One vision, many gates

One vision, many gates

Entry points to experiencing life Jewishly through Sha'ar

In the Gate of Discovery, exploring close to home in Harlem. PHOTOS BY SHA’AR COMMUNITIES

To say that Sha’ar Communities is not a regular shul is not to overstate or embroider, but to make a simple statement of fact.

Were someone to come to it cold, the name would make that clear. Sha’ar is singular – it means gate in Hebrew – and Communities, of course, is plural. It’s an odd construction.

It doesn’t have Congregation or Kehillah or Temple in its name.

And it doesn’t even have a town. It’s not of or in anyplace in particular, just Bergen County in general.

So, then, what is Sha’ar Communities?

It is a Jewish community into which there are many gates; a community for which each gate – and certainly the concept of the gate – arguably is more important than the center.

Sha’ar Communities was born out of the understanding of its founding rabbi, Adina Lewittes, that despite a decades-long trend of “people leaving synagogues, seemingly disaffected from traditional Jewish institutions and from what look like traditional Jewish lives, we prefer to look at the deep hunger that we know is there – and that has been substantiated by social scientists – for meaning, for connection, for a sense of spiritual depth.

“There are a lot of people who stand on the margins of the Jewish world. They’re given the message that the only – or at any rate the main – in is through the main doors into the sanctuary. Whatever else you’re looking for, you’ll find it after you’ve made your way into the traditional synagogue,” she said.

“What Sha’ar has done is created many varied portals into Jewish life.”

Rabbi Adina Lewittes, the force behind Sha’ar Communities. Brynn Levy

There are six gates, Lewittes said; the gates of prayer, the most traditionally syngagogue-like gate; study, another deeply traditional Jewish approach to the world; discovery, which involves travel; tomorrow, with its innovative programming for teenagers; repair, or tikkun olam, the Jewish urge toward social activism for social justice; and wholeness and healing, which “offers creative Jewish ritual and spiritual fellowship” to people in mourning, suffering illness, or who find themselves to be in other disturbing transitional periods.

“For some people, one of these Jewish communities has become their Jewish lives,” Lewittes said. “Others might have their feet in two or three of them.”

Each has its own fee structure, its own internal logic, its own assumptions, and its own community.

Sha’ar Communities’ logo shows the organization’s unconventional structure. It is a picture of six buildings, connected like row houses, each a different bright color, and each a different height and width, linked by the word Sha’ar. They are styled to signal that they are in Jerusalem. Although Israel does not have its own gate at Sha’ar, it is an integral part of each of them. They could connect in one central yard in the back – or they could not.

Lewittes, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary 20 years ago, pauses reflectively when she is asked how it feels to be at the center of these communities. “Exhausting!” she said.

“I think the most interesting, challenging, provocative, perhaps even threatening nature of what it feels like comes from being in a position to really push yourself to acknowledge and validate where people are,” she said, “to meet people on their own terms.

“Those are phrases that often get used by people in the rabbinate as outreach strategies, but I mean it in a really profound way,” she continued, “in the sense that there are those who are willing to go out to meet people where they are, to bring them on a journey that has a very clear destination.

“What I mean is the very challenging and on some level controversial approach of acknowledging that some people might not be on the first step of an itinerary that I’ve created.”

Instead, they may be happy where they are. “In that case, my role becomes one of inspiring, teaching, sharing, validating, and sanctifying in order to strengthen the commitment that they have and to make it more abiding,” she said.

Lewittes was born into an Orthodox family in Montreal. The story of her own rabbinate is a tale of searching, exploring, and eventually finding. When she was ordained, “I thought that my job was to try to bring people toward the model of the fullness of Jewish life that I was leading,” she said; “that I was meant to inspire people to embrace my Jewish life.

“I have learned to broaden and deepen my understanding of my own mission as a rabbi to try to help people strengthen and deepen their own Jewish lives.”

There are many ways to live authentic Jewish lives, she continued; her job is not just to look at them, but to see them. “Some of my most difficult challenges, personally and professionally, have been to really stretch myself in order to be a voice of acknowledgement and validation, even as I try to motivate and inspire from within the parameters of Jewish life that the individuals and families I have met delineate for themselves.

