Four Steps to a Stronger Community

hazon-1_0By Meredith Levick and Aharon Ariel Lavi

In 2016, more people live alone than ever before. Previously solid social networks – like synagogues, neighborhoods, and offices – are disintegrating, leaving people unconnected to the world around them. Long-standing synagogues hurt for new members and have to close their doors, and institutional Judaism struggles to engage the young generation. But the forecast on the future of Jewish community is not all doom and gloom. “A community requires an inspiring, self-transcending narrative at the core of its identity,” wrote Shir Yaakov Feit, the spiritual leader of the Kol Hai community based in the New Paltz, New York area. Along with nine others, Feit is on the forefront of the Jewish Intentional Communities movement, an initiative to transform the way that we work, play, and live together Jewishly.

Through Hakhel, the first-of-its-kind Jewish Intentional Communities incubator in North America, Jewish intentional community leaders have spent conscious time over the last two years exploring the tremendous potential of Jewish Intentional communities. Derived from the Hebrew word for community, “hakhel” means “assemble,” a term which alludes to the project’s two-fold aim of encouraging and developing young communities, and using these communities as a method for engaging young adults in Jewish life, learning and service. The results of the incubator, generously funded by the UJA-Federation of New York, have been both impactful and meaningful, leading to the creation of new Jewish intentional communities. Roger Studley, founder of Berkeley Moshav and Urban Moshav in Berkeley, California, commented, “The idea of Jewish intentional community has resonance, and this resonance helps keep us committed, creating, and innovating. It’s not easy to do something difficult and new; being connected to others who are doing it (in the U.S.) and to those who have done it (in Israel) is invaluable.” Hakhel alumni and other communities will gather at the 4th annual Jewish Intentional Communities Conference from December 1st to 4th to take this momentum further.

The Hakhel incubator brings wisdom from decades of Israeli community building to the unique challenges of the American Jewish community. Community building in North America is inspired by the growing intentional community movement (“mission-driven communities” or “Kehilot Mesimatiyot”) that has sprouted in Israel. Started in the 1990s, kehilot mesimatiyot are the innovative efforts of modern day pioneers, redefining the concept of Zionism for the twenty first century. About 15,000 members live in 200 communities in Israel today. These communities focus on shared learning, life-long commitment to living together, and a commitment to local social justice initiatives. At Hazon, we have had the privilege and opportunity to bear witness to the changing landscape of how today’s American Jews understand and crave community. The diversity of communities who have applied to and been accepted to Hakhel reflect that changing reality.

After two years of building community with Hakhel, we have learned much about what works to build community and how to overcome common challenges. These four concepts have helped build strong communities through Hakhel.

1. Join a Network of Communities.

Participating in a community network with likeminded peers allows members to share, decompress, and learn from each other. Support from a peer network builds the confidence to turn the seed of an idea into concrete work to move forward. By participating in networks like Hakhel – or peer networks built at the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference – community members learn they are a part of something bigger. Networks reveal that communities are contributing to the evolving shape of American Jewish life by voicing and pursuing their dreams and pursuing them, and build the confidence to turn the seed of an idea into concrete work to move forward.

2. Learn how to Lead.

Leaders with decades of experience in the field of Jewish intentional community – both in Israel and the US – mentor Hakhel participants. Through this mentorship, participants learn best practices, increase their level of professionalism, and are better prepared to act as representatives of their ideas and their communities. The incubator has given many of the participants the ability to think big and plan to grow their successful models beyond their local community.

3. Connect to community development in Israel.

As part of Hakhel, community builders journeyed to Israel to take a tour of the many community structures there. Being exposed to the Israeli communities changed their understanding of their potential to make change in their community. They have an increased understanding of social responsibility and taking responsibility for the wider community outside their own. As Rabbi Debbie Bravo, founder of MAKOM NY, wrote in regards to the Jewish Intentional Communities Tour in Israel in March 2016, “There was much learning about the greater network of Makom in Israel. The other thought leaders were great to learn from and I enjoyed the varying perspectives.“ Looking at the temporary-to-permanent community transition as one that happened in Israel in building the earlier kibbutzim and moshavim is akin to what we are on the verge of as a similar transition in America today.

4. Make it Happen.

Just as in Israel, Hakhel communities didn’t stop at thinking up great ideas. Hakhel supports community members in transforming their “pie in the sky” ideas into something more concrete on the ground. By making three- to five-year work plans, Hakhel communities turned their ideas into reality. Studley from Berkeley Moshav continued, “Hakhel places us in the context of a broader movement, which helps us maintain our inspiration to do this pioneering work. We are not alone, we are not crazy.” Support from mentors and peer networks helped them meet their goals.

At the upcoming Jewish intentional communities conference, dive into building your own community:

We invite those outside the Hakhel cohort to get a taste of how they can create intentional community in their own lives. As one Hakhel participant from GariNYC in Brooklyn, New York wrote, “There is no ‘right way’ to do Jewish intentional community!” Our learning will continue at the 2016 Jewish Intentional Communities Conference at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.

We will begin the conference by exploring the growing enthusiasm in the Jewish world about formative “experiences in life” such as temporary intentional communities – fellowships, gap-year programs, and residential activist immersions with Adamah, Teva, Moishe House, Repair the World, Avodah, Habonim Dror, and Yahel. We will then explore how the lessons we are learning from these temporary communities can lead to long-term “life experiences.” The best practices, tools, and perspectives which emerge from these explorations will culminate in a participatory full-conference workshop to map the ecosystem of intentional community models – opening real possibilities of a diverse spectrum of Jewish intentional communities where we can put down roots and raise up families. We will also learn about the Israel-based mission-driven intentional communities movement. The connection to the Israeli movement is important not only for the inspiration and professional know-how, but also because it can re-frame the discussion around Israel among young American Jews and foster substantial relationship-building opportunities between young Jewish leaders in the two most important hubs of the Jewish people.

From an experience in life to a life experience, come join us!

Co-authored by Meredith Levick and Aharon Ariel Lavi. Levick is the Associate Director of Education at Hazon, and Lavi is the founder of Garin Shuva, a mission-driven community bordering Gaza, and co-founder of the Nettiot Network which re-engages ba’alei teshuva into Israeli society. Additionally he is co-founder of MAKOM (The National Council of Mission-Driven Communities) and is a consultant to Hazon’s Jewish Intentional Communities Initiative.