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With Training and Funding From RRC, Reconstructionist Rabbis and Rabbinical Students Engage Those Seeking Connection and Meaning

For Tiffany Silliman Cohen, free time is a rare and precious commodity.

Why? First, there are the demands and joys of parenthood. She and her wife, Rachel, are the parents of a 4-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter. Then, there was the move: About a year ago, the family relocated from Providence, R.I., to Philadelphia, near the University of Pennsylvania, and is still acclimating to their new community. And the whole “earning a living” thing? Silliman Cohen is busy building her pediatric massage-therapy practice. On top of that, the self-described spiritual seeker and member of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation in West Philadelphia, is preparing for her conversion to Judaism.

So, she figures that if she is going to carve out an hour to do something for herself — and hand off the kids to Rachel — then it better be something that’s meaningful and truly nourishes her soul.

That something turns out to be a weekly, 7 a.m. arts beit midrash led by Rabbi Rebecca Richman, a 2019 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Art student with Rabbi Rebecca Richman painting in center, student artwork hanging in background

Rabbi Rebecca Richman hosts an arts beit midrash. Photo courtesy of Jewish Studio Project

The regular get-together in Richman’s West Philadelphia home, funded with a grant from Reconstructing Judaism, combines Jewish text study, chanting of nigunim (wordless melodies) and the opportunity to express ideas from Torah study by creating visual art. It’s mixing a pre-modern staple of Jewish life — text study in groups or pairs — with a contemporary creative endeavor that may appear secular but is rooted in Jewish texts. Richman has adapted the model from the Jewish Studio Project, a California-based organization, which blends “creative practices from the field of art therapy with learning approach from the beit midrash (house of inquiry).” As a Jewish Studio Project fellow, Richman has been trained to facilitate the Jewish Studio Process.

Through the West Philadelphia gatherings, Silliman Cohen has found a creative outlet, an intimate community and an engaging way to increase her Jewish knowledge.

“In this space, I feel very connected and grounded,” said Silliman Cohen. “This kind of space for connection is rare and vital.”

Supporting and Funding Innovation

The arts beit midrash is among the many personal, unconventional Jewish experiences being made possible by Reconstructing Judaism and its affiliated communities. By employing the tactics of social entrepreneurship, Reconstructionists across the movement are gaining an even deeper understanding of people’s spiritual and communal needs.

Reconstructing Judaism’s championing of social entrepreneurship stems from the movement’s long-held view of Judaism as a civilization that is constantly evolving. It’s driven by a commitment to meet people where they are, as well as recognition that Judaism and the Jewish experience is not one-size-fits-all. It also stems from trends encapsulated in the much-cited 2015 “How We Gather” report, a collaboration between the Harvard Divinity School in Massachusetts and the Fetzer Institute in Michigan. The study found that many people — largely, but not exclusively millennials — are eschewing traditional religious affiliation. Instead, the report states, they are “flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.”

Artist peeling back print from backing

Artwork takes form at arts beit midrash in Philadelphia

At the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, students are required to take a course in entrepreneurism, the thinking being that it is an essential mindset and set of the skills for the 21st-century rabbinate. Additionally, the Auerbach Entrepreneurial Grant Program offers students and recent graduates the funding, supervision and mentorship to practice social entrepreneurship and turn ideas into reality.

“For me, the big story is that Jews remain seekers of meaning and community. What our Auerbach grants do is create new portals for Jewish community and meaning,” said Cyd Weissman, Reconstructing Judaism’s vice president for Innovation and Impact.

Recipients gain experience in developing budgets, raising funds, marketing plans and creating timelines. Grant recipients also explore such questions as how to find and connect with spiritual seekers in an era when people are more apt to gather online than show up to something in person.

The Auerbach program is the brainchild of Rabbi David Kominsky, a member of Reconstructing Judaism’s board of governors and a 2004 RRC graduate who currently leads Temple Beth Israel, a Reform-affiliated congregation in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Kominsky’s great-grandmother, Beatrice Fox Auerbach, had, during her lifetime, bequeathed funds to bolster Jewish life. Several years ago, Kominsky decided that some of those funds should seed new programs at RRC because he believes that RRC students and recent grads are well-positioned to explore new models of Jewish community and experience.

