Emergence Unbound

October 2, 2012
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Shawn Landres

Six years ago, I wrote in these pages about a renaissance in Jewish religious life that was happening in new spiritual communities that were unbound by conventional expectations about the roles and parameters of a synagogue.  Relationship, not contract or program, was the driving metaphor for many of these communities, whether expressed through hospitality or community organizing.

Given the opportunity to revisit my essay, I turned to a tool not as readily available then as now — Facebook — to crowd-source insights and comments from friends and colleagues who have been pioneers and key observers on the emergent journey: What has or has not changed? Have mainstream synagogues absorbed Jewish emergent lessons? Have Jewish emergent communities become new-model (or not so new-model) synagogues? Over the course of two weeks, August 14-28, 2012, 30 Jews, two Christians, and one Muslim from across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, offered more than 80 comments in response to my questions and follow-ups and, more importantly, in response to each other.  All of the quotes in this article are taken from that conversation.

The Jewish emergent phenomenon turns out to be neither singular nor unique. Research has confirmed substantial differences among the three broad streams identified in 2006: lay-led independent minyanim, clergy-led congregational startups, and what I termed “parashuls” (analogous to parachurches).  And as Ari Y. Kelman reminded me at the time, what was happening in spiritual communities also was — and still is — happening elsewhere in Jewish communal life, in arts and culture, education, social justice, and myriad other spheres.  The parallels to the Christian emerging church continue. Ryan Bolger, associate professor of church in contemporary culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., observed: “An embodied, rather than just a cognitive faith, has seeped into many parts of the Protestant traditions …the snapshot in 2012 is a continued move away from enlightenment form of faith toward the postmodern — more arts, more bodies, more (eco)justice, flatter leadership; more community, less ‘church.’”

The specific practices of emerging spiritual communities — whether expressed through independent minyanim like Kehilat Hadar and the Mission Minyan; newly formed synagogue alternatives like IKAR, the Kavana Cooperative, and Romemu; or entirely independent initiatives, like the Kavod House (now the Moishe Kavod House Boston) and East Side Jews — are slowly embedding themselves within the congregational establishment.  This is visible in three main ways:

• individual experimentation with diverse approaches to spiritual practices, such as yoga, meditation, and bibliodrama (e.g., Storahtelling)

• the establishment of beyond-the-walls initiatives and synagogue satellites, and

• organizational co-sponsorships connecting synagogues and emergent startups.

As the Kitchen’s Rabbi Noa Kushner observed, “What was once considered fringe in 2006 is increasingly accepted. Within a year of being in existence, the Kitchen was asked to co-sponsor or participate with twelve ‘establishment’ Jewish organizations. Everyone knows things have already changed. It’s only a question of how the new ecosystem will develop.” In Los Angeles, an established synagogue (Temple Beth Am), a rabbi-led startup (IKAR), and an independent minyan (Shtibl) co-organize an all-night Shavuot observance every year.

Some of these changes are driven by generational transitions, including the rise of Generation Xers to community leadership and the arrival of highly educated Millennials. Danya Ruttenberg, now Northwestern University Hillel campus rabbi, co-founded the annual Jewcy retreat in 2001; it ran through 2005. Ruttenberg said: “For me (and I think for a lot of the people connected to those first retreats), [Jewcy] was the first time we managed to integrate Judaism and the rest of our lives (activism, alternative culture, non-traditional identities, etc.) in really deep ways. …’01 was the year the Xers got old enough to create their own Jewish expression.”  However, it remains to be seen what will become of emerging spiritual communities as their constituencies age out of their 20s and early 30s, according to both Claire Sufrin, visiting professor of modern Jewish thought at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, former board chair and CEO of Los Angeles- and New York-based Synagogue 3000/Next Dor. Jeremy Burton, a co-founder of New York’s Darkhei Noam, an independent minyan, noted that the community had adapted in response to its shifting demographics, adding, for example, both a chevra kadisha and programming for young children.

Broadly understood — within and beyond the synagogue context — the Jewish emergent phenomenon reflects three large-scale transformations of identity and collectivity in 21st-century Jewish life. The first is the unbundling and relocation of activities previously “packaged” in a given institution, such as the synagogue. Much of the creativity — and the discomfort — associated with this shift is that it represents the end of mass loyalty to an imagined communal center.  Jewish emergent practice is taking place elsewhere, and not just on a one-time basis.  Rabbi Menachem Cohen, founder of the Mitziut Jewish Community in Chicago, commented, “We have choices. We talk now of integrating our Jewish values into social and environmental justice. We find God while harvesting organic potatoes and celebrate Shabbos at Occupy Chicago.”