“Religious observance, ritual practice, halachah – those are compelling frameworks for many people to live their Jewish lives. They remain compelling for me. But they simply are not and will not be the frameworks in which many or most people are seeking to find Jewish meaning and Jewish connection.

“The measure of success is how many people I have succeeded in helping cultivate within themselves a deeper and richer sense of themselves as Jews, and of their relationship to Jewish tradition, Jewish commitment, and Jewish peoplehood,” she said. “The measure of success is not how many people I have turned into me.”

And in that, her goal is deeply Jewish, echoing the talmudic story of Reb Zusya, a good man, who wept on his deathbed not because he was not as good as Moshe or Abraham, but because he feared he had fallen short of being the best possible Zusya.

“I have learned so much from the people whose lives I have been given the privilege of entering,” Lewittes said. “It has been humbling. It has broadened my understanding of myself as a spiritual leader. It has pushed the envelope on definition of pluralism in a good way, even though it is often in a way that has made me think long and hard about how I can best make the impact that I feel responsible and called to make.”

Lisa Harris Glass, the director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, has studied the flagging fortunes of many synagogues and the movements to which they belong. She has drawn conclusions about the problems they face, and therefore is enthusiastic about the Sha’ar Communities model.

“I think that a key to the engagement here is that meaningful, authentic Jewish engagement is defined by the seeker, without judgment by the institution,” she said.

Dr. Paul Mendelowitz of Park Ridge first encountered Sha’ar Communities through the gate of prayer. It was the high holy days about four years ago. “Within 10 minutes, I was hooked,” he said.

“At services, I’m looking for the experience of a direct connection,” he said. “I know it’s a tall order, but I want to feel God in this room. I have to be honest – in most synagogues it’s been kind of a sterile experience.

“Before I attended Sha’ar, I was going to Chabad in Tenafly. There’s an intensity in the davening there, in the kavanah” – the intention – “but I’m not Orthodox. That kind of service left me a little bit disconnected, but I did my own thing in the midst of the intensity.”

At Sha’ar, Lewittes’s sermons “weren’t like being lectured at by some brilliant professor – it was being lectured at by some brilliant professor who is also tugging at your heartstrings. It was the combination of the direct experience and the feeding of my brain that made it happen for me.”

It was his desire for brainfood that led Mendelowitz to the second gate, study. He cannot go to the twice-weekly classes that Lewittes offers on weekday mornings, but “I go to something she does in her home on a monthly basis, around her dining room table.

“It kind of seamlessly blends periods of prayer with periods of discussion. The discussion is not necessarily led by Dini, but if someone has a pressing thought or issue, or read a book, they can bring it to the table.

“The conversations are deeply felt, and they are smart. It’s a great group, because of the openness. People are sharing some deep personal stuff, and it’s a safe space.

“My circle of friends tends not to be an observant circle, but it identifies strongly as Jewish,” he continued. “Community is very important to us. We are seekers. We’re seeking a way to connect with the community in ways that are comfortable. That can be tough sometimes.

“I think the basic premise that Dini offers with the gates is that you’re a Jew, and your Judaism is important to you. You want to find a way to manifest it in your life, so here are a bunch of opportunities that are somewhat untraditional.

“For those of us who like brain power, it’s very attractive. I must have read 20 books that Dini recommended. Her obvious personal passion during davening is transformative, and she shares very openly her personal struggles with faith and belief, so all of a sudden you realize that we’re all in this together.”

Jodi Corn of Harrington Park is the mother of a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old. Her entry to Sha’ar also has been through the gate of prayer. “The energy is great,” she said. “It feels very honest.

“It’s not about dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s,” she said. “It’s about feeling your Judaism, about how it relates to you and your life, and about putting Judaism into practice. It’s about becoming a better person, together with other people. It brings Judaism to life and makes it applicable to every day.”

Ezra Oliff-Lieberman of Demarest and Nina Leifer of Wyckoff, both high school students, are members of the Gate of Tomorrow. They both have participated in the first year of Teens 2.0, which, Lewittes says, “hits the refresh button on teen Jewish identity.” The program “meets once a month,” Oliff-Lieberman said. “We have met prominent Jewish people in our community, who have taught us about their own fields, and how their Jewish values help them.” A question-and-answer period follows each presentation.