“While I saw this as a win for the college as for providing additional training for rabbis, my bigger goal has been about seeding these projects and seeing what happens, seeing whether students come up with something that is replicable, and that works outside of New York and L.A.,” said Kominsky. “The Auerbach grant is devised as an experiment — a different way of creating and convening Jewish community.”

Rabbi David Kominsky

Rabbi David Kominsky

Kominsky said his goal is to encourage new expressions of Jewish community, but not to prescribe what forms they take. He did stipulate that the projects serve those outside of New York City and Los Angeles, two centers of Jewish population and creativity. He hopes to see projects succeed where there is less of a critical mass and also seeks to inspire others to financially support RRC’s entrepreneurial programs.

“Part of what an entrepreneurial rabbinate is about is looking where the market is, where the need is,” he continued. “It is not accidental that many of our grant recipients saw the need in a group of spiritual seekers. That is not a bad read for a potential growth market for Judaism.”

At a time when the religious landscape is shifting, each new venture adds to the collective body of knowledge.

(To learn more about how Reconstructing Judaism supports innovation in affiliated communities, read about the Aviv Loan Fund or the Reconstructing Shark Tank program spotlighted at our 2018 Convention.)

Jewish Study as a Spiritual Practice and Engagement Tool

In 2018, Richman received a $20,000 Auerbach grant to launch her beit midrash project, of which the arts group was just a one part.

Richman’s project is of a movement — exemplified by organizations such as SVARA and Hadar — that seek to make Jewish text study more accessible. These organizations are reimagining the traditional beit midrash as a contemporary means of spiritual fulfillment for those with the fullest range of Hebrew and Judaic knowledge, valuing life experience and spirituality as real wisdom.

The beit midrash, said Richman, is a “space where we develop real listening skills, build deep relationships, claim our place in our tradition and get to unlock our creative potential. We need spaces to explore our own questions, to be in our own spiritual processes, and it’s amazing to do that personal work alongside other people. It’s a space that is at once generative, energetic and incredibly peaceful.”

For Silliman Cohen, Richman’s engaging, welcoming approach is a big part of why she’s connected to the beit midrash model.

“Bec is profoundly good at making things feel very welcoming and accessible,” she said. “I feel very connected and grounded, and that has made me very committed.”

While the arts beit midrash is based in Richman’s West Philadelphia residence, most of the other gatherings take place across town in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, which is home to thousands of Jews in a relatively dense, walkable neighborhood. Many of the programs are based at Germantown Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue that’s home to a Reconstructionist minyan, Dorshei Derekh. The hope is that the beit midrash programs would appeal to members of the congregation, including those considered under-engaged, as well as people with little to no connection to organized life.

The idea has shown enough promise that Germantown Jewish Centre hired Richman to be its assistant rabbi, and to officially found and direct Koleinu Beit Midrash, which will be housed at the congregation but also open to non-members. (An arts beit midrash will be part of this program.)

Richman has joined a growing number of entrepreneurs in the religious space by, in effect, creating her own job.

Rabbi Adam Zeff, a 2007 Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate and Germantown’s senior rabbi, said the congregation has long been looking for ways to boost engagement among members and non-members alike, and saw real potential in the beit midrash model.

“The idea of reconnecting with our ancient textual tradition has become more exciting for people, and it is exciting for us to pilot different ways of doing that,” said Zeff. “Walking into a service can be intimidating. Walking into learning … that has great potential of drawing in people who are not connected to the Jewish community.”

Let’s Talk About God

While Richman is working to introduce, or in some cases, reacquaint Jews with Jewish learning, RRC student Sarah Brammer-Shlay is hoping to foster conversations about a seemingly taboo topic: God. Brammer-Shlay received an Auerbach grant to explore her hypothesis that young Jews are clamoring to talk about the Divine in a way that is personal and relevant to their lives.

“I think a lot of people have experiences that they might label as ‘Divine,’ but don’t necessarily have a place to talk about that,” she said.

sarah brammer shlay headshot square

Sarah Brammer-Shlay

“Often, you hear in liberal Jewish spaces that Jews aren’t interested in talking about God, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Brammer-Shlay. “I think people are having these experiences, but they are just turning into very individualized experiences they are not often sharing with others. We want to think of ourselves as rational people. Sometimes, when we think about God, it doesn’t feel rational. You don’t need to feel perfectly articulate; you don’t need to feel rational.”

