North America Jewish Intentional Community – Builders’ Manifesto

By Deborah Fishman Shelby

I am writing from Mitzpe Ramon – the silence of the desert is calming on Shabbat. My husband Brian has never been to Israel before, and through him I see the country with fresh eyes. He remarked on the utter chutzpah it takes to look at this barren, brown, seemingly impenetrable landscape and think, “I can do something with this!” (And then, to do it!) I think that says volumes about the roots of the Israeli psyche. If you will it, it is no dream.

We are here on the Israel trip of Hakhel: The Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator. It is a project of Hazon in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs which, in a groundbreaking moment in the Israel-Diaspora relationship, is flipping the normal economic relationship by investing capital in intentional Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora. The Israel trip has afforded us the invaluable opportunity to tour Israeli intentional communities of all shapes and sizes and learn from their experiences.

What is a Jewish intentional community? It is a group of people grounded in Jewish values, learning and tradition who share a common vision and work to realize it along variable axes of time spent together, location, and activities. In Israel, there is a strong and well-known history and heritage of Jewish intentional communities, including from the kibbutz and moshav movements. What has particularly hit home on this trip is how much Israel itself has incubated these movements through the very essence of the socialism that comprises the fabric of society, and through its structures such as youth movements and the army. When we uncovered the foundations of the communities we visited, almost every one started from relationships and ideologies that were developed in these seminal times in Israelis’ lives and socialization. In Israel, these communities are known as “mesimati,” or mission-driven, as they are dedicated to social ideals. Many of the ones we visited work to strengthen Israel’s geo-social periphery. For instance, Garin Torani Lod, a Torah-minded community in Lod, has revitalized its historically poor and troubled urban environment, and Tarbut Afula uses art and culture as a vehicle for self-empowerment and social change in Afula, another urban landscape on Israel’s geo-social periphery.

It has been fascinating to interact with the founders and drivers of these communities – and with our trip group of 20 others who like me are starting nascent intentional communities in the North American context. In Israel, not only is there an intentional community scene operating against a socialist backdrop that offers governmental support, but it is also intentionally organized through the umbrella body Makom. In contrast, Jews in North America are famously individualistic; there is no centralized religious or communal system; and synagogues and institutions seem to have waning affiliation, especially but not exclusively outside an Orthodox context. What, then, can North Americans do to build local Jewish intentional community in this capitalist and disorganized environment?

Here is my vision, or manifesto, if you will, for North American Jewish intentional community building.

  1. It is grassroots. Hundreds of communities are currently springing up to address the needs for communal connection, to tackle social justice issues from a Jewish perspective, and simply just to be living with one another – as we discussed on the trip, not only to do, but just to be. On our trip alone we had represented co-housing communities in DC, San Francisco, and Vermont; creative/artists’ communities such as Hevria and Art Kibbutz in New York; communities that offer pathways to Jewish identity and connection through Mussar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, through food and ideas in Toronto and in my community FED in New York, and through prayer and spiritual meaning-making at Asiyah in the Boston area; and Torah-observant communities like UWS Jews in New York and Shaare Shamayim Frum Farm in Colorado. The groundswell of these communities, and so many more like them, is an amazingly positive development that buoys up all the communities, widening the market, visibility, and understanding of each of our individual activities.
  2. I believe that the common thread, our mission and what makes us “mesimati,” is that we are all tackling the question of how to be Jewish in North America today. How do we move our Jewish people to be more engaged with our texts, values and tradition in ways that are meaningful to them? Put another way, how do we “upgrade the Jewish operating system” for our times and mentality? While each of our communities has its own answers to this question, we all face common tides: individualization, urban loneliness, ideological polarization. Interestingly, we seem to also have in common serving populations that are not usually reached by existing Jewish establishments. So what would it look like for our communities to be in community with one another and learn from each other, together?
  3. I believe that what is needed for our growing movement is a coordinated and intentional effort to galvanize interest and inspiration around Jewish community, including why anyone in North America should become involved and invested in the first place. This involves actively advocating for and creating the culture and conditions for the concept of community to resonate, and for all the communities to thrive. Essentially what is needed is network-weaving: connecting the social, financial, and information capital of all our communities and beyond and leveraging it to make all parties each more effective at building the change they want to see in the world. We need some backbone efforts to guide this work, including through guiding the vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, establishing measurements for success, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing funding behind this work. These roles are taken from resources from the organization Unlocking Networks, and this is only the beginning of what can be gained through using network-weaving tools and strategies.

I want to thank Hakhel, not only for the incredible opportunity to participate on this trip, but also for its visionary leadership under Aharon Ariel Lavi (whose beautiful intentional community Shuva we also were able to visit), in contributing to this important work of connecting our North American communities and allowing us to learn from each other. I hope these efforts will continue and progress toward enabling us all to share resources and build together the future we want to see. And perhaps down the road it will be said about the Jewish intentional community leaders in North America: They willed it, and it was no dream.

Deborah Fishman Shelby is the founder of FED, a platform for ideas built into an inclusive Jewish intentional community in Harlem, New York City. She serves as Director of Communications for The AVI CHAI Foundation. She is also an ROI Igniter in New York City.

FED is hosting an event in Be’er Sheva on Thursday, November 15 at 7pm to promote conversation and connection at the intersection of people, food, music and ideas. For more information visit: http://fedsocial.weebly.com/fed–beer-sheva.html