Recentering the Kehilah: Gender and Sexual Identity in Jewish Emergent Communities

January 1, 2008
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J. Shawn Landres

The S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar recently completed a study of the growing population of American Jews who are connected with what I first described two years ago in this journal as “Jewish Emergent Communities” (Sh’ma, June 2006). Jewish emergent is an appropriate subject for discussion in an issue devoted to center and periphery, not least because the phenomenon is seen by many as originating on the fringes of organized Jewish religious life, but also, more broadly, because it comprises profound expressions of dissent and disaffection about conventional Jewish religious life. Of particular importance is the shift from institution building to social networking and the de-emphasis on movement affiliation. Our study amply documents these changes — but they are only part of the story.

Gender and sexual orientation are at the very core of the Jewish emergent phenomenon. While these issues often are perceived to be at the periphery of the Jewish establishment, they are central to Jewish emergent community building. Consider the following:

Only slightly more than half of all members of established synagogues are women; among affiliates of emergent communities, women outnumber men by nearly two to one.

Of the 21 clergy-led emergent communities identified in the S3K-Mechon Hadar survey, 10 of them are formally led by women (by contrast, women lead only a small proportion of all non-Orthodox congregations). In the dozen or so that have formal lay leadership structures, women are or were the lead lay founders or presidents in at least nine.

Among independent minyan participants, 10.4 percent identify other than as heterosexual, a little more than the national synagogue average of 10 percent. However, that figure rises to 12.9 percent in rabbi-led emergent communities and 17 percent in alternative emergent communities.

A number of the progressive Orthodox minyanim — even those that maintain mechitzot and more or less traditional limits on women’s participation — make a point of noting on their Web sites that they are LGBT-friendly.

In a recently published roundtable on independent minyanim , each of the six representatives of the largest and most influential communities, cited gender, sexual identity, women’s participation, or egalitarianism in response to moderator Shifra Bronznick’s question, “What prompted you to start an independent minyan ?” (Zeek, Spring 2007)

Despite having adopted the values and vocabulary of gender equality and LGBT inclusion over the past generation, many established Jewish institutions are not yet fully living out those commitments. By contrast, many, if not most, Jewish emergent communities are founded on values and cultures that inherently honor gender equality and sexual diversity. Paradoxically, their very centrality often renders these values invisible: gender and sexual identity are not frequent topics of conversation because they are cultural givens. The communities’ frameworks are such that everyone a priori is an insider and knows the terms of connection in advance. (Of course, this is not to say that emergent communities are immune to sexism and heterosexism; indeed, those issues, if and when they arise, may prove harder to diagnose and address properly.)

This is not to suggest that emergent communities are expressing the feminization of religion and religious communities, still less a zero-sum transfer of power from one sex to another. However, it may be that what the chavurah movement was to second-wave feminism — the empowerment of women on the basis of their gender — Jewish emergent is to fourth-wave feminism: the collaborative empowerment of men and women together around shared spiritual and political concerns. The Jewish emergent phenomenon may well reflect an explicit indictment of the slow pace of progress in the traditional congregational and denominational structures, as well as an implicit dissent over the path of that progress. The critique that synagogues are like country clubs may not be solely a statement about membership and privilege; it also may be a comment on the highly gendered (male) nature of the “club” model. The emergent flight from denominational labels and hierarchical leadership may not be merely the outgrowth of a generation of Jewishly educated young adults; it also may be a search for more fluid and collaborative organizational models that foster leadership by people across the spectrum of gender identities.

Jewish emergent communities are focused not only on answering central questions of access and inclusion, but also on building organizational and leadership structures that actively facilitate the full participation of all members of the community. What happens next — when gender and sexual identity issues are in fact constitutive of a structurally inclusive organization — remains to be seen.

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J. Shawn Landres is director of research at Synagogue 3000, where he manages the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and is the architect of the Jewish Emergent Initiative. He is a co-author of “Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study,” available at Landres chairs the advisory board of Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and serves as Tikkun Pillar chair on IKAR's Leadership Council.

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