Kehilla’s Clergy at Conference on Revitalizing Jewish Life

Ohala 2014by Rabbi David J. Cooper

You know, for us, Kehilla is just our local community, and it’s just who we are. Here at home, we don’t have any sense of Kehilla as having national importance. I forget how important we are until I get to the Ohalah* Conference in Broomfield, Colorado every January and I become reminded of our disproportionate importance and impact on the national (and international) world of Jewish Renewal.

The conference attracts rabbis, cantors, chaplains, and Jewish clergy students from Jewish Renewal and beyond for four days of plenaries, workshops, music, prayer and celebration. It’s the gathering of the tribal leaders who have become more and more familiar with each other and rely on each other for wisdom and advice. Between 150 and 200 clergy and clergy students are in attendance.

To demonstrate our impact, this year’s overall topic was suggested by Rabbi Burt and his writings concerning the next generation in Kehilla, in Renewal, and in the larger Jewish community. Hazzan Shulamit was a leader of services during the shabbaton leading up to the conference. Rabbi Dev was a presenter on Jewish sacred texts concerning genderqueer folk. Last year, I was a presenter at the plenary concerning new approaches to Jewish Law.

Redefining Jewish Communal Life
In particular this year, as keynote presenter Rabbi Sid Schwarz examined issues and modalities for the future of Jewish congregations, Kehilla was brought up as an example where many of those modalities and processes are already in play.

Schwarz – who has written on the future of congregational life in three books well-read among American Jewish leadership – has established the Clergy Leadership Incubator in which Rabbi Dev is one of the active members. The purpose of CLI is to generate ideas and practices for Jewish communal life appropriate to the needs of people coming of age in the 21st century. This involves such a redefinition and repurposing of the congregational experience that it may no longer be accurate to call it a “synagogue.”

Schwarz looked at the major phases of Jewish evolution during the 1900’s in regard to the wave of immigration in the early century that swelled the numbers of Jews in the US. He described the move from early ghetto communities, to more established neighborhoods, then the flight to the suburbs after WWII. This is now a fourth phase where in the absence of critical change, the synagogue will become a fee for service organization with no real connection to the Jewish past, to its sense of sacred covenantal purpose, and to its role as a place of community.

Components for 21st Century Jewish Community
He prescribes four major necessary components for reinvigorating the communal experience; 1) partake of and education in the Jewish wisdom tradition and also learning from other religions’ wisdom, 2) that the members be engaged in the work of social justice as part of their communal life, 3) that the communities they establish be truly intentional communities, and 4) that these communities provide the envelope in which all its participants can craft for themselves lives of sacred purpose.

Schwarz characterized much of the younger adult community as “covenantalists” rather than “tribalists.” This has some resemblance to the trends that I have called “prophetic” or “guardian.” The “covenantal” or “prophetic” orientation of the young adults attaches them to the values of compassion and empathy of the Jewish tradition more than to the communal self-defense (or Israel-defense) orientation of the current Jewish institutional leadership (Schwarz’s “tribalists” or my “guardian-emphasis”).

Kehilla has some track record in regard to all this, but we also need to redefine and redesign, and if this is true for us who have been on the front wave of change, how much more so for the larger more established institutions.

First Steps into the Future
Within the Jewish Renewal movement, it looks like Ohalah, on Rabbi Burt’s suggestion, will assemble a commission for examining how the movement must adapt to the realities of the generations who are now younger adults and whose activists are soon or already are taking leadership in a variety of alternative institutions.

In Kehilla, Rabbi Dev is carrying the tasks of the Clergy Leadership Incubator into our shul and, as we adapt and experiment, we will be linked to CLI through her participation. I expect that Kehilla will be enhanced by this link, but I also expect that the lessons we have learned and will learn in Kehilla will be valuable in many other communal settings as well.

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*”Ohalah” is an acronym for the Hebrew words which mean “Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal” but, despite its title, it also includes “Association of Cantors for Jewish Renewal” and the “Rabbinic Pastors Association.” It is described as a “transdenominational association.”

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