Don’t Williamsburg my Judaism!

Rabbi Alon C Ferency
April 9, 2014
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Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a neighborhood known for at least two groups: Chassids and hipsters.  These days, it seems like every idea floated to “save” liberal Judaism has its origins in one of those two communities: either Judaism should become Indie, or it should become neo-Chassidic, or both. Personally, I am not seeking neo-orthodox minyanim where everyone is under 40, like a “spiritual but not religious” Logan’s Run, and if I wanted aimless half-hour niggunim, I’d see the Allman Brothers again.

Why does everything have to be about re-boot, “cultivating spiritual intensity,” or going to a place that looks like a synagogue, swims like a synagogue, and quacks like a synagogue, but calls itself an “intentional spiritual community?” It’s all so much unnecessary jargon and re-branding. For another thing, this de-centralized tinkering creates what my wife calls “Swiss Cheese Judaism:” everyone has their own little pocket of Jewish life, and each person’s experience is so mass-customized that very few of the experiences overlap. Whatever happened to Judaism, just plain old Judaism: you know, the one with synagogues, Torah, and mitzvot?

Now, I have always been in favor of DIY (Do It Yourself), Open Source Judaism, but spiritual moments don’t always happen in a laboratory. They often happen in a shul, however. They happen among people who have learned to live together over decades, with people of several generations, even brushing up against people they may not like. That’s how Judaism is transmitted. A colleague at a large, flourishing synagogue reports that he is happy to pastor to four generations of Jews, although no one writes grants or gives prizes for that. Maybe we need to direct our communal thought, energy, and money not into re-invention, but into teaching people why time-honored Synagogues matter. For starters, how about this: “Why Join a Synagogue?

Once that happens, you can have more of the experience I saw two weeks ago: a young woman, born and raised in our community, left to study at List College and Columbia University, then came back to lead our Prozdor and then direct our religious school. She has since become a speech language pathologist, and found a kind, gentle man to marry. Their wedding was in our sanctuary last week. It was among the most moving events of my brief career, largely because it was an experience for the whole community. For example, the flower girl was a four year old whom the bride babysat and taught at “Tot Shabbat.” Later, at the wedding reception, between toasts and food, I saw two middle-aged woman of our congregation dancing a hora together. They looked at each other, fell out of step, paused, and embraced. I was too far away to see what they said or might have thought. I looked to me like they were thinking, “Isn’t it great just to be Jewish together?”

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Rabbi Alon C Ferency pursued Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the 1990’s at Harvard University. After a bicycle trip from Seattle to Boston, he entered the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Community Health organizer. Then, he worked in the music industry, before receiving a Master’s Degree in Informal Jewish Education from J.T.S., and rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School in 2010. Today, Alon is the rabbi of Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he serves as a board member of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and served on the Community Health Council, Together! Healthy Knox, and the ethics committee of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He is also a regular contributor to Conservative Judaism quarterly, and an alumnus of Leadership Knoxville and the Tikvah Fellowship. His sermons are available at; and, you may follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@EclecticCleric).

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