Moving In-stream

February 3, 2010
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Andy Bachman

When we founded Brooklyn Jews in 2003, it was in recognition that the vast numbers of young Jews moving into our neighborhood were not joining synagogues; they were, though, voicing a desire to be connected to Jewish life. Our gatherings from 2003 to 2006 — when l became senior rabbi at the 150-year-old Reform synagogue Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) — were home-based and depended significantly on virtual communication. Blogging and emailing were among the most significant modes of engagement. We were “out there.”

Moving “in-there” to the synagogue became a natural next step. The night before deciding to apply for the rabbinic job at CBE, I gathered together a number of friends to reflect on the changes and help me decide what to do. Together, we had built Brooklyn Jews. Our children were growing up and a new, younger set in their 20s were moving into Brooklyn. It was time to adapt. We could auction off the Brooklyn Jews name and idea to someone else; we could let it go into the world and be reinvented, which would send an important message about not “owning” the idea of Jewish continuity, but merely being a privileged participant in its developing reality. We could buy a building in Park Slope and move toward becoming an institution, which would require incredible financial resources and create a statement about the presumed “failure” of traditional synagogues to adequately engage a younger generation. Or, we could join CBE, grow the congregation, and make the case that the synagogue, the enduring institution of Jewish life for the past 2,000 years, was the most worthy of our attention and devotion.

We chose the third option, which has come with great rewards and some interesting challenges. The rewards are clear: Serving a community rooted in eternal values of Torah learning, prayer and spirituality, and acts of lovingkindness is the most fulfilling work I can imagine as a rabbi. Bridging perceived generational gaps in the Jewish community is also deeply valuable work. The digital age has only increased the silo effect of microcommunities of interest engaging in their own internal dialogues. Having a stage in the community — which is possible in Brooklyn — to assemble actors from across the spectrum is a vision of Sinai we are meant to practice.

Community organizing principles — reaching people where they are and redefining Reform Judaism as more openly pluralistic — are key. One of the strongest spiritual minyanim that meets is the indie-minyan, Alt-shul. Participants are mostly non-members in their 20s and 30s, fully traditional, yet representative of a kind of spiritual hunger that Reform Judaism doesn’t fulfill. But they have raised money for the shul, repaired a Torah, and joined us at our holiday celebrations. Their presence is one of the many quiet engines driving change in Jewish life. We maintain an open engagement with the neighborhoods around the shul by running twice-monthly Shabbat programs in the homes of nonmembers, which is both a Jewish service and a recruitment tool for further engagement in synagogue life (and supported by grants from the Samuel Bronfman and Charles H. Revson foundations). Additionally, the programming we developed at Brooklyn Jews — arts, films, and fun, as well as musical early-childhood education where parents are learning alongside kids — has become the normative model for our new community. We take it as a given that Jewish life should be fun.

The last challenge, I believe, is not unique to the indie-minyan movement. It is merely the question of ownership and financial obligation. The movement for the revitalization of Jewish life has relied too heavily on making everything free while Judaism has endured, paradoxically, as a tradition of moral and ethical obligation. Teaching a new generation to feel an obligation to support Jewish life is a challenge faced by every generation, and we seem to have found a fairly simple formula: greater ownership, greater support. Having children helps, along with being relevant to the broader cultural tropes of politics and arts. Between 2006 and today, our synagogue membership has grown from 508 to 740 families. That we are so blessed to be growing in this way is a hopeful testimony to what can happen when synagogues open their doors, allow for multiple points of entry, and create opportunities for more Torah, more acts of lovingkindness, and fun.

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Andy Bachman is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y. With his wife, Rachel Altstein, he founded Brooklyn Jews in 2003. Bachman was executive director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University from 1998 to 2004.

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