Silver linings. Silk purses. Sow’s ears. Yeah yeah yeah.
It’s hard to wring much good out of the ongoing nightmare of the pandemic and the economic cratering we have been enduring for months now, but there is some there, if you are creative and persistent.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Closter has been taking the opportunity to reshape and refine her unconventional congregation, Sha’ar, as we all adjust to living online rather than in person.
Sha’ar began about 15 years ago “as a grassroots community that through many iterations worked to provide many and varied points of access into Jewish life, premised on the idea of many models of an enriched and engaged Jewish life.”
That earlier model was called Sha’ar Communities, because “it created a network of discreet communities, each of which revolved around a different modality of Jewish engagement.” Sha’ar means gate; each separate gate in the community led to a figurative shared space — the community does not have a building, nor did it always meet at the same place when it came together in person — but the emphasis was more on the choice of gates. Now, it’s on the shared space to which each person’s gate leads. That’s why the name was changed to Sha’ar; it’s all about the subtle shift to the communal.
That’s why its high holiday services will be online and open to everyone; why its classes, too, are open; why people who are drawn to their offerings but live too far away to get to them in person regularly can daven with them online.
These changes are a logical growth, fueled as they are by Sha’ar’s DNA, as well as the pandemic that has reshaped all our lives.
“We are a learning community that isn’t afraid to make mistakes and grow from them,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “Sha’ar Communities conveyed the message of the multiplicity of Jewish models and Jewish lives, but it was a challenge to the notion of belonging to something larger than yourself. So the refinement of the model, as we continue to be inspired by both the heavenly and the earthly Jerusalem, as embedded in our logo, allows us to refine our vision of continuing to create multiple access portals into the Jewish community, which all lead to the central thriving Jewish community that can hold the diversity of Jewish life.
“We are less focused on the specificity of the infrastructure and more on making sure that our array of programs and experiences and opportunities reflect the diverse interests, priorities, aspirations, and inspirations that lead people to engage deeply with Jewish heritage and a sense of Jewish destiny.”
One of the ways that both diversity and unity flourish at Sha’ar is through “expanding the values of collective leadership and shared responsibility,” Rabbi Lewittes said. Sha’ar lay leaders are not on a board but a va’ad, which “reflects the sense of deep fellowship that I as a rabbi am committed to building with my community, and to see my community build with other Jewish communities, and with communities outside the Jewish community. It’s a commitment to the sharing of values and wisdom, and it allows for people to be active participants in the building of their Jewish lives, as opposed to being passive recipients of Torah, and of the message that this is what your Jewish life ought to look like.”
Using the Hebrew word vaad for Sha’ar’s leadership team was not a lightly made decision. “Language is important and highly symbolic,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “I recognize that the word vaad is less formal than the word board. It was intentionally chosen to convey a sense of congeniality, warmth, intimacy, fellowship, and shared responsibility. It is a working team. It is through the efforts of our various committees that together we generate the content and the constructs for everything that we do, whether it is in planning events or programs or even in generating the content for study opportunities and community conversations.”
Leadership isn’t confined to a small group, she said. “Anybody and everybody is welcome to join in the efforts, in the ways in which they are inspired to contribute. Unlike other models, where the rabbi or educators may come to the community with the coursework or content they feel is important for the community to engage with, this is a model in which I am in deep conversation with my leadership team, and together we create the spiritual and educational and activist agenda for our community.”
Sha’ar is not looking for members in the old-fashioned, dutifully dues-paying-and-otherwise-minding-your-own-business sense of the word.
Dues won’t be charged conventionally. Development of course is important, but so is community, and right now the relationship between those things, as between so many things, is in flux.
“Member is a word we’re setting aside right now,” Rabbi Lewittes said.
“The nature and notion of synagogue membership is in a state of flux. At this moment, with only virtual events being possible, we’re taking this opportunity to be as inclusive as possible and learn from this time as we envision the future,” an email from Sha’ar co-chairs added.
“As a learning community, we see ourselves to be values-driven in everything that we do, in terms of our content as well as our structure. We are always in the process of growing into who it is that we want to be; we are always learning from our endeavors, from our mistakes, from what works, from what doesn’t work. And that is a mirroring of the enterprise of Judaism itself; it’s an enterprise that is distinguished by a continual unfolding conversation across generations, across countries, that interrogates each moment with the question of what is it that I am called to do? What is it that I am called to be this day? At this time? That’s how Judaism has distinguished itself as an ongoing source of revelation and resonance in this constantly changing world.
“That leads to another core value of ours — sustainability. That has become a clarion call for us. First and foremost, sustainability is the most urgent existential religious issue of our time in terms of our planet. Sustainability also is a key value when it comes to the urgency of the societal issues that are raging around us, and the communal issues that this time we are living in is posing for us. And there is also our own inner soulful sustainability. How do we live responsibly in the present to be and to preserve and promote a promising future? That is a core value that drives us at Sha’ar, as Jews and as human beings.
“And it is a process. We engage in deep fellowship with one another, as each one of us realizes that we have to take personal responsibility in our own lives for the life of the community and the broader world in which we live.”
That broader world is living in quarantine. “The pandemic really created a lot of confusion for people about how to be in deep relationship with one another,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “Much of the collateral damage that the pandemic is unleashing around us is calling us into deeper responsibility. The urgency around personal actions and personal responsibility is motivating people to want to engage more deeply and more directly in the building of meaning and purpose for themselves and their families and their communities. I think that the culture of access that is being created by moving community and Jewish engagement online has not just created a culture of connectivity and access between Jews and Jewish communities all over the country and then all over the world, but it has reminded us that no single institution or community contains within it all the wisdom, all the excitement, and all the treasure that Judaism has to offer. We are ever more enriched personally and collectively when we live in deep partnership with one another.
“Sha’ar seems to have been designed for this very moment, as a Jewish platform that invites participation both from people looking for a primary Jewish home and from people with ties to other Jewish communities who are drawn to places that can enhance their Jewish lives.”
Sha’ar’s holiday plans include “a full program of high holy day services and an array of free high holy day programs, including an immersion workshop to include the beautiful practice of mikvah in preparation for the holidays that will include an adaption to natural bodies of water in this time of restricted access to community mikvahs, as well as some learning- and music-based workshops.
“Like every other community, we realize that in all likelihood our services will be livestreamed, although the situation is so fluid, we still hold out hope that we may be able to gather safely outdoors, as we have for the last four years, for our unique second day Rosh Hashanah services. The theme is teshuvah as the ultimate renewable energy.”
Rabbi Lewittes and Sha’ar have many plans for study and social justice work during the next year. She’s enthusiastic about all of it, but the message she most wants to convey is that “Sha’ar is reflective of the kind of courageous thought leadership that is called for in this time,” she said. “It has a values-driven approach to community- and identity-building.
“In this time of uncertainty, Sha’ar is holding onto possibility. In a time of isolation, Sha’ar has created very exciting collaborations, and in a time of despair, we are offering great optimism and great hope.”
Learn more about Sha’ar at www.facebook.com/shaarcommunities.