Oliff-Lieberman, 17, is a junior at Demarest High School; his family belongs to Temple Beth-El of Northern Valley in Closter. “The first person we met was Jack Antonoff of [the Grammy-winning musical group] Fun,” he said. As a child, Antonoff had been a student at the Solomon Schechter school in New Milford. “He told us the cool stuff about being in Fun, and then he talked about his Jewish upbringing. He said it has influenced him in terms of social action.

“He also talked about traveling around the world with the band, and how a lot of the time he is the first Jew people have met. He feels like an ambassador for the Jewish community and that he has to portray the community in a good light.”

Teens 2.0 also talked to Linda Scherzer, who lives in Bergen County and was a CNN Middle East correspondent. “She talked about working in Israel, and how things are perceived differently in different parts of the world,” Oliff-Lieberman said. “She talked about the power of perspective. That was fascinating.”

He values the pluralism of the teenagers in the Gate of Tomorrow. “The kids are from a lot of different places,” he said. “I go to public school, and many of them have gone to day schools their entire lives. Some are extremely religious, and some are high-holiday-only type people. I like the difference in perspective we get from that.”

Nina Leifer, a student at the Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, began her association with Sha’ar this year. “I had gone to the Gerrard Berman Day School, and then I changed over to a secular school, so I was missing some involvement in the Jewish community,” she said. So when a friend introduced her to Sha’ar, both she and her parents thought trying it would be a good idea.

“The program looked like an innovative way to explore ways to be Jewish, and the impact being Jewish has on one’s life,” she said. “And I also thought it would be a good opportunity to meet other teens.”

She was particularly stimulated by a Teens 2.0 meeting with Dr. Brynn Levy, a geneticist at Columbia University, who talked to them about genetic testing on embryos, and genetic disorders.

“It sparked an active debate on abortion and the sanctity of life,” she said. “We all shared our opinions on the issue, and then Rabbi Dini shared the Jewish perspective. It was interesting to form our own opinions and then hear about Jewish law and tradition.

“Dr. Levy worked in countries that don’t like Jews, so we also discussed whether he should treat people there who ask him for help. That was an even bigger question than abortion, because some people thought he shouldn’t help those who don’t like us, and others felt that if they are asking for our help, they have set aside their prejudices, and that means we should, too.”

Leifer will be joining Sha’ar’s board later this month, as one of two teenage members. “They wanted teen representatives so we could give our ideas of how to get more teens involved and active in more aspects of Jewish life,” she said.

Lisa Kasdan of Englewood Cliffs, an attorney, singer, and voice teacher, a Gate of Prayer stalwart, has become Sha’ar’s “unofficial official” cantor. “The music is what drew me to Sha’ar,” she said. “It’s a music-filled service, that becomes even more spiritual because of the music.”

The community uses musical instruments. “We’ve had a guitarist, now we have a piano player, and we will have an even more musical Shabbat,” she said; it will include horns and percussion, as well as piano.

On Friday, June 14, the community will have a long, song- and spirit-filled Shabbat evening together at the Palisades Community Center on Oak Tree Road in Palisades, N.Y., right over the state line. The evening will include davening, singing, dinner, more singing, learning, and even more music. “We want to bring a true Shabbat experience to our community,” Kasdan said.

To celebrate the community, this week Sha’ar presented a gala evening at the Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. The evening – which was expected to take place after this newspaper goes to print but before it hits readers’ mailboxes – was expected to draw about 200 people to the trendy gallery, where, among other attractions, they were to be entertained by Rosie O’Donnell and Kasdan’s cover band, Double Deuce; cocktails, food for grazing, art to look at, dancing, and an auction also were on the agenda.

In its mixture of the conventional and the unconventional, the old and the new, the many ways to enter the spirit of the gala, the evening promised to be quintessential Sha’ar, joined for the evening within a seventh gate – the gate of a united community.

The Sha’ar logo features six buildings, different but connected, in a style that evokes Jerusalem.
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