Aitz Hayim-Judaism Beyond Belief

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
October 26, 2012
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More than 20 years ago, before terms like “post-denominational” and “independent minyan” were catch-phrases in the American Jewish discourse, a small group of intellectually-minded folks in suburban Chicago sought to create a community that went beyond the norms of the American synagogue. And so Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living was born.

Aitz Hayim was lay-led, its founders having been inspired by their participation in the Wexner Heritage Program, learning with incredible scholars grappling with texts not previously encountered in the offerings of adult education locally. They graduated from the Wexner program feeling engaged with Judaism on a sophisticated level beyond anything they’d experienced previously. And they decided to try to replicate it for their own community at home.

The community never owned a building and so did not need a capital campaign, a building fund, or committees to oversee maintenance. Aitz Hayim became an intentional community of people who invested their time and money in creating something special. Something different. Dues payments and donations supported regular, high-caliber Scholars in Residence, each a master in his or her own field.

When Chicago’s “JUF Guide to Jewish Life” came out, listing area synagogues by denomination, a new category was created especially for Aitz Hayim. As before, there were a plethora of area synagogues listed under the labels, ‘Orthodox’, ‘Conservative’, ‘Reconstructionist’ and ‘Reform’. Aitz Hayim was listed as ‘Interesting’.

Now Aitz Hayim boasts a membership of hundreds, many of whom are leaders in the Chicago Jewish community and in various national organizations. We share space on Shabbat mornings at a large Reform synagogue with whom we collaborate on many social, educational, and holiday celebrations. Still, Aitz Hayim retains its own unique stamp and its innovative programs still live up to the promise of ‘Interesting’. We have two rabbis job-sharing – each also engaged in our own projects to expand and innovate Jewish life locally in Chicago and throughout the broader Jewish world.

We host communal meals often and invite people to join us for “Shabbat services, followed by kiddush lunch with the most interesting people engaging in lively conversation”.

There are no bored meetings and no requests for members to do tasks they might find burdensome. And, as a result, when something important is happening (like a shiva minyan or an opportunity to learn from a new scholar), a large percentage of our community shows up. We promise “Services Beyond Belief”. They really are.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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