Introducing the Kenissa Network: A 21st Century Pathway into Jewish Life

By Rabbi Sid Schwarz

Twice in the past year I have published articles in eJP to introduce the work of the New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative. Last week we had our second annual National Consultation, welcoming another 50 “creatives” into this unique network and we used the opportunity to re-brand the project as Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. It is important to explain the name change and to share how the Kenissa Network is evolving.

The idea for Kenissa was generated by the thesis of my book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. Succinctly put, I argued and brought evidence to bear that at the same time that legacy Jewish organizations are on the decline and, it seems, American Jewish life is deteriorating, there is a countervailing process on the Jewish landscape of emergent communities and organizations that represent the seeds of an American Jewish renaissance.

In 2015 we secured seed funding from the William Davidson Foundation (and since joined by other funders) to create a national initiative that is designed to find, convene and build capacity with the “creatives” who are driving the phenomenon I described in Jewish Megatrends. These creatives are building new organizations and communities across a range of sectors that don’t always interact with each other including: social justice; spiritual practice; independent minyanim; Jewish learning groups; eco-sustainability; and arts and culture.

Many of these organizations work under the radar screen of the organized Jewish community but they are actually more successful at attracting the Next Gen Jews than are legacy organizations. The founders of these organizations struggle to find the resources to properly finance their operations and many feel marginalized by the mainstream Jewish community because they tend to be culturally, religiously and politically edgy. But it would be a huge mistake to dismiss the phenomenon as a fad. These groups are very much a product of the internet DIY culture and the emerging social economic patterns of the 21st century. Over time, they will be ascendant even as legacy organizations are destined to age out and lose market share.

All of which helps to explain why we changed the name of the project. If you spend any time with millennials you learn that they hate to be put into boxes and labelled. To my mind, the diverse phenomenon that I described in Jewish Megatrends represented the emergence of a new paradigm for spiritual communities in America. But we learned from our Year 1 cohort that about a third of our participants did not see themselves as “spiritual communities” nor did they like the label. A label that did receive far more enthusiastic response was “communities of meaning” which we defined as “networks of individuals that are inspired by an idea or a practice that enriches their lives and/or significantly improve conditions in the world for others.”

Kenissa is a name that emerged from a small working group of participants. Even though a lot of (so-called) marketing gurus recommend against using Hebrew words to name an organization or project, the desire to anchor the work in lashon kodesh, “the holy language of our people,” was strong among the leaders we are pulling together. In addition, the word kenissa means “entrance-way.” It is the perfect word to describe the network of Jewish communities of meaning that we are building because, for so many, these organizations and communities open the door to many Jews who are not attracted by more mainstream Jewish organizations. Quite often, engaging with these Jewish communities of meaning represents the first exposure they are having to Jewish life as adults.

What’s next? We are growing the Kenissa Network quite intentionally and deliberately. First, for those who have already been invited into the Network, we are now launching a national network of communities of practice that will help leaders support each other in everything from fundraising to scaling as well as more cutting edge topics like “creating covenantal organizational cultures.” Network members will also have the opportunity to bring teams from their organizations to our National Cross-Training Gathering in December.

Second, we are helping to provide thought leadership to the Jewish community by sponsoring a weekly blog that addresses how these emerging communities of meaning are attracting people to their projects. For leaders of synagogues and Jewish organizations that are struggling to hold on to existing constituencies or are failing to attract new constituencies, the Kenissa Network blog provides important insights into the thematic portals that are motivating Next Gen Jews.

Third, we are about launch a national mapping project to more effectively identify and understand the phenomenon of emerging Jewish communities of meaning in America today. We currently have identified several hundred leaders of such communities and we used that list to invite select individuals into the Kenissa Network during our first two years. But we suspect that there are hundreds of more such projects around the country and we hope that our mapping project will produce a robust database that will be of value to communal leaders and funders who are committed to the future vitality of the American Jewish community.

For anyone involved in creating new modalities of Jewish expression in North America, it would be beneficial to make yourself known via the national database we are developing. You may do so here.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the founder and director of Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. In addition to Jewish Megatrends, Sid also authored Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World and Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue.