Sunday, December 18, 2011

Driving to the Edge of Tomorrow

Westchester Pike going west, takes you away from crowded delis and signs floundering in the wind that read "One year free synagogue membership.” I drove the pike away from my neck of the woods to meet Elyse for lunch. Elyse, a once doctor now rabbinical student, and I sat in a polite restaurant next to folks who comfortably wore reindeer antlers throughout the meal.

I came to hear more about Elyse's Jewish community. I learned they have a mission, a curriculum and a business model that offers one response to “What’s a Jewish community that engages tomorrow’s learners?”

Mission: A purpose that speaks to real life

“We’re folks who are curious to know what’s interesting and compelling about Judaism,” explains Elyse of the Jewish Fellowship of Chester County.

Her role is to facilitate the “co-creation” of a community where people can bring the questions of their “complex and contemporary lives.”

The lead paragraph for their mission is not Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim. In the middle of Lilly Pulitzer acid green terrain these Jewish elements are core to what they do, but not to why they exist. They exist as a Jewish place where responsibility is shared for figuring out how to live with connection.

Curriculum: Personal and Jewish

Families with young children, singles and seniors meet twice a month for Shabbat in the farmhouse of a retreat center. “Every service starts with some question like, ‘What’s something you are grateful for?’ Three year olds are sitting next to 75 year olds and they hear answers like, ‘I’m glad my wife isn’t mad at me anymore" and ’”I appreciate my new puppy." Elyse prepares for Friday night service with intention and order around the holiday or the parasha. She also adapts to where people’s questions and interests are.

“You can form community in prayer for sure, but really it happens when we sit in the living room area around a fireplace. Every service has a pot luck dinner (fish, vegetarian, dairy, no disposables/bal taschit). After dinner we might be playing the ukulele and singing, but this is really where community is built.”

Intimacy is a word that Elyse believes is very important. “I know people might think that is an uncomfortable word, but the word relationships doesn’t go far enough.”

"I can't imagine we'd ever have a Hebrew School,” declares Elyse. "I’ll go to a family’s home or they come to my home to learn but it has to be the whole family.”

Business Model: Affordable

"There is no membership fee," says Elyse. The purples in her scarf contrasts with short grey hair and bright white smile. “We don’t own a building, our expenses are minimal.” “I wrote a letter and asked people if they would make a commitment of $180 dollars for a person and $360 for a family for the year” And for the folks who couldn't/wouldn't..ok too. The Fellowship is not in the red.

Worth the ride:

At lunch I learned about the Fellowship Elyse is co-creating that welcomes everyone who wants to search. No judgment. As an educator in the Jewish community, I’ve heard a lot about the minyanim started by day school grads. This is different. This is a model for people who are willing to step in WHEN the Jewish door is open as wide as a barnyard door. I had traveled farther down the pike than first imagined. Actually, I think I arrived at the edge of tomorrow.