A Personal and Professional Journey: Mishkan Chicago

December 1, 2011
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Lizzi Heydemann

“The service is conducted with pomp and precision. The rendition of the liturgy is smooth. Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony.” When he wrote these words, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did not intend them as a compliment. I, too, prefer a more organic, even ecstatic, prayer experience. To me, prayer includes moments when a room full of people explodes with kavannah and harmony, the kind of worship found at Yakar: Center for Tradition and Creativity or Nava Tehila in Jerusalem, Kehilat Hadar in New York, or IKAR in Los Angeles. As a rabbinical student, I once asked a rabbi at a mainstream congregation (whose service I experienced to be much like the one in Heschel’s description) if he found the services at his synagogue to be meaningful. “Well, Lizzi,” he responded, “as a rabbi you have to ask yourself: Is the service all about pleasing you, or about what the community needs?”

The question is based on the premise that rabbis have spiritual needs different from those of the communities they serve, and that my job as a rabbi is to put the community first. I can’t buy the premise.

For the past six years, I have attended and worked in some of the most dynamic Jewish spiritual communities in the world. I believe what they all have in common, despite superficial differences of style and halakhic interpretation, is that they do not bifurcate the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional needs of the leadership and the community. Rabbi Sharon Brous, my mentor at IKAR, would explain to me and the other members of the davening team: If you’re not engaged in real prayer, then get up, move around, hide under a tallit, sing a niggun, cry, laugh… do whatever you need to do to get to a place of real prayer. We have no business leading prayer if we’re not ourselves stimulated and inspired by what we’re leading.

Now a rabbi, I’m still on that journey to find and create meaningful prayer. Mishkan Chicago is an emerging spiritual community inspired by soulful and ecstatic worship and the understanding that Judaism is a vehicle for bringing more light, more justice, more goodness, and more joy into the world. I did not conceive of Mishkan first and foremost because it’s what Chicago’s Jewish community needs. Rather, I developed the concept and began bringing people together around it because it’s what I need to be sustained and to flourish, and I need people on this journey with me. Fortunately, it turns out that what I need resonates with hundreds of Jews in Chicago.

Take Ben, a 30-something music director I met at a JewBu party. When I asked him why he had stopped going to synagogue and what he is looking for in a Jewish experience, he said, “I’d be satisfied if, when I walk into the room, people don’t all turn and stare at me like I have a third eye.” Or Rachel, who has an amazing, throaty, gospel-sounding voice, yet rarely uses it in Jewish prayer settings. She said, “I have been craving a space where I can really use my voice, and for the most part, I’ve given up on looking.” Or Brian, the head of a local nonprofit, fiercely intelligent and more than a little skeptical, What is he looking for? “I need to get something I’m not going to get from reading The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Through conversations with these and other young Jews and through my own experiences, I’ve distilled what I hope to find on the journey to three basic things: the need for community, self-expression, and inspiration — all of which take root in Jewish tradition. When I walk into a room full of Jews, I yearn for all this to be present:

  • Community: to feel part of something greater than myself embodied by people around me with whom I share deep and important commonalities. We don’t scrutinize each other, we embrace each other, sometimes literally.
  • Self-expression: to express my inner life, to bring to the outside what’s swirling around on the inside — joy, pain, uncertainty, doubt. Our tools in the service include skillful use of the liturgy, song, and silence — all of that should facilitate self-expression. I want to create harmony with the people around me, and to feel comfortable enough to cry and dance if the spirit moves me while praying.
  • Inspiration: to be moved, to learn something; to be challenged, pushed, taken on a journey, brought to a higher place; to be reminded that I am part of a cosmic desire for the flourishing and growth of humanity and of the planet, and that I am both up for and necessary for the task.

This is the environment we’re trying to create with Mishkan. We do it by communicating warmth and accessibility — from signage and setting up chairs to how we guide people through the service and provide sustenance when it’s finished.

Mishkan isn’t for everyone; it doesn’t need to be. Meditation centers, urban farms, social groups, philanthropy boards, synagogues, intellectual salons, journals, Web sites, affinity groups at Occupy Wall Street — all are developing at a rapid pace to answer the desire and need of Jews looking to live their Judaism in the ways that reflect their passions. One could argue that the synagogue should nonetheless be the common meeting ground of all Jews, regardless of their particular proclivity, but one space for everyone may be the wrong model.

Can Mishkan maintain and grow that positive, community-building experience once we exit the intimate living room stage and enter the realm of the institution? Though questions about our future abound, the most basic ones I ask myself every day are: What do I hope to achieve through creating community around my vision of Judaism? How do we keep our eye on the prize?

Let’s debunk the myth that what rabbis and other Jewish community leaders need is different from the needs of the people they’re serving. We’re also on a journey; the difference is that, as leaders, we have a responsibility to invite others along with us.

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Lizzi Heydemann is founding rabbi of Mishkan Chicago (www.mishkanchicago.org) and co-rabbi at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Glencoe (www.aitzhayim.org). She was the first Revson Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR and a Nava Tehila Levite in Jerusalem. Heydemann graduated from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2010.

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