By Alison Laichter
I’ve always resisted the intellectualizing of spirituality. I’ve always wanted to feel something. As a child, I begged to go to Friday night Shabbat services – I was moved by the singing, silence and sense of community in a way that I never experienced in my Hebrew school classroom. As a teenager, my discovery of Jewish meditation was a continuation of the same path. My personal and professional connections to Judaism have been strengthened and deepened by the experiential and embodied practices of ritual, prayer and community.
When I was approached to design and facilitate a conference about Shabbat innovation, my first question was, “can it be weird?” Meaning: could we innovate our process of creating the conference and engage with the content and context in new ways that could be rooted in tradition but not necessarily traditional. The answer was “yes.”
Through a collaborative partnership between the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Leichtag Foundation, we created Rekindle: A Shabbat Studio. Rekindle sought to catalyze a community of practice among professionals and “unprofessionals,” and provide a space for Shabbat innovators from around the world to build relationships, share best practices and connect around inventive Shabbat approaches rooted in playful exploration and joy.
We approached Rekindle as a way to “set the table for people who set tables” and designed the gathering to reflect the experimental and hyper-creative nature of the attendees. In order to construct Rekindle, we deconstructed Shabbat into key elements that were woven into all aspects of the gathering: Tablemaking (food, physical table, conversation), Prayer/Spirituality (ritual, meditation, connecting), Rest (unplugging, be-ing, play) and Radical Amazement (inspiration and wow-ness taken from the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel).
For three days on a farm by the sea, participants attended peer-led sessions ranging from cocktail and pickle making to “Creating Awesome Shabbat Experiences for ‘Bad Jews’” to a spices of Jerusalem workshop to late night talks about radical hospitality and text study exploring sex and the Sabbath. Special guests included Michael Hebb of Death Over Dinner, Amichai Lau Lavie of Lab/Shul, Lea Thau of The Moth and KCRW and Aliza Kline of OneTable.
Here’s what we learned:
Connections are powerful. Diversity is a strength. Participants must be trusted to guide their own experiential learning. We can and should combine sacred rituals with creative play.
Connections (Personal and Professional)
Attendees shared that the highlight of Rekindle was connecting both on personal and professional levels, and many left with concrete plans to collaborate. Because the peer-led sessions ranged from such a wide variety of subjects and approaches, Rekindlers were encouraged to choose sessions based not only on their professional development, but also their personal Shabbat practices and questions.
Diversity as a Strength
Rekindle was designed with an intentional focus on participant diversity. We aimed to have participants represent formal and informal, grassroots and institutional Shabbat experiences. Rekindlers represented different streams of Jewish observance, artists of different mediums, as well as international, emerging spiritual and marginalized communities (including LGBTQ, Jews of color, and Russian Jewish communities). The diversity at the Studio contributed to an immersive experience full of new ideas, rituals, individuals and initiatives. It also helped that while we practiced the elements of Shabbat, the gathering did not actually take place during Shabbat, which allowed everyone to experiment and play with ritual regardless of personal practice.
Self-Guided and Experiential Learning
It was clear from the beginning that the Shabbat innovators in attendance had invaluable skills and passions and could co-create the experience. Participants created their own journeys using an app that gave them a full rundown of the sessions and bios. This promoted a sense of freedom and autonomy, which set the tone for the entire gathering. The arc of Rekindle also contributed to the experiential learning mode of the Studio. We opened the Studio with candlelighting and a mock Shabbat dinner and closed with a Havdalah ceremony at sunset – in this instance not separating Shabbat from the week, but transitioning from the week into Shabbat.
The Makers Space, an arts and crafts workshop room, was a unique component of Rekindle. With tables covered in multi-media materials, workshops in this space included candle making, origami, coloring, eruv building and flower arranging. Many Rekindlers cited the Makers Space as a key element of their experience: a place to create, color, rest, relax and simply talk.
Emphasis on Creativity and Play
Both in the design and during the gathering itself, we reflected on what makes a Shabbat dinner a Shabbat dinner. We landed on the idea that Shabbat holds an intangible sense of magic. In order to access this magic, we infused creativity and playfulness into the program and consistently invited Rekindlers to play along. To further ignite the concept in Rekindlers, we modeled it through static and engaging interactions and encouraged participants to look for and co-create radical amazement throughout each day. Surprises and an intense level of detail were part of a strategy to make participants feel taken care of, special, and that we were investing in their experience. These details modeled our request of Rekindlers to “go all in” and bring their full selves to the experience.
Perhaps the most immersive experience happened on Wednesday night, at the peak of the gathering. The dining room was transformed into a magical, white-themed wonderland for dinner, an LED lit balloon tunnel led into the “Tisch in the Tent,” and balloon artists and a Rekindler DJ from Buenos Aires started the Tisch with a dance party. The Tisch later transitioned into a more traditional singing and storytelling tisch co-led by secular lay leaders and rabbis.
On the last day of Rekindle: A Shabbat Studio, we spent time brainstorming, collectively dreaming and pledging individually what we wanted to offer and what we wanted to receive from this newly catalyzed community of practice. Since Rekindle, us organizers have gone through all of these suggestions, ideas, and proposals, and we’re currently prioritizing and planning next steps. Stay tuned for more details about how we plan to keep Rekindlers connected, as well as how we plan to scale the work and create happenings, resources, and new connections to continue growing and deepening the relationships, best practices, and international community of Shabbat innovators. Don’t worry; we’re keeping it dreamy and just a little bit weird.
Alison Laichter is a consultant, urban planner, community organizer and meditation teacher based in sunny southern California. She is the founder of the Jewish Meditation Center, believes that tikkun olam – repairing the world – happens from the inside out, and she loves working with communities and organizations to create inclusive, accessible and radically amazing experiences.
Cross-posted on Schusterman.org/Blogs