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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

Synagogues, Minyanim, Community and Home

On Friday night, I did something I haven’t done in months. I went to my synagogue for Friday night services. In 2009, I’d fallen out of my weekly habit of going to services and somehow gone from being highly engaged to a twice-a-year Jew in less than four years post-mikvah.

A Very Long Preface

The result of becoming a twice-a-year Jew was that I started an independent minyan with a few friends in the summer of 2010. I missed Shabbat services, but my synagogue wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I needed a community of peers and my peers at synagogue had married or had children or divorced or left town. I wanted to help lead services on a regular basis, not just once a year. I wanted a service meant for me, not the long-time members who want what they’ve had for 50 years and not the child-focused family service.

So we started TBD Minyan… we worked closely with my synagogue. Using space, learning with Rabbi Zedek, borrowing a set of siddurim and inviting young members. In the last two years, I’ve appeared to be a twice-a-year Jew to my synagogue family who never see me any more, but in reality I’m helping build a Jewish community and participating in monthly services.

I went to services to see Rabbi Niles Goldstein speak about Gonzo Judaism. He’s a new rabbi in town and we orbit in the same national Jewish circles, but have never met before.

Feeling at Home Again in My Synagogue

First off, while I rarely go to services and have stepped out of leadership positions, I still consider Emanuel to be my home synagogue. It was such a treat to see families that I used to see every shabbat. I’ve been a member for 7 years, so there are adults I met when they were just 13. One of those boys I met when he was 13 was home on leave from the Marines. I got to see Werner and his wife – a couple in their 80s who I’d given honors to at my bat mitzvah 5 years ago, because I so want to be them some day.

It was good to feel at home in my synagogue again, after a few years of feeling like it was a sweater that shrunk in the wash.

Two (of Four) Questions

Niles spoke about how Gonzo Judaism is a drive to get to the radical core of our religion. Radical hospitality was the theme he talked about the most. Hospitality is something that Emanuel Congregation has never lacked, we are the queens and kings of greeting strangers.

After his talk, a few people asked questions. Some relevant, some not. There were two questions that I had much different responses than he did, but I decided it wasn’t the right forum to go head to head with him. (Which made me wish the sermon had been at a Limmud or Conversation or ROI gathering, where I would have said what I’ll write below).

Will Gonzo Judaism create more leaders? Will more people step up to lead and take leadership positions if we do this?

This was asked by our past-president of the Brotherhood. I think they have struggled to define a role for the men’s group in the last 5-10 years and I think they’ve struggled to find new leaders, so it makes perfect sense. How I interpreted David’s question was, “Does Gonzo Judaism mean the Brotherhood will survive?”

Niles answered with the hope that institutions and funders will start supporting the people doing new Jewish things. (Forgive me, it was a Shabbat service so I didn’t take notes).

If it had been appropriate, I would have shared my story, which is one of being supported by institutions and funders. From where I sit, we are being supported. I know that a personal anecdote isn’t data, but hear me out.

I think institutions and funders need to help keep us in orbit. Rabbi Zedek and I have  a great working relationship, because he supports me when I go start new Jewish things in Chicago. He has lead countless Itza Mitzva sessions over the last six years, because I saw a need, had a plan and asked.

When we had Loosely Defined (a social predecessor to TBD Minyan), he fended off members offended that we promoted events that conflicted with family events. (The whole point of Loosely Defined was none of us had Jewish families of our own. Childless and child free synagogue members who didn’t fit into the Sisterhood, Brotherhood or Religious School buckets).

When we decided we needed prayer, Rabbi Zedek helped teach us to lead services and the board gave us space. When we needed to move to an outside space, they continued to offer help.

The Schusterman Foundation has supported me as a Jewish leader through invitations to 5 of 7 ROI Community Gatherings in Israel and small grants that have allowed me to participate in Limmud NY, Jewlicious on the Beach and helped me try to grow Itza Mitzva into a THING. When I failed to grow it, they continued to support me.

Everyone doesn’t have two strong institutional suns to orbit around, but I hope we can find more. There is something to be said for a strong, informal partnership that allows acts of Gonzo Judaism to flourish.

What about smartphones and Facebook? How can Gonzo Judaism combat this inward turning caused by technology?

Niles answer on this was one of balance with the risk of people turning too far inward online and with their phones. This was when I had to sit on my hands and not demand the floor.

In an interview (3-4 years ago) that never got published, I was asked what the next thing in the Jewish Internet was and I said, “Shabbat dinner.” I’d seen how Twitter was giving people a reason to get together in person, a chance to find new friends and build a real life social group of people with similar interests.

I have said a hundred times over, without the internet, my Jewish life would be limited to the Reform synagogue I belong to and Chicago’s Jewish Federation. Because I have an active, online Jewish life (or did 3-5 years ago), I have friends of every stream. I’ve had shabbat in Crown Heights and an oneg with all the Chabad rebbetzin and I’ve built my own pizza with the founder of Challah for Hunger in a basement of a D.C. mansion.

I’ve danced at the wedding of an orthodox blogger in Jersey and at the wedding of a secular start-up gal in Tel Aviv. I’ve debated the halacha of conversion online and offline. I’ve hosted numerous bloggers and ROI Community members as they pass through Chicago and whenever I have empty seats at my shabbat table or Seder, I can fill them through Twitter and Facebook.

Yes. There is a risk of being addicted to the pings of our phones. It is a problem when I finally shut down my computer at night, only to pick up my phone and start checking all the same sites again.

However, without the internet and the global oneg it affords us, my Jewish world (and the Jewish world of many others) would be quite small.

In Closing

I’m happy to feel at home in my synagogue again and will probably make more of an effort to attend services there in addition to at my minyan. I hope institutions think about how they can pull Gonzo Judaism folks into their orbit without making demands or placing limitations. I hope that the Schusterman’s method of supporting people over projects continues and more funders help us grow as leaders with less immediate concern for return on investment.


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