Sha’ar links communities
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Sha’ar links communities

People enter Jewish life through different pathways, says Rabbi Adina Lewittes, founder, executive director, and religious leader of Sha’ar Communities.

Sha’ar, which “has evolved organically over the last six to seven years,” offers people a chance to connect while choosing that pathway into Jewish life best suited to them, she told The Jewish Standard.

With “diverse opportunities for engagement in Jewish tradition” – including worship services, study sessions, a travel component, and a b’nai mitzvah program – Sha’ar is as much a concept as it is a collection of independent, yet interrelated, groups.

For example, she said, “We have a worship community, but 90 percent of those in our Tuesday study program won’t be found in the sanctuary on Saturday morning.”

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Rabbi Adina Lewittes

“We’re connected by a broad vision of Jewish renaissance,” said Lewittes, noting that members of each group “belong to the larger institution but participate in one or more piece, finding their own way to affirm the connections they want to make.”

The rabbi noted that Sha’ar is unaffiliated with any one movement, “attracting both those who have experienced belonging to other synagogues and others for whom this is their first formal affiliation.”

In addition, she said, “We want to provide access for those who have been standing too long at the margins of the community – the intermarried, for example, and members of the LGBT community.”

The group is always on the lookout for new cohorts, said Lewittes, adding that “we continue to find new communities to try to build.” The rabbi said she has a particular interest in building teen communities and is “trying to build a gateway revolving around tikkun olam for those for whom it is the heart and soul of their Jewish connection.”

“It’s a boutique or à la carte kind of Jewish community-building,” said Lewittes, who realized after years of working in the larger Jewish community that there was “a need to create multiple pathways for people to create Jewish lives – not just multiple doorways but multiple forms of communities that acknowledge and affirm the diversity of engagement.”

Lewittes said she has seen similar models succeed in places like the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, where “boutique kinds of Jewish organizations appeal to specific kinds of involvement” such as environmental activism or adolescent spirituality. Up until now, she said, they have been “ultra-urban. I haven’t seen it in suburbia. We’re one of the first to bring this model to Jewish communities in suburbia. It’s much more challenging.”

According to Lewittes, recent Jewish population studies demonstrate that people are seeking alternatives to large institutions while also looking for more involvement in the content of their Jewish lives. In addition, she said, they want more flexible forms of membership, including more financial flexibility.

“Sha’ar essentially offers fee for service,” said Lewittes. Those who attend Shabbat services, which meet twice a month in people’s homes, are asked for an annual contribution to sustain the group, while those who engage in study pay tuition toward their classes. Similarly, participants in Sha’ar’s travel programs pay for their trips, while the b’nai mitzvah program has its own fee structure.

Sha’ar offers two beit midrash classes, serving about 25 people. Worship services generally draw between 12 and 25 people, while the group’s b’nai mitzvah program is now in its “fourth iteration,” with previous sessions attracting up to 17 youngsters each year. Travel programs generally have included 10 participants, but for this year’s trip, to Argentina, Sha’ar is hoping to draw 20 travelers.

Members of the various cohorts have come from Fort Lee, Demarest, Teaneck, Closter, and Tenafly, as well as other towns in Bergen County, although the trips have included people from New York City.

Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and having worked for years in traditional Jewish venues, Lewittes said she became increasingly convinced that a model of Jewish engagement could be created that is responsive to changing patterns in Jewish affiliation.

“Modeled in this way, we often find that people who belong elsewhere participate in some of our communities as well. They attend classes, or send their children to our b’nai mitzvah program. For others, this is their home: It’s accessible, open-minded, and open-hearted in a way that is new to them.”

“We take very seriously the idea of spiritual growth, wrestling with tradition, and we invite a lot of discussion in each of these settings,” she said, noting the importance and challenge of “maintaining Jewish relevance in a changing world.”

She cited as an example Sha’ar’s b’nai mitzvah program, The Mosaic of the Mitzvot, “which has nothing to do with the big day but everything to do with rest of your life as a responsible Jew in the world and in the community.”

The program, she said “seeks to explore with the kids the various dimensions of living purposefully and responsibly as a Jew,” focusing not just on learning the commandments between “us and God and between us and our fellow human beings,” but also exploring in more depth our relationships to the community, to the environment, and to those who are different.

“We provide kids with hands-on interactive experiential learning about those dimensions,” she said, adding that the next six-session series will begin on Dec. 20.

Among other activities, students will receive a guided tour of the Jewish Museum’s Jewish identity and culture exhibit, meet with a sofer/scribe to learn about the mitzvah of tefillin and the role of sacred stories, spend time mentoring special-needs children, and visit an organic, free-range dairy farm.

“We’ll also be teaching about living in a multicultural world,” said Lewittes, adding that the final segment of the program “will underscore the centrality of Israel.”

“We encourage parents to be involved and come to sessions with us,” said the rabbi, explaining that the program focuses on “the unfolding of the child’s sense of his or her place in the world” while finding ways in which parents and children can learn together.

This year’s Sha’ar trip will be to Argentina, “seeing it through Jewish eyes.” The tour, March 9 to 18, “is built on an itinerary including daily learning in combination with meeting people on the ground who are involved in the Jewish community,” said Lewittes. “They’re very excited that we’re coming.” Sha’ar’s previous two trips were to Israel.

“This trip is an attempt to see how culture and arts in South America have influenced the experience and practice of Judaism,” she said, noting that Argentina has one of the largest diaspora Jewish communities. An information session for the trip will take place on Sunday, Dec. 6. The meeting, said Lewittes, “will set the tone and create context.”

For further information about Sha’ar programs, call Andy Arenson, program director, at (917) 412-2639 or email andy@shaarcommunities.org.

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