Last month, I attended a concert in honor of the yahrzeit of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. Set to perform was HaOrot featuring Greg Wall’s Later Prophets, a spoken word jazz ensemble set to the poetry of Rav Kook, and headlining the show were the Solomon Brothers, three brothers who grew up on the Carlebach Moshav and often play Carlebach tunes (two of their other brothers are the founders of the Moshav Band and Soulfarm). The show was not in some big concert venue however; it was hosted in Mike’s Place in Jerusalem, affectionately referred to as the “American Bar.”
I walk in early with a friend to make sure we get a good table, and I immediately realize why they call it the “American Bar.” The waitress walks up to us, and starts talking to us in English, clearly American born. It turns out all of the wait staff and bartenders speak perfect English.
As the time for the concert nears, the basement starts to fill up, people of all backgrounds filing in. There are black-hatters, yeshiva bochers, and secular Jews, all sitting eagerly next to each other. Late, as is the Israeli way, the concert starts. The jazz ensemble is terrific, and these Jews of all sorts begin to feel the music, appreciating the poetry of Rav Kook set in both its original Hebrew and English. The place is packed by the time the Solomon Brothers come on. The Solomon Brothers are primarily a folk band featuring an incredible mandolin, and this night they played songs ranging from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to Mumford and Sons, from Bob Marley to Avicii.
It’s an amazing energy, an amazing scene. I’m sitting in the heart of Jerusalem, in the “American Bar,” surrounded by all sorts of Jews in a kosher establishment, dancing and singing together at the top of our lungs to Jewish music. I’ve been to bars in America where everyone is jamming out to country music, but never have I had a Jewish experience quite like this.
In Israel, it’s not hard to feel Jewish. Walking down the street, you see the signs in Hebrew and hear Hebrew spoken between friends and family. In Jerusalem, you can walk into almost any restaurant and order anything off the menu, and most of the grocery stores only shelve kosher products. On more than one occasion I’ve been stopped to help make a minyan in a congregation. On Shabbat, you walk down the street, car-less, past parks full of families, religious and secular, playing with their children. Nobody is in a hurry. Here, you feel Jewish simply by being, not by any active process where you have to seek out Jewish life.
In the U.S,, the reality is very different, especially outside of the major centers of Judaism. In the U.S., Judaism is a much more individualized practice. If one wants a community-based practice, then he or she has to actively seek it out. Can we even hope to create this feeling of passive Judaism in our communities?
While it will never be Israel, there are definite steps we can take to build a Jewish lifestyle where Judaism is more than just a once-a-week practice. I’ve written in the past about the importance of reclaiming the Jewish home. In that article, I also talked about the importance of sending a child to Jewish summer camp and visiting Israel, where one actually lives and experiences a community where Judaism is the default, and all life is infused with this Jewish holiness. We can support local kosher food establishments, which can encourage more Kosher establishments in the area. We can also restructure our communities so that we live near other Jews. Even in suburbia, we can recreate the feeling on Shabbat afternoon of all the children playing out in the yard, the parents standing talking to each other, with nothing more important to do that just be in that moment.
The Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to both reaching out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, and helping the organized Jewish community better welcome them in, has created one such initiative aimed at reaching Jews wherever they are. Public Space Judaism occurs when synagogues or community centers reach out to Jews where they are, often in parks or public places, and engage the general population in activities that are often holiday-themed.
Rabbi Jeremy Fine, Associate Rabbi at the Temple of Aaron, is a big proponent of Public Space Judaism. He says Public Space Judaism has three main benefits. “The first is outreach to potential new unaffiliated families who might not have experienced our synagogue or the St. Paul Jewish community. Secondly, it can lower the barrier for our own members and potential members who might be afraid to walk into a physical synagogue building before knowing the community. Finally it is a great way to spread the positive messages of Judaism to the St. Paul community at large.”
While these goals are certainly important and serve to decrease barriers to Jewish practice, it’s unclear whether Public Space Judaism can be effective in communities where Jews are more spread out, such as in Minnesota. Rabbi Fine said that their first Public Space Judaism event, an oil tasting event on Hanukkah, was nice, but “had very little return that we could monitor.” He’s not giving up though. “We are going to be spending a good amount of this summer finding out the answer [as to whether Public Space Judaism can be effective] … by being at places we wouldn’t normally be.”
Even if Public Space Judaism isn’t a feasible model, there are a number of synagogues and institutions hosting events outside the confines of the Synagogue, attempting to break down the entry barrier. Events such as coffee shop classes and RavBall (basketball) at the Temple of Aaron, Young Adult leadership retreats and Torah on Tap through Beth El Young Adults, and Rabbi speaker panels through NextGen, all are attempting to do just that; and this is only a small sampling of the great outreach work being pioneered in the Twin Cities Jewish community. You don’t have to look any further than this website, TC Jewfolk, which is working toward reaching Jews where they are, engaging at whatever level is comfortable to the individual.
Unlike living in Israel, being Jewish in the United States takes work. Together, by supporting our community and investing in viable options to be, act, and feel Jewish outside of the Synagogue, we can capture some of the magic of living in Israel, of feeling comfortable and proud of our Judaism at all times, and begin to feel that Judaism can have a benefit in all aspects of our lives. While it may take some sacrifices, I believe the benefits of creating committed Jewish communities to be much greater.