This is a transcript of theDialogue Podcast, Episode 1: New Jewish Spaces, an interview with Rabbi Shira Stutman.
00:03 Hila Ratzabi: Welcome to the Dialogue Podcast of the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. I’m Hila Ratzabi, Editorial Associate at Ritualwell. These podcasts are part of a broader series exploring relevant topics through a Reconstructionist lens. This month we’re hosting discussions with leaders on the cutting edge of the Jewish community in general and Reconstructionist communities specifically. Today, my guest is Rabbi Shira Stutman, Director of Jewish Programming at Sixth & I in Washington DC. Thanks so much for joining me today, Shira.
00:32 Shira Stutman: It’s great to be here.
00:34 HR: So, I’d love to hear about your background and your role at Sixth & I, just kind of talk about sort of how you got there and what is your role there.
00:44 SS: Sure. So I started leading services at Sixth & I about… I don’t know, almost eight years ago now, I would say, when I was still living in Philadelphia. And I would come up here every month or every other month to lead a special service just for “young professionals,” which is a very imprecise term that we use to refer to Jewish-affiliated young people in their 20s or 30s. And I moved to DC five years ago and I started working here more full-time at that point.
01:20 HR: So, can you talk a little bit about what you do as Director of Jewish Programming?
01:24 SS: Yeah. Sixth & I is a very unusual place. It’s one part arts and culture center, and so almost every night of the week, we have different, sometimes Jewish, but often not Jewish musicians or authors come here to play their music or to give a talk about a book that they’ve just written. So for instance, in the months to come, we’re gonna have everyone here from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Mindy Kaling, both of whom have written books who will be talking about their book. And we’ll also be having lots of concerts by many, many musicians whose names I don’t know because I don’t know who, because [laughs] the music is all supposed to engage people in their 20s and 30s and that’s just not my age group anymore.
02:13 SS: But what I do is I work on the religious programming, the Jewish programming. So if we’re one part arts and culture center, we’re also one part synagogue center as well, and we have all sorts of programs to engage, again, the young professionals in their 20s and 30s in DC. Comes as no surprise that there are a lot of people in that age group in DC and also of those people a lot of them didn’t grow up here, so they really are looking for a home.
02:40 SS: We see ourselves a little bit as an extension of the Hillel experience and Jewish programming functions at Sixth & I, much more like what a Hillel would look like on campus, than what a typical old-school synagogue would look like in any given city in the States. So any given week I spend a few nights teaching. I do a lot of workshops and classes with interfaith couples or people newer to Judaism or I would be leading services. I don’t lead every single week because, like a Hillel, we have lots of different types of services that go on all the time. I also spend a tremendous amount of time in counseling or other conversations with young people who, and are figuring out what it means to be an adult and to be a Jewish adult in the 21st century.
03:27 HR: Can you speak a little bit more about that relationship between cultural and religious programming and even why you think it’s important that a synagogue perhaps should also serve as a cultural center?
03:42 SS: Yeah. I can give you a bunch of reasons for why it’s important. I just want to give the caveat that I’m not giving them in order of importance.
03:48 HR: Sure.
03:49 HR: I think one of the reasons that it’s important is because the history of Jewish tradition, is a history of engaging ideas. All sorts of ideas, from the more superficial like some of the reality TV stars that we’ve had here over the last year to the ones that are, God-willing, critically changing the conversation that we’re having in America like, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or like Justice Breyer who’s coming also this fall with one of his books. All of this feels very Jewish in terms of the conversations that we’re engendering here at Sixth & I. Another reason that it’s important is because for a lot of Jews in the 21st century, being Jewish, whether they’re a Jew or sort of Jew-ish, as we say, is only one part of a multifaceted identity. So when I was growing up, if you ask me what I was, I would say I was Jewish without even thinking twice. But nowadays, it’s a very rare… Well, especially at Sixth & I, it’s a very rare Sixth & I’er who will… If you say, “What are you?” will say, “Jewish,” with nothing else.
04:55 SS: And so, what we’re doing is we’re recognizing… We’re recognizing the diversity of identities that virtually all of the young people that we serve carry nowadays. And the third thing that I would say about why it’s important to have an arts and culture center, aside from the fact that arts and culture is wonderful and adds to the DC landscape in a way that makes me proud to be associated with Sixth & I. There’s also… It also brings in money for Sixth & I. We are trying on a new financial model. In our synagogue, there are no dues, so there is no membership, as it were, the way that we understand membership at a synagogue. And so, as such, we need to bring in… We have a $3 million a year budget and we need to cover it. Selling tickets brings in revenue for us that helps us do all of the programming that we get to do here at Sixth & I.
05:47 HR: I think that what you’re saying about acknowledging the multifaceted aspects of people’s identity — that “Jewish” is not the only marker of our identities in this generation — is so important, and a lot of Jewish institutions don’t get that yet, and so, related to that, do you think that the model of Jewish and cultural programing at Sixth & I is something that could be replicable, and if so, what would other institutions need to learn in order to create more vibrant programming?
