A Thriving American Jewish Garden

Image by Andreas Göllner from Pixabay

By Rabbi Sara Luria

My maiden name is Pflantzer, which means planter in German. On my father’s side, we have a running joke that the reason we all get sea-sick is because we were meant to be firmly planted on dry land, as our name suggests. These days, I am leaning into my paternal ancestry and realizing that my work, as a rabbi and a founder, is to help plant the seeds (yearnings, desires, curiosities, and dreams) of the people I hope to serve. Together, we cultivate the soil. We do our best to take the gifts of God’s grace – sunlight and water, love and connection – and transform them into plants and trees, rituals and communities. 

In Vayikra Rabbah (a midrash on Leviticus), we read, “The Holy One, from the very beginning of the creation of the world, only occupied Godself with planting first. Hence it is written in Genesis 2:8, ‘And God planted a garden in Eden.’ You also, when you enter into the land, only occupy yourselves with planting first.”  

2020 has tossed us, unwittingly, into a different world. As we enter this new land, let us heed our midrash’s Divine advice and become planters. Perhaps, in this shift – when our past ways of doing business may no longer apply – we have just the opening we need to cultivate the patience, presence, loving attentiveness, long-term thinking, and flexibility of gardeners.

I haven’t always understood myself as a gardener; I have mostly been, what you might call, a ‘Jewish entrepreneur.’ I founded ImmerseNYC, a community mikveh project, in late 2012 with the hopes of building a robust, successful Jewish nonprofit organization. A few years later, when ImmerseNYC was lovingly absorbed by Rabbi Abby Treu as a project of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, I co-founded Beloved Brooklyn, with similar hopes. These organizations have been incubated, accelerated, and generously supported by many foundations and major donors.

In strictly nonprofit organizational terms – scalability, growth of the budget, staff, and board, number of unique visitors – neither ImmerseNYC nor Beloved Brooklyn has been particularly successful. Yet, our work has blossomed in countless ways and, more importantly, I did not become a spiritual leader to speak in strictly nonprofit organizational terms. I often wonder about this conundrum – we are, by so many measures, thriving and yet, how do we communicate that when the traditional metrics of ‘budgets, butts, and buildings’ ring hollow? I speak often to leaders of flowering Jewish communities and organizations all over the country who are struggling with the same challenge. 

Our Jewish communal institutions can meet this moment of collective transformation by shifting the way we conceptualize, communicate, and evaluate who we are and what we do. Calling myself a gardener is not just a sweet turn of phrase, it describes the actual work I’m doing better than ‘executive director’ or ‘entrepreneur.’ We are overdue for new metaphors, new shared language, new kinds of questions. 

We might ask:

  • Are we helping to build a delicious, irresistible Jewish life for those who are dragged by their friend through our doors after leaving Judaism behind at their bat mitzvah?
  • Does a person feel beloved and cared for during their first 10 minutes in our orbit?
  • Are we creating conditions for tentative volunteers to transform into committed leaders?
  • Are we cultivating spaces where people can feel the contours of what a loving, inclusive world could be so they can, from a place of strength and generosity, go out and build a better world outside of our walls?

And then, once we have centered different language and new sets of questions, we can try to learn more about what is happening in the places where the answers are yes. Who are the planters growing fruit in mostly arid conditions? What have they learned; what can they teach? What language resonates with them? How do they understand what their job is? How might we resource their work?

In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, published in 1973, economist E.F. Schumacher, looked around at the western world of scaling, never-ending growth, and obsession with capital, and responded by advising, “Wisdom demands a new orientation… towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful… Therefore, we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units.”

Perhaps, we can finally heed Schumacher’s advice and cultivate our Jewish garden, a multiplicity of small-scale units that are resilient, productive, and weather change effectively.

To cultivate a garden, we must grow fertile ground so that our seeds can blossom to their own, unique potential. Our larger organizations, foundations, and communities will need to offer deep, long-term support for a variety of new ideas and visions.

To cultivate a garden, we can recognize that some flowers bloom on their own every year and some will not make it through the winter and need to be replanted every spring. Some of our organizations will become self-sustaining and last 100 years; others will need ongoing investment. 

To cultivate a garden, we will need to learn from gardeners who have come before us about how to orient ourselves towards ‘the organic, the gentle, and the beautiful.’ How can we allow for the ebb and flow of organizations based on what is best for the communities they are serving?

Many of us have been trying to plant seeds in nutrient-deprived soil. Yet, I am a perennial optimist! We already have the resources we need for a thriving American Jewish garden – visionary leaders, enough money, enlivening tradition/rituals/texts, so many people hungry for depth and community. What we need now is the will to transform our language and our priorities. We can start, as our midrash teaches, by “occupying ourselves with planting first.”   

With gratitude to Rabbi Elan Babchuck, Tobin Belzer, and Isaac Luria for their incredibly generous and wise edits to this essay. 

Sara Luria is a rabbi, founder, and, as you now know, planter of ideas and dreams. Right now, you can find her spending most of her time worrying about her kids and our democracy. She is also the spiritual leader of Beloved Brooklyn and a co-founder of the Beloved Network. Sara just moved to Northampton, MA with her family and their new puppy.