Jew it yourself
Haggadot.com becomes Recustom, letting you control all of life’s rituals
New, merged organization looks to bring a DIY approach to not just holidays but every lifecycle event
In the beginning, there was the Maxwell House Haggadah, a cultural touchstone for generations of Jewish families throughout much of the last century. Though iconic, that guide to the Passover Seder – primarily meant to teach American Jews that coffee beans were kosher for Passover – was also barebones and rigid, lacking in individuality. In came Haggadot.com, allowing for infinite customization and personalization. “The Minimalist Haggadah” and the “Schitt’s Creek Haggadah” and, of course, “The Chat GPT Haggadah Supplement” were born.
Now, the outfit that brought us those alternative iterations of the retelling of the Passover story is merging with its sister websites to become Recustom. The new brand, in a bid to expand the notion of ritual, is looking to bring do-it-yourself content to the modern plagues of climate change and political polarization, as well as rituals tied to gender, identity and even retirement.
“We’re in a time of deep uncertainty, we need rituals to connect us, but we’re not just going to do rituals that don’t feel authentic,” Eileen Levinson, founder and executive director of Recustom, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “We all need to connect, and we believe that Judaism has a toolkit for connection and meaning making. People just need help using it.”
The tagline for Recustom is, “Where intention meets play,” Levinson said, because “we embrace playfulness. Even the most serious moments can let us find something that’s a little bit different, and we can balance joy with seriousness.”
Whereas Levinson’s original sites – first launched with Haggadot.com and later including High Holidays at Home and Custom & Craft – offered a DIY approach to Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shabbat, the new site, which is aimed at both Jews and those who are curious about Jews and Judaism, will feature rituals across the lifecycle.
“We’re thinking about all the places where people have been unseen,” Levinson said, giving examples of milestones such as, “doing IVF for same sex couples to have a baby… Rituals for gender transitions, taking on your new name and your new identity. People are living longer and wanting to still be engaged Jewishly. Their Jewish life is not just about raising their kids or being with their grandkids, but potentially having a new ‘b-mitzvah’ ceremony or rituals for retiring or when they move out of the home that they’ve raised their family in for 30 years.”
Currently, the three older sites are still running, with plans for Haggadot.com to stay active at least through next Passover. Some of the rituals on the new site are linked to the old domains, while other rituals just say “coming soon.”
Custom & Craft, the design lab that created all three sites, has a long tradition of teaming with other nonprofits and organizations in the Jewish community to create content targeting diverse demographics. Current partnerships include Jewtina and OneTable, which is helping create volunteer cohorts to envision new ways to remix traditions.
“We feel like this opportunity would be great for us to partner with an organization that has a very similar vibe to what we have, believes in DIY, believes in connectivity around peer engagement,” Amy Bebchick, chief program officer at OneTable, an organization that has helped fund and plan over 100,000 Shabbat dinners, told eJP.
This year, OneTable expects to engage 65,000 unique individuals in Shabbat dinners, and Bebchick believes the partnership with Recustom will serve as a bridge. “For some people that have been One Tabling with us for a while, or Shabbating with us for a while, it may be that they’re ready for what’s next for them. They’re ready to explore the next Jewish ritual.”
Recustom plans to license its mix-and-match technology to congregations and organizations that can create interactive ritual templates that they can embed on their main sites. Levinson describes the initiative as “like a WordPress, or even Slack, for Jewish ritual making,” and plans to launch it in late 2024. The templates will be able to be customized to change pronouns, insert family names, pictures, poetry and videos.
Funding for Recustom comes from the Jim Joseph Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund.
Their first step towards this goal is a partnership with two organizations, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly, and its Cantors Assembly, which are collaborating to create what Rabbi Joshua Heller, the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs, Ga., and a senior editor on the project, described via email as a “new kind of Rabbi’s/Cantor’s manual for our over 2,000 Conservative/Masorti clergy around the world.”
Heller said this new manual is meant to make clerical life easier. “With the old printed manual, we could offer one or two versions of a given ceremony or a handful of optional additional readings,” he said. “Rabbis would have a book filled with slips of paper and have [to] adapt the printed language, remembering where to fill in names in each place and adjust grammar and pronouns as they went. Now we can have a rabbi start with a template and have incredible flexibility to choose the liturgical alternatives that are most appropriate for the specific people they are serving.”
Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, director of publications and digital engagement at the Rabbinical Assembly, told eJP that the organization had a dream to create “a product that is adaptable to changing social and religious conditions in the U.S. and across the globe” and Recustom was the team that could “translate our vision.”
Currently, Levinson and the Custom & Craft team are focused on preparing content for the High Holidays, with the goal to have a full ritual library launched by January 2024. They hope to reach 2 million annual users by 2025, up from the 650,000 users who accessed Custom & Craft sites in 2011.
As the site grows its offerings, Recustom aims to connect more with Jews of color and younger Jews. “We have a strong audience that is over 55 because we’ve been doing a lot of work in the aging area,” Levinson said. “We’re over-representative in the queer Jewish communities… We’re less than 10% Orthodox. We just did a survey of our users in the winter, and it was much more ranging Reform, Conservative, just Jewish, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and so pretty diverse as far as everyone who’s not super-Orthodox.”
Although Levinson hopes the site is welcoming to all, she said. “Our brand is about reimagining, rethinking, [and] that obviously means that there’s more work into the how do we reimagine, rather than how do we keep things the same. Our intention is definitely not to throw out anything in Judaism but it definitely is about making it fit for you.”