06:19 SS: I think it’s such a great question, because as you could imagine, we get asked it all the time. And I’m going to give you such a Jewish answer, I’m going to say “yes and no.” Speaking from a basic business perspective, when we have a lot of these book talks, we don’t have to pay the authors who are coming in, because when you’re on a book tour, you go to different places in all the cities, and so, it’s not… You don’t get paid for it, what you’re trying to do is sell books. So with that in mind, do I think there could be a “Sixth & I Peoria” exactly the same way that we make things work here? I don’t think it would work because Elizabeth Gilbert is not gonna necessarily go to Peoria on her book tour, because it’s just sort of… It doesn’t have enough people, I guess, for her at this stage of the game. So in a very practical sense, no, Sixth & I could not work in the exact same way in other places. That said, yes, of course Sixth & I could work in any city or location around the country, if by “work” you mean create a very 21st century multifaceted understanding of what it means to participate in Jewish community that at its base holds the value of welcoming above all other values. That’s something that could be recreated anywhere. The idea of playing with membership models and what it means to belong to a synagogue, that could be recreated anywhere.
07:45 SS: The idea of tapping into the Zeitgeist of people in their 20s and 30s who live in any specific area, that could be recreated anywhere, although there is another caveat there, because in DC of course, we have a critical mass of people in that age, right? If you are in, I don’t know if they know, we just talk about “Ploni” as sort of the general unnamed person, so if Peoria is our general unnamed city, not all Peoria’s have enough young professionals to make it work. But that being said, I think that the energy that we’ve created at Sixth & I can be recreated anywhere. And the specifics of it, you would just have to do what’s right for the city that you’re in.
08:26 HR: Can you give us an example of one of the events that you’re most proud of curating at Sixth & I, and what made that event so successful?
08:36 SS: Yeah, I think… I love our arts and culture events, and one of my favorite stories to tell about it is… Sixth & I sends out a postcard every single month, and on the postcard, there is this… one of the bands we are promoting at that point was called First Aid Kit. I’ve never heard of this band in my life, but one of my friends called me and said, “We got your postcard, and my daughter, who’s in high school, saw the postcard and said, ‘Oh my gosh! Sixth & I is having First Aid Kit, Rabbi Shira is so cool!’” As if I had anything to do with it, and I think that is part of the special sauce that does make Sixth & I work, that people assume that religious programming is cool because the arts and culture programming is cool, as well.
09:23 SS: But I can’t speak to any of that programming because that’s just not my bread and butter. I think in terms of programs that we’ve done that I’m most proud of, I’ll just give you two. One is a program called “The Ten.” I actually didn’t create… I came late to this game. But the idea is to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which as you know, Shavuot often, to quote Rodney Dangerfield, “It’s the holiday that gets no respect”, because students… Maybe it’s because Hebrew school is over, maybe it’s because there’s no large ritual around it, but Shavuot can get lost in the Jewish calendar. And so, what we did was we created a program called “The Ten” to try to bring the holiday of Shavuot back to American Jews, and to sort of lift up some of the values, the values of Jewish learning, the values of eating dairy, but the values of celebrating the harvest of our fruits all together.
10:16 SS: And so, every year we bring in different big names to talk about their own Jewish journey, and in doing so, to sort of lift up the holiday of Shavuot and the idea of talking about our Jewish journey. So, for instance, one year we had Nathan Englander, who is an author, talking about, he had just published a book. One year we had David Plotz and Hanna Rosin, who were talking… I think they rewrote one of the books of the Prophets and they did a modern skit, I forget, it was awesome.
10:52 SS: Last year we had Josh Radnor who was on this television show called, “How I Met Your Mother,” which I’d never even heard of, of course, but the younger people had. And just a few months ago we had Natasha Lyonne, who is famous for many roles, most recently of which of course is on “Orange is the New Black,” and all of these people got up on our bimah and they talked about what it meant to them, what it means to them to be Jewish, about how Judaism is a part of their everyday life, and they would study text from the bimah with myself or Rabbi Scott Perlo, the other rabbi on staff.
11:25 SS: So I think it’s just a great example of a sort of intersection between pop culture, Jewish history, Jewish ritual and Jewish identity, all on one bimah on one evening. And, that is the kind of thing that you can create in other places. Another program that I’m part of that I’m really proud of, is our Jewish Welcome Workshop, We created it as a conversion class, but what it’s become is an Intro to Judaism class for all different types of people. We talk about Sixth & I as being a sort of… “Off the Birthright Bus” kind of place. So if you’re someone who went to college and might’ve gone to Hillel once or twice, you went on Birthright and you were like, “Okay, there might be something here for me.” And you get off the bus and you’re like, “Okay, what do I do now?” So Sixth & I is the place we want you to come next.
12:17 SS: And so, for a lot of these people, even some of them who actually did attend a little bit of Hebrew school, what they know about Judaism is quite minimal and certainly, it doesn’t compare to what they know about nuclear physics, or policy, or medicine, whatever their sort of day job is. And so, this 31-week Intro to Judaism class of course, teaches about Judaism, but what it does even more is it helps create community among participants. The vast majority of participants in this program, if you ask them what the phrase “k’hilah k’dosha” means before they begin, they will have no idea what that phrase means.
