Why we need more ways to live 'Jewishly'

Attending a forum in San Francisco on innovation in Jewish philanthropy proved the perfect reminder of why I founded a program here in Melbourne giving families the opportunity to mark their child’s Jewish rite of passage.

Earlier this year I attended the Australian Jewish Funder’s study tour as well as the Jewish Teen Funders Network Summit. While we all know everything in America is supersized, the philanthropic space is no different. With a local population of 350,000, San Francisco Jews are the country’s fourth-largest community.

In a move signalling a progressive approach, American community leaders and funders are aptly recognizing a seismic shift in personal identity for a growing number of American Jews. Unlike their fore-bearers, many Jews now identify as part of multiple groups or communities, such as environmentalists, feminists, LGBQTI or Democrats. Reflecting this new, modern approach to Jewish engagement, significant philanthropic funds are being pumped into new, innovative projects that recognise that being Jewish is just one of many identities that American Jews connect with.

On the ground, it was energizing to see how American communal organisations responding to this change are simply thriving. Urban Adamah is an educational farm and community center in Berkeley, California. During our visit, founder Adam Berman shared passionately how practices of Jewish tradition, mindfulness, sustainable agriculture and social action are combined to build loving, just and sustainable communities. Urban Adamah feeds the poor, provides leadership fellowships for young people and runs mindfulness camps for children, sown with the seeds of Jewish values.

The Australian Jewish Funder's 2019 study tour participants with Moishe House residents in San Francisco

During my San Francisco visit I also attended a dinner hosted by young residents at a local Moishe House, part of a global network of Jewish residences. The homes are a hub of social and spiritual connection and empower the young residents to design and host engaging events for their peers. We listened to young Jewish Americans share how Moishe House became a vehicle by which to express and strengthen (for some) their once shaky Jewish identity. Our Australian contingent was moved hearing young American Jews share their new journey of living ‘Jewishly’ (a term I was to hear several times during my visit), bringing them closer to their Jewishness than ever before. Moishe House is one of many unique, living, evolving community models that work.

More than anything, my learnings on this trip were that for any of us feeling even somewhat disconnected to being part of a ‘community’, as Jews we remain part of something so much bigger. Thankfully, there are a growing number of entry points (both abroad and here in Australia) that offer connections to one’s Jewishness that are innovative, inclusive, engaging and most of all, veer away from a rigid, one dimensional identity. We just can’t afford a one size fits all model anymore.

Both the diversity and volume of families taking part each year in our bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah programs, Twelve and Thirteen, makes it plainly obvious that to maximize Jewish engagement, there need to be alternate ways on offer to allow individuals to express their Jewishness. For some participants, our pluralistic programs complement their child’s bar or bat mitzvah more traditional celebrations: a synagogue commemoration and a celebration with family and friends. For others though, (and for a variety of reasons) a synagogue may not feel like the right place for their family.

Perhaps it’s our pluralism or that we are an independent organization with no ‘baggage’ that explains how we engage such a wide cross section of Jewish families from across Melbourne. Our broader appeal could also be found in the way we allow families to express their Jewishness (however that looks for them) through practising the universal values of kindness and giving (without a religious context.)

Whichever it is, we understand that marking a child’s bar/bat mitzvah can look different for everyone but if anything, it must be inclusive of families of all backgrounds - whether a child has same sex, heterosexual married or single parents, or whether a child comes from a multi faith, reform or Orthodox background. As a community, we need to provide a multitude of opportunities and platforms of connection for families that recognizes their multiple identities.

For a strong, thriving Jewish community, leaders of community organizations (as well as emerging ones) need to be bold and daring in just how they provide space for new expressions of Jewish life. We must take risks, innovate and evolve so that these expressions of Jewishness thrive freely, safely and without fear of judgement. We need to create this, so that we can each find our own way to live ‘Jewishly’, no matter which side of the world we live.

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