WITH A PURPOSE
by RACHEL DELIA BENAIM
Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, Alana Himber, 26, was not always exposed to the overt connection between social justice and Judaism. “There was a large focus on chessed, direct service,” such as helping the poor, she said of her Orthodox education in Brooklyn, “but there wasn’t much talk about reforming the system.”
As an adult, Himber learned about Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, and suddenly saw that she could live a broader life of service within a Jewish environment. Avodah, she said, offered her “a combination of the anti-poverty and anti-oppression work” as well as a Jewish living experience with a diverse community of other idealistic young Jews. The New York-based organization is one of a growing number of Jewish groups with social-justice elements that is quietly innovating methods of Jewish communal living.
While communal living arrangements are often seen as vestiges of the 1960s, Millennials are finding them appealing. With more and more young adults declining to identify with any of the Jewish denominations and with a growing aversion to early marriage, communal living offers another option and a purpose. It is often embraced as young people figure out the next steps in their careers and lives.
Unlike Baby Boomers, who could be assured of living better than their parents, Millennials live with much more economic insecurity, said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at The City College of New York and the Chair of the Jewish Studies program at the Graduate Center. He added: “For our kids, it’s not that easy for them to do better than us. Even getting to where we are has been a struggle.”
Because of that reality, there are two poles of Millennials: “there are the doctors and lawyers,” explained Heilman, and those “for whom living a conscious lifestyle is more important.”
Avodah, which is the Hebrew word for work and prayer, has six communal homes in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Washington, DC. In New York alone, 25 corps members of varying religious denominations live, eat and worship together. For a year, the corps members live in one of two bayits, communal homes, one in Brooklyn and another in Washington Heights.
Professionally, Avodah corps members work in organizations — such as legal aid groups, advocacy groups and health clinics — that help fight poverty. Personally, they commit to living in an intentional community operated on the principals of Jewish pluralism and social justice.
Avodah corps members come from a range of Jewish backgrounds. In this year’s Brooklyn house, for example, there are members who define themselves as Orthodox, traditional and Reconstructionist, and some who don’t identify at all. “Pluralism is an idea that we’re constantly moving towards,” said Rachel Glicksman, the New York Program Director. “Pluralism asks where do your boundaries lie,” she said, and in this space where everyone respects each other, “we’re constantly pushing them.”
“It was sort of challenging because we weren’t all on the same page,” explained Erica Rothschild who lived in the Washington Heights house in 2012. As an example, she explained, “I keep kosher,” while others in the house didn’t. This often led to problems regarding food, “but everyone was really respectful.”
Over the last decade, there has been a marked increase in such living arrangements and a rapid growth of the already existing programs.
The expansion of Moishe House, founded in 2006, illustrates this. Moishe House is a non-profit, pluralistic, international organization that trains and supports young Jewish professional leaders to create intentional communities for themselves and their peers. Moishe House “is a hybrid of working and living,” said CEO David Cygielman.
Structurally, houses have few residents — usually around five — of varying Jewish denominations who live, eat and worship in a house, whose rent Moishe House subsidizes by 30 to 70 percent. The members are responsible for running a variety of Jewish programs for their communities.
Moishe House currently has 71 houses in 17 countries, according to its 2014 annual report, and its attendance was up 15 percent last year from the previous year.
According to the 2013 Pew Study on American Jews, there has been a shift in Jewish self-identification. Thirty-two percent of Jewish Millennials said they have no religion. They are what sociologists call the new religious “nones,” Jews without a denomination or a synagogue.
That seems apparent in Millennials opting to live in rural spaces, like members of Adamah: The Jewish Farming Fellowship, located at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center campus in Falls Village, CT. Adamah, the Hebrew word for earth, runs a Jewish farm and offers two-to three-month farming and small-business fellowships. Fellows work the land and engage in a pluralistic Jewish experience.
“Adamah cultivates the soil and the soul to produce food, to build and transform identities, and to gather a community of people changing the world,” explained the director, Dr. Shamu Sadeh.
Adamah, much like other Jewish communal living organizations, has seen marked growth. Many alumni of the decade-old program work in food processing, food policy and Jewish education, Sadeh explained. One Adamah alumnus, Yisroel Bass, co-founded Yiddish Farm, another cooperative living farm focused on Jewish ideals in Goshen, NY. Bass is one of a group of alumni who have gone on to open their own Jewish, social-justice oriented cooperative programs.
Like Adamah, eight to ten participants at Yiddish Farm work the land together and learn about food and sustainability. The participants also live in a shared, intentional communal space — they eat, work and take Yiddish classes together. It differs from Adamah in that it is Orthodox, not pluralistic, and one of its primary goals is “keeping the language alive and relevant,” said Naftali Ejdelman, President. “We also don’t have to try to be Jewish,” Ejdelman said, explaining that “speaking Yiddish is building Jewish identity. Every time you communicate while you’re here you’re doing something Jewish.”
Earlier this year, Hazon, a nonprofit that supports healthy and sustainable Jewish communities, launched a Jewish Intentional Communities Initiative pilot. Funded by a grant from the UJA-Federation of New York, it looks to support “communities that would really affect the growing field of building intentional communities,” said Julie Botnick, Hazon’s Program Fellow. For the pilot program, they are funding six communities across the United States.
No one keeps statistics on the number of people living in these Jewish communal arrangements. But a tally of the number of participants in the five programs mentioned in this article — Adamah, Avo-dah, Yiddish Farm, Moishe House and Hazon — would show that there are more than 500 people involved.
While the numbers of participants are still small, these communal efforts are attracting considerable philanthropic support, said Bethamie Horowitz, a sociologist of the American Jewish community who teaches Jewish Education at New York University. Among the foundations that are helping are the UJA Federation of New York, the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Dorot Foundation.
But the future of these intentional communities is very much in doubt. An improved economic outlook could mean that young Jews will see opportunities in more traditional occupations. On the other hand, an economic downturn could mean that philanthropists will put their money elsewhere. And what will happen when these communities age? What will happen when their members marry and begin to have children? Are these organizations the communes of the 21st Century or a wave of the Jewish future? ■
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance reporter based in New York City. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Washington Post, Tablet Magazine and elsewhere.
|PREVIOUS ARTICLE||NEXT ARTICLE|