12:55 SS: But by the end of a time together, what I always say, “We’re creating a k’hilah k’dosha, a holy community,” and what we mean by “community” is, it’s a bunch of people who love each other even if they don’t all like each other all the time, sort of like a family in that way. And I think that for a lot of young people in their 20s and 30s, creating authentic community is something that they want without consciously knowing it. So many of the young people I work with say, “Well, I have community in my yoga studio, or at the local coffee shop.” And I don’t wanna disparage either of those places, they’re quite important as third spaces in the contemporary world.
13:37 SS: But I think what it means to be an authentic community is a little bit more… Is a little bit deeper than your local coffee joint, even as well as you know the baristas there. And I think in this Jewish Welcome Workshop, we really explore what it means to be in community and what it means to be vulnerable with people in community… Learning about Judaism all the while.
And at the end of the year, for many of our years, we go to Israel as a class, not everyone goes, because as you can imagine, it’s expensive but we also get to experience being in Israel together with all of the beauty and all of the challenges associated with that as well.
14:13 HR: That’s wonderful, wow.
14:15 SS: Yeah, it’s really fun.
14:17 HR: As we…start to wind down, I have a little bit more general questions that we’ve been asking across these different podcast interviews about this theme of Reconstructionist Judaism being as described as “cutting edge.” And I’d love to ask you if you agree with this assertion, and if so, how would you define “cutting edge”, and maybe do you see your work that you do, whether or not it’s inspired by Reconstructionist Judaism as cutting edge?
14:48 SS: Well like I see my… I definitely see my work as inspired by Reconstructionist Judaism. The old joke about Reconstructionism is that, it is basically what many Jewish Americans already are; they just don’t know it yet. And if by Reconstructionism, we mean creating a Jewish life that is thoughtful and reflective and traditional and forward-thinking and progressive and so many other things that I can’t even… Don’t come to mind right now. Then everything that do here at Sixth & I is of course Reconstructionist. The idea… The word, the phrase “cutting edge”, it’s a little bit cliché at this point. What I hope that I do in my rabbinate, who knows how successful we are or not? What I hope that I do is I help put forward cutting edge Judaism, but not as an end unto itself, that the forest doesn’t get lost for the trees, I guess. So that we’re cutting edge, but we’re cutting edge and also rooted in tradition, and we’re cutting-edge but not just to see how far we can push the envelope, there’s actually a reason to it.
16:02 SS: One of the things that we talked about for a while was the idea of having a text message screen up at High Holiday Services, that’s nothing if not cutting-edge, where people send in text messages during Rosh Hashanah services and they sort of… They get displayed on a screen behind me. At the end of the day we decided, “That’s cutting edge, but not to the end that we’re trying to cultivate,” which is an end of community building and an end of thoughtfulness and nuance and prayerfulness. So, are we cutting edge? Gosh, I hope to God so, because if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward; there’s no such thing as staying in the same place. But I hope that when we are cutting edge, we’re doing it to a holy end and not just as an end unto itself.
16:50 HR: That… I think that’s really well said. One last thing before we finish, are there any other projects or any other initiatives that you want to draw attention to?
17:00 SS: Well, I guess I’ll just say one last thing, which is that I spoke a tiny bit about this idea of welcoming in a primary value here at Sixth & I. I learned many things during my time at RRC. One of them I use all the time is the idea of values clarification. And everything I’m about to say obviously comes from David Teutsch’s work among others as well, but this idea that all the time we are holding many different Jewish, competing Jewish values when we make decisions about how we’re going to behave Jewishly in this world. And that in order to be intellectually honest, we just have to acknowledge that there are competing values and you have to ultimately choose, prioritize the ones that are most meaningful to us.
17:44 SS: And here at Sixth & I, we value “Hachnasat Orchim”, welcoming guests over anything else. And it’s challenging sometimes ‘cause it means we’re having a very wide conversation about Israel from the left and from the right. It means that we’re having a very wide conversation about what it means to be Jewish, in terms of the boundaries of Jewishness. It means a very wide conversation about what Jewish practice looks like, and so, it’s not always comfortable, but it’s always important, and I think there are… I really do think there are few places other than Sixth & I that… There are few places that have valued welcoming in this way. There are other values that are critically important, like tradition, like community.
18:29 SS: I’m not… That one could make an argument that could or should be the primary value of an institution. It’s just not ours. Ours is being welcoming to all who want to come through the door. In all of its beauty and all of its tension, and I think this idea of being a welcoming institution is… I learned a lot of that from RRC, and from my time being associated with the Reconstructionist movement.
18:54 HR: Great. Well, thank you so much for participating in this conversation today, Rabbi Shira. It was so great to have you, and we invite our listeners to explore other podcasts and essays at www.jewishrecon.org. Please join the conversation by commenting on the essays on the website. Follow us on Twitter and tweet at us @RRCcommunity, and like our Facebook page, RRC/Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and we will see you next time.