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The Power of Gathering

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In the last several weeks, two experiences, both of them ongoing, have made clear to me the power and persistency of “gathering” as a lynchpin of building and sustaining a spiritual community within the Reconstructionist movement. By “gathering,” I mean physically gathering — being together at the same time, in the same place, for one another and with one another.

To some extent, “gathering” these days may seem a countercultural idea, but it’s certainly not a new one. The concept of minyan — that there is no public prayer without a gathering of at least 10 Jews — is at least as old as the Babylonian Talmud. The writers of the Talmud believed that, when 10 or more gather for prayer or study, the Shekinah (“spirit of God”) dwells among them.

We, on the other hand, seem to devote a lot of our efforts, time and technology to creating community without physical gathering. We maintain Facebook “friendships” (of a sort), and share our ideas and personal tidbits (and for some reason I don’t understand, pictures of what we are eating) on social media. We text — sometimes across vast distances and sometimes even from across the room. We hold meetings online through technologies that enable us to “sit around the table” without actually sitting around a table (or even changing out of our pajamas). We study together through virtual learning networks and share spiritual practices through Ritualwell.

All of these are important and valuable, and aren’t going away; in fact, they will play a large part in shaping our future. They enable us to overcome barriers to the creation of community, including time, distance, physical disability and financial impediments to travel, in ways that were unimaginable even in my adult lifetime. 

Yet it seems to me that the physical presence of others engaged with us in contemplation, study, celebration, mourning or spiritually meaningful work is a powerful and essential magnet. As we continue to develop new ways to build community across time and distance, we must also continue to find ways to “be there” for one another that even the Babylonian Talmudists would recognize.  

 So, what are these two experiences?

In early July, I visited Havaya Arts, our new summer camp in Redlands, Calif. My experience was not that different from my prior visit to Camp Havaya in the Pocono Mountains.  

Both camps have a “no screen” policy for the duration of their time there (two-week sessions in California and up to seven weeks for full-summer campers in the Poconos). As such, campers are not allowed access to devices with screens: no phones, no computers, no video games, no streaming and no TVs. To my surprise, the pre-teen and teenage campers (who for 10 or 11 months of the year are probably unrecognizable without a phone in their hands) seem to love this. They certainly relish their time at camp and build a community of friends over a few short weeks that will likely endure for years. 

While I was at Havaya Arts, I asked our camp director Reuben Posner whether the first session of the summer, which had just ended, had managed to build a camp-like sense of community in just two weeks. He said, “Well, they all cried the night before they went home [apparently, the gold standard of camping], and we didn’t even have to play the Green Day song.”

These kids, who were mostly strangers to one another two weeks beforehand, built a close community by being with and focusing on one another for a mere 14 days, all while keeping technological distractions to a minimum.

Havaya Arts is devoted to camper-created art — more precisely, to immersing campers in the process of creating their own art — in four disciplines: music, dance, theater and visual arts. As someone else said the day I visited, “We are teaching creativity.” More than that, we are teaching creative collaboration. We provide an environment with skilled teaching artists that enable campers to do their own creative work as part of a community of artists doing the same — learning from and with one another in a way that creates true and lasting community.  

The second experience is seeing the response to our upcoming Reconstructionist convention, which will be held from Nov. 15-18 in Philadelphia. This is the first gathering of the entire Reconstructionist movement since the last JRF convention back in 2010. I confess that when we first scheduled the convention (and until fairly recently), I was nervous about whether we would succeed — whether, after eight years, we would attract enough attendees for the convention to be a vibrant, energizing (and maybe even transformative) moment for Reconstructing Judaism. As Reconstructionists are notorious for signing up at the last minute, I expected my anxiety to last well into the fall. 

As I write this on Aug. 1, three-and-a-half months before the convention begins, 437 people from 67 different Reconstructionist synagogues and havurot across North America (and in Europe) have already registered for all or part of the convention — the vast majority of those for the full convention. This is before we have posted a complete description of the programming online. It has become clear that our ultimate attendance numbers will meet any definition of success that we envisioned when we began to plan. 

What does this mean? One interpretation is that convention meets a fundamental need of people who want to feel part of a movement to gather. More than 400 people have registered without even knowing exactly what they are gathering to do. Perhaps we all feel that gathering enables us to experience something akin to the Shekinah — a sense of moral, spiritual and intellectual community that we cannot experience by Zooming into meetings in our pajamas or posting pictures of our desserts on social media.

As we think long-term about building the Reconstructionist community across North America and beyond, we must bear in mind that — taking advantage of technology to overcome the limits of time and space, physical ability and finances — we must also find ways to meet this fundamental need to gather and share experiences of spiritual, moral and intellectual importance.

How do we do this?

By continuing to support our existing communities — our affiliated congregations and havurot as they work to build community for their members and beyond. We must train rabbis and other innovative spiritual leaders for those communities. We must also continue, through our innovation grants and intellectual energy, to nurture emerging expressions of Jewish community that may not look like traditional synagogues, but that speak to this essential need.

We must bear in mind that some of our existing opportunities to gather — in particular, summer camp and convention — have barriers to participation. The principal one is finances. Although we do all that we can to provide scholarships, summer camp is expensive, and not every family can afford to send their children. Similarly, we must recognize that not everyone can attend convention either. In addition to the cost of registration (which we mitigate to the extent we can through a scholarship program), there is the cost of travel, of staying in Philadelphia (though some home hospitality is available) and, in some cases, of taking off from work. Not everyone can do that.

So, as we move forward, we must think about how to create opportunities for gathering, especially for our children, teenagers and young adults, that are truly inclusive and structured in a manner consistent with the best Reconstructionist values. It is not obvious what those ways will be; they will clearly include regional gatherings (like days of learning, which we have already begun) and Shabbatons (which have also been held with some success). We will have to be creative, and those of us who are financially able will need to be generous in providing the resources that will enable others to share in these opportunities.

This is not a generational issue. I think the camp experience makes that clear. Leading scholars who are studying and working with the millennial generation, including Rabbi Sid Schwarz (currently, a senior fellow at Hazon) and Angie Thurston and Casper Ter Kuile (of the Harvard Divinity School) have described their experiences with young communities — built both outside and sometimes within traditional synagogues and churches — that address this basic need to gather. In their monograph “On Gathering,” Casper and Angie write: “[w]hen they say they are not looking for a faith community, millennials might mean they are not interested in belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold. However, they are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and they feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it. … As traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency. And in some cases, they are creating what they don’t find.”

As we find new ways and nurture existing ways to create Jewish community, we cannot forget the imperative to meet the need to gather — in real time, face to face and person to person — for ourselves and for our children.

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