Lizzi Heydemann’s Jewish Journey

-1by Abigail Pickus

Long before becoming a rabbi, and certainly way before she launched a new spiritual and religious community in Chicago, Lizzi Heydemann searched for her roots in Germany.

Growing up in Chicago, she was very close with her paternal grandparents, both refugees from Germany before the Holocaust.

“I saw them all the time,” recalled the 33-year-old Heydemann. “They had really thick German accents. Neither of them was particularly Jewishly practicing, but they clearly were of a different culture. As I grew up, I wanted to understand myself more deeply and my grandparents seemed to me this connection to my history. Since Judaism wasn’t something they talked a lot about or did much with, I assumed I must then be German at my core.”

And so, at the ripe old age of 11, when she was only in the 5th grade, Heydemann set out to “explore my own history through learning German so that I could connect to my grandparents.”

A precocious German language student and thanks to the persistence of her teacher, Heydemann ended up spending every summer from ages 11-14 in Germany, where she lived with different families as an exchange student.

“What became increasingly clear to me was that I didn’t feel German,” said Heydemann. “Here I was really trying to connect with my roots and my ancestors, but the fact of the matter is my ancestors weren’t Aryan Germans, they were Jews.”

So began her journey to connect with her true history and culture.

By the time she got to high school, she was less interested in her German roots than her Jewish roots.

Heydemann grew up on Chicago’s South Side, in Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago and a very progressive Jewish community. She came of age at KAM Isaiah Israel, a Reform congregation then under the leadership of the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who was known for his liberal politics and outspokenness.

“The community felt dynamic and alive. I don’t remember being bored by synagogue, which makes me a minority in this country,” she recalled.

The other thing unique about her Jewish background was the diversity of her community.

“We had all different kinds of Jewish people in our community,” said Hydemann. “I was surrounded by people who were dark skinned and light skinned and of Asian descent. As far as I was concerned, this was just what Jews looked like. It was a great way to grow up.”

Before heading off to Stanford University, she spent a gap year in Israel on Young Judaea’s Year Course. “It was life changing,” said Heydemann. “I had never been to Israel before. I wasn’t really aware of the different shades and flavors of Judaism.”

After such an immersive year in Israel, she returned to Stanford where she majored in religious studies and wrote her honors thesis under Arnold Eisen, now the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

There Heydemann found herself practicing what she calls a “post denominational” Judaism, one that included learning with a rebbetzin, davening with a guitar and spending Shabbat with Orthodox friends.

But it was an American Jewish World Service trip she took to El Salvador during her freshman year of college that ultimately led her to the rabbinate.

“Here I was in El Salvador with a group of Jews doing construction work and feeling this was the role I wanted to play – I wanted to be a Jewish emissary to the world,” said Heydemann. “It was that combined with being in a foreign country as a Jew and knowing that I was there representing the Jewish people, which was not the case when I was in Germany when I tried to blend in.”

She was also inspired by a Conservative rabbi on the trip named Dorothy Richman.

“I wanted to explore that version of Jewish leadership. She sang, she played guitar, she observed a serious kashrut and Shabbat practice. This was the first time I had seen that in one person,” said Heydemann.

All of this ultimately led her to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, a Conservative seminary.

After being ordained in 2010, Heydemann served as the Revson Rabbinic Fellow at Ikar. In this role, she became the first full-time rabbi to work alongside the congregation’s senior rabbi and founder Sharon Brous. IKAR in Los Angeles describes itself as “fusing piety and hutzpah, tradition and imagination, activism and spiritual practice.”

The way Heydemann sees it, “IKAR was born out of the need of different families for something different. The services are moving and inspired and create a certain kind of spiritual space, which is particularly helpful for people with kids.”

By 2011, however, Heydemann found herself back in her hometown of Chicago.

There she started asking around to find out which Jewish communities existed that would satisfy someone like her.

“I was 30, single, politically liberal, but spiritually religiously a little more traditional leaning, looking for creativity and diversity in a Jewish community - a place that felt as diverse as the young adults I know, which is pretty diverse in terms of sexual and gender orientation and race relationships.”

When it became clear such a community didn’t exist, Heydemann set about creating it herself. In 2011, she launched Mishkan Chicago, a community that like its namesake (Mishkan is the Hebrew word for the tabernacle, the portable dwelling place for God) did not have one permanent home, but moved from space to space.

“One of the many of the reasons why young people feel alienated from the organized Jewish community is location,” said Heydemann.

While Lakeview, a neighborhood on Chicago’s northside, is home to many established Jewish organizations and congregations, Heydemann soon found out that thousands of young Jews live in other neighborhoods that have no Jewish infrastructure for them to tap into.

And so she figured out a way to go to them.

In the beginning, that meant meeting in people’s living rooms, but what started as a Shabbat service and potluck dinner for 65 people grew in less than a year to over 100 people and soon thereafter to 200 people who came together for Friday night services and dinner.

For a while services were held regularly at Anshe Emet synagogue, a Conservative synagogue that offered them free space, as well as in art studios or the beach, depending on the weather.

Today, after much wandering, Mishkan has a constant home at the Bodhi Spiritual Center on the North side of Chicago.

Attendance keeps rising. This past year, over 900 people attended high holiday services.

Heydemann says the community’s mission is, in part, to “reach out to as many people in Chicago as possible who want a place to pray and a transformational experience.” In addition to high holidays, Mishkan currently meets two Friday nights and one Saturday morning a month. While the services themselves are traditional and done in Hebrew, what sets Mishkan apart is the music.

Heydemann plays guitar and there is also a drummer on hand. Beyond the music is the conversation. Instead of sermons there are conversations. And the service is just the beginning as most people stay for Shabbat dinner.

“I give a lot of attention to the spiritual atmosphere in the room,” said Hydemann. “I’m trying to take all of that and transform it into Shabbat energy.”

In only a few years, the community has made a name for itself. And it has become more established. They now have a rabbinic intern, just as Heydemann was once at IKAR, as well as an executive director. And they charge dues.

They currently count 120 “Builders,” that is, those who pay $36 a month or more to support the community. What is significant is the majority of these members are in their 20s and 30s.

While gratified by its success, Heydemann says she is not resting on her laurels.

“We continue to create what feels new and dynamic and fresh and that takes work,” she said.

It also takes the support of like-minded people.

“I am so proud of what we, the many people who have been moved by the community and care about it, offer,” said Heydemann. “It is through all the skills and vision of those on the board, those who donated money and time, those who created art for us and connected us to locations and led up teams – the justice team, the prayer team – those who have cooked for us and made copies.”

“There are so many people who care and who show up. All of these efforts of love for Mishkan has changed people’s lives and is a real force on the Jewish landscape of Chicago,” she added.