Jewish Emergent Network Conference (JEN)

Courtesy Jewish Emergent Network via Facebook

By Sherri W. Morr

I am indeed lucky to be a member of the Ikar Community. Such a distinction gave me the ability to attend the full conference held in LA June 1-3, 2018. These seven synagogues (for lack of a better word) throughout the U.S. are a cohort of energy, vision, ritual, and engagement for young adults. Initially funded for 2 year rabbinic fellowships by the Jim Joseph Foundation, this conference celebrated the conclusion of the first two years and introduced the new 2 year rabbinic fellows. The former fellows all have jobs, new communities to serve and engage, and the extra benefit of having been part of a group of fellows (male & female) who studied and learned together.

Ikar is now celebrating 14 years … ahead of their time for sure, and continuing to grow at a rapid clip. As a participant for 5 years there has been a notable growth in membership including at the multi-generational level. I am not sure it was planned, however I do believe it was an unanticipated consequence of engaging young adults. Simply put the parents of young adults have begun to attend Ikar.

Even my own children comment they are not interested in their parent’s synagogues. They have no time for a sisterhood or a brotherhood; no revenue for a building campaign, and little patience for what they refer to as synagogue politics without electoral campaigns. Further and of utmost importance they see the services as boring, non-interactive, and of little relevance to their own lives.

There is a very high number of young adults at Ikar. In addition, many families with young children are in attendance for Shabbat morning services. Gradually I noticed an increase in my own generation of boomers also showing up, sitting with their adult children, corralling the young toddlers and helping to provide snacks and other diversions. Many of these boomers have become regulars; some even are active members. Their children had expressed that they did not want to participate in their parent’s synagogues and now here were the parents at the childrens synagogues. My sense is this is an unanticipated consequence of young adult families being involved and active Ikar participants. There is no traditional Sunday school at Ikar; instead education classes take place on Saturday morning. Theoretically a family can send their children to this Limmud type education, enjoy services, then greet their kids upon conclusion of class and services.

Ikar then takes it a step further … they provide lunch. It may not be my favorite type of lunch; it’s pretty much vegetarian, but ample, with fruit and cookies for dessert. Sometimes even a celebratory cake. You do not have to sign up, RSVP, or pay. It’s a free, just show up, all are welcome. It’s not rocket science to do this; it’s not part of a larger 5 year strategic plan, it’s just common sense, but just plain incredibly brilliant. Why? Because it addresses a basic need of feeding people who are hungry … it’s a natural next step of filling a basic human need. People are hungry, kids need to eat and run around, and if they do not want to eat that’s OK to. Because as everyone knows next to eating, Jews most like to schmooze. So you eat and schmooze. It’s easy and ample. So why not.

Sometimes there is a luncheon speaker, or a discussion of an upcoming event. But guess what… if you don’t want to listen, or want to commiserate over the lack of shul parking and gossip with your friends go right ahead. The fact that you are ‘present’ gives you the free lunch card, the conversation, and the ability to NOT run off for errands, soccer, dance lessons or God forbid go home and watch a sports game on TV (Feel free to remind others to record it). By 3PM you can start getting ready to leave and invariably you may have picked up a kid or two, but as well your own kids may be going somewhere other than with you; you can envision, maybe even sneak in the delicious Shabbos afternoon snooze.

There are many more wonderful aspects of Ikar, and the JEN conference. What strikes me the most about this cohort of energetic community leadership is their desire to be inclusive, and yet make their community feel comfortable and connected, while at the same time to keep a sense of genuine, old fashioned Jewish liturgy, whether it’s through song, or prayer, or creative means to feel the weekly parsha and how it might relate personally. One departs feeling very clearly they have had a Jewish experience. Part of that may be to discuss the state of our nation, or our fears for the immigrant population, or our worries over Israel, or even if we can afford to live in Los Angeles. But it always circles back to Jewish. That is what I love. That is what I think the Jim Joseph Foundation and other well established funders also know. That is why 7 cohort rabbis have good jobs and exciting Jewish lifestyles to go out there and motivate members; it is why in 2 years we will have another 7 rabbis, and more candidates to offer Jewish life to. And finally perhaps the greatest aspect of JEN is that close to 150 people( rabbis, educators, leadership, students and funders) participated … many just wanting to check out the scene, see what they could bring back to their own community or their own synagogue. If my memory serves me, I think in the boomer days we called that the beginning of a movement.

I encourage those not in attendance at JEN to stay tuned. To watch and observe and track down these adventures in Jewish lie while traveling or visiting cities where JEN Communities exist: Ikar-Los Angeles, The Kitchen-San Francisco, 6th & I, Washington DC, Mishkan-Chicago, Kavana-Seattle, Lab/Shul and Romemu-New York City.

Sherri has spent the last several decades working & consulting in and out of the Jewish community as an expert in nonprofit management. Most Recently she was the Director for the West Coast for the American Society of University of Haifa. Prior to this she was director for the Western States for 12 years at Jewish National Fund.