Through her personal network, word-of-mouth and social media, Brammer-Shlay held hour-long conversations with 29 young people, and convened them for two group conversations in Chicago and Washington, D.C. These conversations confirmed her hypothesis that there is a void for conversations about divinity and God.

“When you frame the conversation around divinity/God in a way that is rooted in people’s personal experiences, it challenges the notion that discussing God is a theoretical or abstract concept. This allows people to expand their ideas of what God means to them,” she wrote in her grant report.

Brammer-Shlay has been awarded a $10,000 grant to expand the project’s scope.

Seeking Meaning and Connection

Some grant recipients, like Richman and Rabbi Shelly Bar Nathan, RRC ’15, spiritual leader of Or Zarua, turned their Auerbach Grant projects into fulltime endeavors. On the other hand, Rabbi Ariana Katz, RRC ’18, utilized the entrepreneurial skills developed through her grant experience to launch something independently.

While still a student, she received an Auerbach grant to launch and grow Kaddish, a Jewish podcast about death and dying. In recording nine episodes devoted to death, dying and mourning, Katz built an online community, personally connected with dozens of listeners and advanced the conversation on an important but often-avoided topic. Now, she is the spiritual leader of Hinenu: Baltimore Justice Stiebel, an emergent community of some 125 people, who “study, pray, organize and care for one another. We’re building a synagogue-meets-community center meets beit midrash meets workers’ co-op.”

Many of the members are millennials, though it is a multigenerational community, said Katz. Most of the members identify as activists. Many hold progressive views vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine and felt excluded from more established Jewish communities.

Hearing about an underserved, activist Jewish community, Katz sent out a few text messages asking in 2017 if people were interested in meeting a different kind of rabbi. Before long, she was traveling to Baltimore weekly, holding back-to-back meetings with interested people. Eventually, a larger group convened for marathon sessions, laying out the values and founding principles of a new, unaffiliated congregation. (Stiebel is a Yiddish term for “little house,” and as its website describes, denotes an “an intimate, cozy space where prayer and study meet.”)

“Hinenu has formed out of the desperate need for the shelter that one can offer another,” wrote Katz in a piece for Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations. “Most of all, I see Hinenu as a place we can nourish the neshamot (souls) of organizers so that they can go back out into the world and continue doing their work.”

Rabbi Emily Cohen, RRC ’18, also gained social entrepreneurial experience by creating a podcast. As a rabbinical student, she received a modest grant to produce Jew Too? Tales of the Mixed Multitude, about the growing diversity in American Jewish family life. Now, as resident rabbi for Lab/Shul, she works for an organization in which experimentation and innovation are part of the name and DNA. Lab/Shul describes itself as an “everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.”

Rabbi Emily Cohen sitting crosslegged on floor with group of servicegoers

Rabbi Emily Cohen leads Lab/Shul services.

Cohen is part of a team that experiments both with how to connect with spiritual seekers and how to engage those who may not even know they are in search of meaning or community.

“There is a lot of conversation about how people are coming to seek connection,” she said.

Citing a personal example, Cohen mentioned that her father is not typically a synagogue-goer. Last year, he watched the live stream of Lab/Shul’s High Holiday services and was genuinely moved, she related (and not only by the parts that his daughter appeared in).

“My time at RRC taught me to see a world where Jewish innovation and where pushing the boundaries was part and parcel of living an engaged Jewish life,” stated Cohen.

“Lab/Shul itself is a very entrepreneurial place,” she continued. “Part of the reason I was able to get that position is because of my entrepreneurial experience that was afforded to me through the Auerbach grant. Being able to start a podcast from scratch — not having had experience in the podcasting world — was something that Auerbach allowed me to do. The grant simultaneously gave me funding to purchase some of the things that made it easier for me and also held me accountable. If I hadn’t had that, it might have just remained an idea in the back of my head that never came to fruition.”

The Reconstructionist Network

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Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network