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Grassroots Jews

Logging onto Facebook recently, I received an invitation to join an initiative called Grassroots Jews, a project led by a small group of people working together to put on High Holy Day services in north west London this year.  Not within an existing synagogue, not even in partnership with an existing synagogue, but entirely independently.  They are flying in a guest cantor and teacher from Israel – a remarkable Jewish leader, musician and professor of medieval Jewish history at the University of Haifa – and are going it alone.  They are raising the funds by charging a £45 flat fee for all Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services (less if that is prohibitive), and they are not offering one service, but two – a traditional option and an alternative option. 

The somewhat curious fact that the traditional option is happening in an alternative setting isn’t really acknowledged, any more than the completely bewildering fact that the alternative option is, of course, an alternative to a traditional option that is, in and of itself, an alternative.  If that makes sense.  The organizing group includes some well-known characters in the 30-something age band – former senior players in the Union of Jewish Students, Bnei Akiva, Noam and RSY-Netzer, highly-involved Limmudniks, Moishe House activists, children of well-known rabbis, etc.  In short, people you would think the community would be bending over backwards to include within existing frameworks.

What they promise, in a funky, downloadable video produced to recruit participants, is “the most exciting autonomous & non-hierarchical Judaism ever to surface.”  The unstated and implicit critique is that the Judaism they find elsewhere in the community is rather dull, meaningless and stuffy, and that they are largely unwilling to buy into a model of community that implicitly, if not explicitly, demands that they sign-up for the whole synagogue package at considerable expense.  What they want is to go to services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that touch them, inspire them, and speak to them.  They want to be part of a community – albeit just for three days – that wants to daven in a serious way, participate, sing, and engage in the underlying meaning that permeates the High Holy Day liturgy.  Perhaps most of all, they want to do it their way, on their terms, and with their people.  They’ll pay £45 for that.

On closer examination, it turns out that Grassroots Jews is actually loosely associated with an informal Carlebach-style minyan which meets from time to time in Belsize Park or West Hampstead, and that suggests these Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services will be quite an experience.  I went along to the Carlebach minyan a few weeks ago, and participated in a kabbalat shabbat service that could proudly stand alongside the best of what Jerusalem or Tzfat has to offer.  There were 100 or so people present, packed into a small living room, overflowing out into the garden, singing so vibrantly and passionately that the room itself wasliterally reverberating with excitement.  This was grassroots, informal, non-ideological Judaism at its best and most vibrant.

Who can blame them for wanting Judaism this way?  It is possible to get anything we like “our way” nowadays.  When we buy a car or a computer, we choose the make, the model, the accessories, the financing plan.  When we buy a holiday, we have the possibility of building our own itinerary on our own terms – no one imposes anything on us unless we wish to choose from one of the numerous package options that are available to us (which is hardly an imposition).  When we buy a meal, we select our preference from the menu of options, and even then, are fully entitled – and expect – to be able to replace one side dish with another, or ask for our selected option with or without certain ingredients.  In such a social context, the very idea of a one-size fits all Judaism doesn’t exactly resonate.

But it’s actually more complex than that.  Grassroots Jews is also loosely connected to another similar initiative called Wandering Jews that currently meets to daven and to eat in a different home twice a month (“we never go to the same house twice”).  Describing itself as “a little bit Fight Club, a little bit minyan, almost 100% good,” the hosts determine the minhag at each meeting – they do it their way according to their style of Judaism.  Everyone brings some food to share.  There are no leaders controlling the agenda, just “custodians” who care forthe group’s continued existence.  Not indefinitely mind you; just for as long as there is demand.  If Wandering Jews wander off elsewhere, the entire initiative may disappear or morph into something else.  In the meantime, they are open to “all Jews and the people who love them” and they “do not ask questions in relation to people’s Jewish status or level of observance.”  And perhaps most intriguingly, they are “post-philanthropic” – that is they “eschew funding or offers of funding” as “asking for funding is akin to asking for permission to exist.”

In defining its philosophy thus, Wandering Jews actually goes a significant step further than Grassroots Jews.  It is not comprised of a clearly homogeneous group of Jews looking for a particularly type of shared religious experience.  It is more experimental, more open, more willing to accept– or at least explore – multiple versions of Judaism and Jewishness.  It is also more anti-establishment – whilst Grassroots Jews has neither requested nor soughtout communal approval, Wandering Jews actively shuns it.

Together, Grassroots Jews and Wandering Jews are being spearheaded by people in their 20s and 30s – predominantly single, unmarried or recently-married young adults who do not feel the need for the more concrete and stable versions of community that one typically finds within an existing synagogue framework. Yet some in the community mainstream tend to adopt a rather laissez faire attitude to these and other similar endeavours.  Their argument is that with the passage of time, as these people settle down and start families, their passion for Judaism will almost inevitably ensure that they slot into the mainstream and the structure and stability it offers.

But is this the case? I’m not so sure.  As Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams have argued in their international bestseller Wikinomics, members of the “Net Generation” – those who have grown up with the Internet as a norm rather than a novelty – may well differ significantly from their forebears in terms of outlook, expectations and foundational conceptions of community.  They have little faith in the "authoritative” or “authentic” view – they scrutinize and sift through information at the click of a mouse, and figure out what makes sense to them on their own terms.  They are not content to be passive consumers – they increasingly satisfy their desire for choice, convenience, customization and control by designing and producing their own products and initiatives.  And they don’t retreat into an individualized, lonely and closed world behind their computer screen – they collaborate and network in the vast array of communities online. 

We can see all of these trends in the Jewish initiatives described above, and we shouldn’t be surprised if they continue to inform Jewish behaviour patterns asthe cohort enters its 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond.  The likelihood is surely that, even if this generation does begin to gravitate towards the more established communal frameworks, they will do so with a set of assumptions that will demand and necessitate significant change.

Grassroots Jews may well be a small, fringe endeavour, that barely registers on the communal Richter Scale in 2009.  But the principles, attitudes and behavioursthat underpin it are likely to herald a whole range of changes to Jewish life in the coming decades that are almost impossible to predict.  Grassroots Americans recently elected the first African American president; who knows what Grassroots Jews might achieve?


Grassroots Jews is a co-publication of Zeek and the London-based New Jewish Thought

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