The second transformation, related to the first, is that the organizing principle for collective action is now the interpersonal, relational dynamic rather than the institutional framework.  In the emergent context, the guarantor of an organization’s long-term impact is neither real estate nor an endowment, but rather network resilience. Nowhere is this more true than in the context of lay-led independent minyanim, which tend to be all-volunteer groups that use borrowed or rented space for Shabbat and holiday services. Relationship capital, rather than economic capital, sustains independent minyanim.  To that end, their success is not tied to organizational longevity, but rather the strength of social bonds connecting their stakeholders. As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, cofounder of Kehilat Hadar and Mechon Hadar in New York, argued, “If a minyan provides intensive, real connection and [a] davening community, but then fades,  isn’t that itself a success, perhaps more so than a sustainable but mediocre alternative?”

The third transformation is the bundling (and rebundling) of activities and practices into new institutions that reflect contemporary realities and meet the needs of the individuals they engage and serve. “Integrating Judaism and the rest of our lives (both in language and as a goal) is more normative now,” observed Kavana’s Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum. “…The whole field has absolutely shifted over the past decade. I’m seeing the work of the emergent groups not only building strong local Jewish communities in particular cities, but also trickling into the way that mainstream Jewish institutions are thinking, speaking, programming, and acting.” Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA, noted the influence of emergent organizations on the development of “newer community-driven organizations and networks that are not necessarily driven by religious ideology or needs,” but warned that despite their momentum, they remain financially insecure.

Some startups appear to be the result of current philanthropic attention to the newly identified life stage called “emerging adulthood” (officially 18-26, but more broadly the so-called “20s and 30s”), and through national initiatives (Moishe House and Synagogue 3000’s Next Dor) and local ones (Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C.). Other self-organized and grassroots-funded efforts represent new cross-generational bundles of activities, especially those focused on the environment or food, such as Jewish urban farms and eco- and ethical kashrut.  “For many of us who did not grow up in the ‘establishment,’ at Jewish summer camp, or Hillel,” wrote Tel Aviv-based nonprofit strategist Marni Mandell, “our participation in these indie minyanim gave us the ability to go and establish communities of our own. Many have asked whether we are looking for funding and how we will ensure sustainability, and our response is that as long as we are relevant, we don’t worry about either one.”

“I’m not really interested in whether we are a synagogue or not,” declared the Kitchen’s Kushner.  “I like some synagogues plenty. What does interest me is trying to figure out what to call this new idea, so we can succinctly get across what is continuous with synagogues and where we overlap with independent minyanim, havurot, etc. We need a new term; we (many of us) have the ideas already.”

Indeed, as my Facebook conversation confirmed, this most recent period of Jewish emergence generally has been less about the “what” — the articulation of substantive new ideologies — and more about the “how”: the evolution of new organizing principles for spiritual communities and the integration of religious values and spiritual practices into individual lives. The emerging organizational models of 21st-century Jewish life continue to iterate and expand, drawing on one another’s lessons of struggle and success.

To read some of the comments from the Facebook conversation (and to add your own), click here.


In 2000, there were 7 independent minyanim; in 2011, 115; they operate in more than 50 cities and 7 countries. (Source: Mechon Hadar and Elie Kaunfer, personal communication)

Independent Minyan: An independent minyan is a prayer group organized and led by volunteers, with no paid clergy; has no denomination or movement affiliation; was founded in 2000 or later; and meets at least once per month.  (Source: Elie Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism, 2010, p. 61)

Havurah: A small community in which all members participate in creating authentic and meaningful Jewish experiences; some havurot operate within synagogues, others are independent of synagogues and denominations, and still others are synagogues which self-identify as havurot. (Source: National Havurah Committee, http://resources.havurah.org/2009/12/institutional-history-the-national-havurah-committee/).

Limmud: A cross-denominational, cross-communal Jewish learning conference model first implemented in the UK in 1980, Limmud events take place in more than 26 countries; all Limmud groups are committed to learning, volunteerism, and diversity; each event is adapted to the local culture. (Source: adapted from http://limmud.org/ and http://limmudinternational.org/)

Moishe House: Founded in 2006, this network of 50 peer-led, home-based Jewish communities in 15 countries reaches more than 53,000 young adults annually; residents of each house receive rent subsidies and program funds to plan and host a diverse range of low-barrier religious, cultural and social events in their home, including Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, and service programs. (Source: Moishe House and Jen Kraus Rosen & Tamar Raucher, personal communications)

