Why We're Here
Marc Boone Fitzerman
The expanding universe of Jewish renewal is one of the great and defining features of our moment--rich, challenging, and rife with contradiction. Many people speak about renewal as a movement, but it lacks the infrastructure that gives movements shape. There's no headquarters in New York, no governing body, no national convention to rally the troops. There are circles of Jews that identify themselves as "renewal," but there are no official credentials or institutional bona fides. Where would you apply to get your renewal diploma? You'd make it yourself on a Power Mac G4 and bestow it in a ceremony of your own devising.
To the extent that it exists in commonplace forms, renewal unfolds in a small group of retreat centers and institutes, a movable feast of opportunities for study. There are seasonal gatherings of masters and disciples, itinerant charismatics, small audience publications. For years I took a subscription to something called the Meta-Siddur, a beautiful, maddening, idiosyncratic project that was right on the border between ArtScroll and goddess worship. I half expected to see images of the Venus of Willendorf, the great-breasted Paleolithic fertility figure, folded into the
kavvanot for Nishmat. The Meta-Siddur died with its creator in a car accident. Much of renewal hangs by the same thread, held in place by the zeal of singleton visionaries
In that sense, renewal is true to its roots in the home-made
Foxfire Judaism of the sixties. The three Jewish Catalogs were officially respectful of the accidental benefits of institutional belonging, but the emphasis was what you could do at the kitchen table. The raw materials of the world were waiting to be transformed into the symbolic objects of Jewish piety, and no special training beyond the pages of the handbook was necessary to achieve self-directed success.
The opinion makers of that productive moment looked approvingly at informal associations that would not interfere with personal autonomy. Chavurah brought Jews into horizontal relationships, and cloaked natural hierarchies of talent and intelligence in an ideology of egalitarianism and mutual deference. You could imagine that making challah for the group was as valued a service as writing its new liturgies. Depending on the challah, it frequently was. The renewalists of this new century are at home in this ethos. The movement continues to draw on a strain of radical self-sufficiency, a peculiarly American Jewish frontiersmanship. Anyone can make a pair of tefillin; all you need is a knife and a cow.
But for all its anti-authoritarian bias, renewal continues to be interested in the synagogue. That is the paradox: a kind of persistent obsession with the very institution from which the Jewish counter-culture fled. The idea is that the synagogue itself remains a place of promise and possibility; that with the thoughtful coaxing of sensitive souls, it can be a powerful engine of spiritual growth, deepened and authenticated by Jewish learning. Goaded by the dynamism of a resurgent Orthodoxy, renewal looks to the synagogue as a locus of experimentation, where the self can be cultured in a nutrient-rich environment, and released into the world as a still more powerful entity.
This is not, however, the synagogue of our fathers. Not the closed world of inegalitarian shtiblach. And certainly not the corporate synagogues of the suburbs, with their established bureaucracies, life-cycle production numbers, and five-year, tightly scripted capital campaigns. Compared to those, the synagogues of our ancestors look like verdant oases in the wilderness, despite their traditions of exclusionary piety. They continue to charm us, especially those who never experienced them, for their small size and intimacy, for their sweet Jewish geshmak. What we mean by this is the effortless transmission of the values and folkways of an ethnic community, gathered within easy distance of the aron kodesh. Once again there is the confluence of cultural nostalgia, a yearning for the world of the Eastern European kloyz wedded to the image of the one-room school house. We continue to express ourselves as fully American Jews.
And what we want--or at least what some of us want--are synagogues that are radically open to the new; that generate moments of powerful engagement; that feel like playgrounds for the soul and the intellect. Not in the sense of easy recreation, but places to exercise the mind and spirit in extended, meaningful encounters with the tradition. A place to pour our best Jewish selves into projects of ultimate importance and impact. A synagogue committed to the notion of renewal will likely offer multiple points of entry and a diverse and stimulating array of alternatives to engage and hold the attention of its members. Some will address the mind or the heart, the demands of conscience, the body and its imperatives. All will acknowledge the transforming truth that we live simultaneously in different realms of experience, each potentially enriched by the tradition. The synagogue that comes to life in this way will be less concerned with the minutiae of policy, less tied to habits of judgment and evaluation, and more attuned to the moment of opportunity, the potential encounter, the idea of engagement.
And almost always there will be a shift in tone, in the feel of life within the borders of the synagogue, away from commonplace institutional belonging and toward a powerful, passionate expressiveness. A synagogue that commits itself to this course will make room for the sudden, serendipitous discovery, the call to arms, the idiosyncratic demand. It will accommodate difference and tolerate a certain lunacy of style, if it is bent to heroic Jewish purpose. There will be a sense of things percolating upward, bubbling from the realms of memory and longing. Unity, to the extent that exists at all, will come from a sense of being feelingly connected to the millennial experience of the Jewish People, failing brilliantly, succeeding occasionally in the midst of our tumultuous disagreements.
Enter RENEWAL, this on-line journal. Born in the committee work of the Rabbinical Assembly and my own involvement in a pilot project of STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal), it is eager to be the locus of extended discourse on the meaning of renewal and synagogue transformation. It invites rabbis, communal workers, and observers of the scene from every fold of the Jewish universe to explore the dynamics of institutional development and the creation of vigorous, energized congregations. How can synagogues establish the basic conditions that enable a full and stimulating encounter with the tradition? Which are the models with the most promise and potential? Who is best suited to generate those models? Should they come from the minds of credentialed professionals, or will they best flourish and endure if they emerge from amcha? Is renewal by definition a populist phenomenon? What are the impediments to synagogue perestroika, either in culture, governance, or habitual behavior? What does renewal look like on the ground?
RENEWAL aims to be a mixed culture itself, of high and low, official and renegade. In its informal origins and commitment to decentralization--to the idea that our future will be made everywhere at once--it hopes to express the untethered quality of the movement which serves as the object of its meditation. It is not intended for a unique constituency, but rather for men and women interested in the ways in which synagogues think about their own transformation. In this it seeks a diverse audience of readers and contributors willing to be stimulated, stirred, and occasionally provoked. We're an on-line journal, independent of geography, the vagaries of distribution, and the costs of publication. RENEWAL hopes that in the course of time, we'll develop a trove of useful material documenting a way of thinking, a tendency of mind, a certain consciousness about the future of the synagogue.
If you've made it this far, I invite you to contribute. Our schedule of publication calls for posting as we go, so there will always--please God--be reason to surf our site. But that means that we'll need a tsunami of submissions. Please think of us as the right destination for your most thoughtful statements about the issues broached by the phenomenon of renewal. We are eager to see your contributions digitized and made part of this fluid work-in-progress. There's room for words, images, music, video--the full range of media we use to communicate with one another. The important thing is that we begin in earnest, and develop a pattern of sustained attention.
Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman is the editor of RENEWAL. He is the Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Emunah, Tulsa, Oklahoma.