. It is shocking to them to learn how the role of the non-Orthodox Movements has contracted in recent years, but also makes sense to them, since they themselves often have ambivalent feelings about these institutions.
We began this unit after studying the 2013 Pew report and reading about the demographic and institutional challenges facing non-Orthodox movements today. The unit sought to expose them to some of the innovative and exciting new spiritual communities that have developed in the last 15 years and excite them about the range of options for their own ongoing communal involvement. At the same time, it asked them to read and listen critically to understand the differences as well as the parallels between these initiatives and to recognize the challenges and limitations of each model.
To expose students to a range of innovative Jewish initiatives and programs that are very different from what they have experienced.
To push students to imagine the kind of Jewish experience they would like to find in college and beyond.
To learn to use multiple data sources to form a robust picture of an organization and to analyze all data sources critically to draw realistic conclusions.
To cross the boundary between research and lived experience by studying programs whose leaders they could then engage with directly and in which they can imagine participating.
1) Students read and discussed articles describing IKAR and LAB/SHUL as well as descriptions from each group’s website.
2) They then watched videos of speeches and teachings by Rabbi Brous (IKAR) and Rabbi Lau-Lavie (LAB) and compared them with regard to their main concerns, their teaching style, and the ways they use Jewish sources.
3) They watched sample video clips from the High Holiday services of each community, comparing them to each other and to other synagogue services they know, and asking how the service styles fit with what we’d learned from the articles and teachings.
4) Each student was then assigned to research and report back to the group about one of the other 5 communities that comprise the Jewish Emergent Network. They were expected to use varied source materials, including video and direct contact, as we did with the 1st examples.
Examples of student research:
5) After the students shared their findings, they identified a set of criteria on which these communities could be productively compared and, to the extent they could, evaluated the seven communities on each of these measures. We were looking to identify the areas of most significant variation as well as generate a kind of profile of each community.
6) The class then generated a list of questions we would like to ask the leaders of these communities – some general questions and some that were specific to one or a few of the communities.
7) We met by Skype with the leaders of two of the communities to ask our questions, and sent questions to two others who responded by email.
8) We concluded with a final reflection and discussion of how seeing these communities changed their overall picture of the broader Jewish world.
Teacher Reflection and Lessons Learned
This was a project that took shape as we explored it. I knew that the students needed to expand their conception of Jewish spiritual community, and I also hoped to leverage my connections with the rabbis who are building the JEN communities to give the students a fuller picture of their work.
The first thing we discovered was that while there were key commonalities that tied these projects together, there was surprisingly wide variation between them. We were able to see that very different approaches can speak to what are ostensibly similar populations. These variations helped us to identify and describe the features that made each unique. We saw how these communities have been shaped both by the personalities of their leaders and by very intentional choices about what kind of community each envisioned and how hard these leaders work to stay true to that vision.
The students came out of this project energized about the range possibilities that Jewish communal life holds in a totally new way, and having thought deeply about what shapes a community and what kind of community they imagine themselves seeking out in college and beyond. They also came to recognize that whatever their frustrations about Jewish experiences they have had until now, they cannot imagine their lives without a Jewish community and a forum for Jewish expression that excites them. They gained a sense of the range of new Jewish initiatives reshaping the community and also the central role that participants play in shaping the priorities and character of those initiatives.
Because this is a current phenomenon, the resources available to research these programs are quite limited, and generally uncritical in nature. Perhaps the most critical research skill that we had to work on was to read between the lines of website content and glowing media coverage to find the details and language that reveal what is unique and central to each group’s mission and culture. We also found that video was often more revealing than written material. They understood more from seeing a community in action for just a few minutes than from anything written, and they could distinguish the style, tone, and language of the different communities in a clear and definite way.
Resources we used for our research:
LAB/SHUL Rosh Hashana 2016 (Especially the Storahtelling of Genesis 22 from 1:30 onward)
Podcast with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie (we listened to the segments in which he describes his theological approach and his idea of seeing Torah as material for creative expression):
Rabbi Joshua Cahan teaches Rabbinics and Prayer at the Solomon Schechter High School in Westchester, NY. He received his Rabbinic ordination and Ph.D. in Rabbinic Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he was the founder and director of the Northwoods Kollel at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and served as Director of the JTS Beit Midrash. He compiled and edited Yedid Nefesh, a traditional, egalitarian bencher with commentary, and is a Senior Editor for Zeramim: An Online Journal of Applied Jewish Thought.