The Essential Nature of Spiritual Community

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 26a – “Building the Jewish People – One Community at a Time”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Nate DeGroot

It will be our ability to see all of humanity, in addition to the natural and more than human world, as members of one precious community of purpose that will allow us to live in a world that reflects that truth back.

In the wilderness of Sinai, God tells the Israelite people to build a mikdash, a sacred space, so that God can dwell amongst them (Exodus 25.8). But what should that sacred space look like? According to the medieval commentator, Rashi, anytime a sacred space is built, it should be constructed according to the original tabernacle’s blueprint – ”ta’asu l’dorot/you shall make it [like this] forever (Rashi, Exodus 25.9).” However, when Solomon later built his Temple, it had an entirely different design. How can this be?

The 18th century Hasidic commentator, the Kedushat Levi, offers a solution: Instead of reading “l’dorot” as “forever,” we should read Rashi’s instruction as “in every generation.” That is, it is up to each generation – l’dorot – to build their version of sacred space and spiritual community according to their particular prophecy and context.

For three years I worked at IKAR in Los Angeles, as Rabbinic Intern and then as the inaugural Jewish Emergent Network Rabbinic Fellow. During this time, I was given the privilege and task of building up IKAR’s young adult community, TRIBE. Steeped in the values and practices of the Jewish Emergent Network and inspired by the Kedushat Levi – the following values became key components of what worked well in trying to build the next generation of IKAR leaders.

Listening and relationships: To begin the process of building TRIBE, it was critical to understand what people wanted, so we could help them create a community that reflected their desires. It was also paramount that we invest in personal relationships with the people we were trying to build with. People join, and much more importantly, stick with community long-term, because they care about people and people care about them.

Spiritual depth: When we listened to what folks wanted, we heard repeatedly that people were looking for more than “just social.” There are plenty of places where young adults can socialize. There are far too few places where they can be nourished spiritually, stretched intellectually, and feel honored as living, complex beings in a complex world. Judaism is a multi-thousand-year-old tradition with deep roots and wellsprings of wisdom that has nourished our people across time and space. Instead of watering down our tradition or devaluing the substance for the false assumptions of lower barriers to entry, what our people wanted was higher stakes and loftier aspirations. The goal was not just a social community, but, like IKAR, a spiritual community genuinely and seriously rooted in Jewish wisdom, and in service of the transformation of self and world.

Cocreation: How do we build transformative community? Together. When we initially put out an invitation to be part of TRIBE Builders – the group of lay-leaders that would together build the community that we wanted to be part of – seven people showed up. Two years later, we had 49 lay-leaders on teams and in leadership positions. Our people wanted to participate in creating the community they wanted to be part of and it was their incredible dedication that kept TRIBE growing and thriving.

Inclusivity: Within TRIBE, we were trying to live out the values of IKAR and the Jewish Emergent Network as a whole, by embodying the world we wished to see. A world in which every person is treated with infinite dignity, and those who have been heard least and last lead the way forward. It was vital to TRIBE Builders that we actively worked to uplift women, queer folk, Jews of Color, Jews by Choice, aspiring Jews, and those from other marginalized groups within the Jewish community.

With these values at the fore, our numbers and impact continued to increase, with hundreds consistently connecting to TRIBE, to IKAR, and to the world of the Jewish Emergent Network.

At the conclusion of my Fellowship in 2018, I moved to Detroit, Michigan, where I joined Hazon, the Jewish lab for sustainability. Hazon recognizes that we are in the midst of a global climate crisis and we believe that Jewish tradition compels us to respond. At our Michigan-based office, we seek to help the metro Detroit Jewish community reconnect with its own earth-based Jewish roots, while reinvesting in its historic relationship with the city of Detroit through the city’s transformative, Black and Native-led food and environmental justice work. Now, working and living at the intersection of Judaism and climate, the values and practices listed above continue to hold true, with one key difference.

At IKAR I used to say that authentic, spiritual community was subversive. That there are so many forces that are trying to keep us apart as community – a culture of independence, consumption, competition, and superficiality to name a few – that real, honest, vulnerable community is a countercultural act that brings vitality and joy to those who participate in it.

While building that kind of community remains subversive, the difference I see now is that building that kind of community is also essential. As the realities of our climate crisis continue to reveal themselves, and as the adaptation that will be required begins to set in, what is becoming increasingly clear is that our long-range resilience must be rooted in relationship. That the faith and ingenuity required to reconstruct an emerging society in real time, will inevitably correspond with our ability and willingness to collaborate, alongside our visionary commitment to connection. In the past, spiritual community might have been considered a luxury, an additive. But today, it seems as though the sustainability and viability of this generation’s tabernacle – our planet earth – will depend on our ability to come together, as Jews, firmly rooted in our own faith tradition, and as humans, full participants in our holistic and enmeshed world. It will be our ability to see all of humanity, in addition to the natural and more than human world, as members of one precious community of purpose that will allow us to live in a world that reflects that truth back.

Covid-19 Addendum

When I wrote that last paragraph, it was about a month before Covid-19 hit the US. Little did I know how prescient those words would come to be. In the months since, we have seen society turned upside down, with many of the structures that we rely upon daily and assume to be stable, abruptly upended. Our public health systems, education systems, financial support systems, food systems, and more, severely disrupted by the global pandemic, leaving many already vulnerable people even that much more vulnerable. In the midst of this, how have individuals and families been able to survive? Through the kind of deep, honest, and vulnerable, relationships and community that I wrote about previously. Mutual-aid networks and volunteer grocery shoppers, food rescuers and garden planters, this is how we’ve made our way amidst quarantine. Not only is building resilient communities essential for the impending challenges of climate change, it’s essential for the present challenges of the Coronavirus.

I have heard Covid-19 called a dress rehearsal for climate change, because the level and depth of upheaval that we’re currently experiencing will, unfortunately, be a sort of practice for what’s to come. What’s even more clear now, is that it will take committed networks of friends and neighbors – community by choice and community by proximity – across multiple generations, with varying skill-sets and knowledge, in communication and solidarity, showing up for one another in the best ways we know how – to weather the harshest storms of today and tomorrow. So let’s keep building!

Rabbi Nate DeGrootis the Associate Director, Spiritual & Program Director at Hazon Detroit. Ordained from Hebrew College in 2016, he has previously served as the inaugural Jewish Emergent Network Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR in Los Angeles and founded Mikdash, a grassroots cooperative Jewish community in Portland, OR.

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.

Selective essays from this issue can be found here; the complete PDF containing all the essays is available here.