Alternative emergent community (sometimes called a parashul): A group that self-defines at least in part as a spiritual community but for which gathering for prayer is not the central and defining activity; it meets episodically, often for learning, service, or Shabbat/holiday meals rather than for formal worship.  (Source: adapted from Shawn Landres,  Steven M. Cohen, Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain, Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants, 2007)

Synagogue 3000 (S3K) / Next Dor: The successor to the synagogue renewal initiative Synagogue 2000, S3K operates a congregational leadership network and synagogue studies institute; Next Dor is a North American network of synagogue satellites that engage Jews in their 20s and 30s. (Source: adapted from http://synagogue3000.org and http://nextdoronline.org)


Avedon, Joshua. 2005. IKAR Rising: A Study of the First Year of a New Spiritual Community in Los Angeles.http://jewishjumpstart.org/documents/IKARrising_AvedonThesis2005.pdf

Avedon, Joshua. 2008. “Where Would Darwin Daven?” Forward, December 4. http://www.forward.com/articles/14665/ .

Belzer, Tobin. “Fluid Identification: San Francisco’s Mission Minyan.”  2011.Sh’ma 42/685 (December), pp.5-6. http://shma.com/2011/12/fluid-identification-san-francisco’s-mission-minyan/

Belzer, Tobin. “The Independent Minyan and Havurah Phenomena: Everything Old is New Again.” 2009. MyJewishLearning.com.http://www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ritual/Prayer/Synagogue_and_Religious_Leaders/independent-minyan.shtml

Belzer, Tobin, and Donald E. Miller. 2007. “Synagogues That Get It: How Jewish Congregations are Engaging Young Adults.” S3K Report 2, (Spring). Los Angeles and New York: Synagogue 3000, 2007. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=645

Bronznick, Shifra. 2010. “D.I.Y. Judaism: A Roundtable on Independent Minyanim. Zeek: A Journal of Jewish Thought and Culture (Spring), pp. 22-32http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=876

Cohen, Steven M., and Ari Y. Kelman. 2007. The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives. New York: Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

Cohen, Steven M., and Lawrence A. Hoffman. 2011. A. Different Growth for Different Folks: The ND [Next Dor] Pilot Sites in Action. S3K Report 10 (April). Los Angeles and New York: Synagogue 3000, 2011. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=10994 .

Cohen, Steven M., J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain, “Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study,” Synagogue 3000 and Mechon Hadar, November 2007, www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=2828

Dreyfus, Ben. Hilchot Pluralism series.  Mah Rabu (blog).http://mahrabu.blogspot.com/

Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. 2009. The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. Los Angeles and New York: Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.  www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=4130

Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. 2011. The Jewish Innovation Economy: An Emerging Market for Knowledge and Social Capital. Los Angeles and New York: Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=10709

Kaunfer, Elie. Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010.

Landres, Shawn. 2006. “The Emerging Spiritual Paradigm.” Sh’ma37/638 (June): 11-12. http://shma.com/2006/06/the-emerging-spiritual-paradigm/

Landres, Shawn, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2007. “Evangelical-Jewish Dialogue: An Emerging Conversation.” Sh’ma 37/638 (May), pp. 11-12.http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=2335

Landres, Shawn, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2007. “Emerging Patterns of Interreligious Conversation: a Christian‐Jewish Experiment.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 612:1, pp. 225‐239.

Nussbaum, Rachel. 2010. “Demanding More of Community.” Sh’ma 40/666, pp. ??-??. http://shma.com/2010/02/demanding-more-of-community/

Nussbaum, Rachel. 2011. “Building Jewish Community With Intentionality: The Cooperative Model.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service. 86:1-2 (Spring), pp. 102-109. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=13802

Nussbaum, Rachel. 2012. “A Horizontal Table.” Sh’ma 42/688, pp. 3-4.http://shma.com/2012/03/a-horizontal-table/

Tucker, Ethan. 2007.  “What Independent Minyanim Teach us about the Next Generation of Jewish Communities. “ Zeek(Spring/Summer), pp.39-47.http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=2781

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Shawn Landres, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, is co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, where he helps visionary philanthropic and nonprofit leaders of Jewish and interreligious causes find the perspective and connections they need to achieve impact, build stronger communities, and transform the world. This past summer, Landres’ work was recognized by the White House, which featured him as a “spotlight innovator” and speaker at its forum for faith-based social innovators in July. Landres has also received recognition from the World Council for Jewish Communal Service and from the JCSA: Jewish Communal Service and JCSA: Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, which honored him with a 2012 Ted Comet Exemplar Award.

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