In August of 2017, I was in a serious car accident. My fellow passengers’ injuries were not life-threatening, but they required medical attention. In the hospital emergency room, I found myself running from one room to another, supporting my friends as much as I could. It felt like there was wisdom and reassurance placed within me that I had done nothing to actually obtain. As I reflected on that moment, I thought, “Whoa, I’m pretty sure this is God.” God felt like unearned wisdom that somehow had been placed within me.
I thought to myself, “other people must also be having these experiences all the time but what space exists for us to discuss them?” That was the catalyst for beginning the God Café Project journey. It began with a series of 1-on-1 conversations and has morphed into workshops and cohort experiences. All rooted in asking the question: “What is a specific time in your life where you found yourself connecting to or grappling with God/divinity?” By rooting the discussion in experience rather than a belief, we allow people to expand the possibilities of what divinity means to them and allow participation for all.
God Café explores how Jews today are connecting with, exploring and wrapping their minds around divinity and what it means for each of us personally. The workshop will be interactive and allow lots of space for everyone to explore this issue for themselves. This is a space for ALL people – coming in with various backgrounds, beliefs and questions.
I believe that people have moments or periods throughout their lives that open their bodies and eyes up to aspects of divinity. Although Jewish texts are full of wisdom and guidance on this topic, it is not the only place that Jews can look when exploring their connection with divinity. Sometimes when we jump straight to formal theological writing or text, we lose the opportunity to ask ourselves this question first: When have I experienced moments of deep meaning?
I believe that all people have the natural authority to create and identify meaning in their lives. That is at the core of this work for me. In community organizing, we identify the individual’s deepest motivations. Similarly, with regard to our relationship with God, we must ask ourselves to identify our moments of deep meaning. This is not a simple task.
In these conversations with The God Café Project, many people express excitement about what the conversation revealed to them. Other people express envy towards those who can identify these moments of meaning. Many share that they themselves cannot identify those moments. They struggle to name these moments of Divine connection, although they yearn for them. Those comments of disappointment and envy make it even more apparent that we cannot avoid this conversation in the Jewish community. By allowing people to think that they are alone in their rocky and nonlinear search for meaning and Divine connection, we create a false narrative that God is simply a belief system.
Liberal Jewish communities do not require a belief in God to be a part of the community. That is undoubtedly a good thing. However, what is not a good thing is making God a “yes-or-no question.” When we assume that our relationship with God can be categorized in a binary matter, we devalue the importance of connection with others, with ourselves and with the mysteries of the world. When we avoid talking about moments when we have sensed an inexpressible mystery that is beyond us, we reinforce the predominant cultural assumption that either you believe in God or you don’t.
Reading the writing of a theologian — however brilliant and poetic — is often isolating for people who have never named or described their own sacred experiences. Even when they follow and appreciate the theologian’s reasoning, they may not know how it applies to their own life. They may conclude that they themselves are not part of the community of believers.
God Cafés reduce this isolation. When we share our stories and listen openheartedly to the stories of others, our personal experience intersects with the communal, and we are reminded that we are rarely alone in our experiences, whether they are spiritual, political or emotional. God Cafés are countercultural. Participants are encouraged to bring experiences to speech, even though they have had little or no practice talking about such things. In doing so, the silence of their spiritual isolation is shattered as they discover that it can be inspiring and transformative to share spiritual experiences that are difficult to express in words.
Sarah Brammer-Shlay is a Twin Cities native, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and a 4th-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She created The God Café Project with the goal of creating space for people to explore moments in their lives of Divine connection and grappling.