Do-It-Yourself Judaism

In the remote Panamint Valley desert of Southern California, Sarai Shapiro, 31, will be celebrating Passover with a community of about 150, connecting to herself, God, and nature. Each participant in the Berkeley-based “Wilderness Torah” festival program that she coordinates will have a role in the multigenerational “village” they will create together: teachers, musicians, cooks, healers, council members, and more. On one of the five days of the festival, each person will go out on a mini-exodus of their own to bring awareness to their personal life journeys. “It’s such an empowering way of being part of a Jewish community and experiencing this tribe of Jewish people,” says Shapiro, who also organizes Shavuot on the Mountain, Sukkot on the Farm and Tu B’Shvat in Redwood Park. “People step into a place of leadership they haven’t stepped into before. It’s a process of creating community from the ground up.” (www.wildernesstorah.org)

From his MacBook Pro at home in Atlanta, Patrick Aleph, 29, leads the online grassroots Jewish community he has created, PunkTorah.org. With a small staff and volunteers across the country, he has developed numerous multimedia projects that offer a variety of entry points into Judaism, including two siddurim, six e-books, two YouTube channels, a Tweet on Jewish law and Websites about God and kashrut (The G-dproject.org and Newkosher.org) He has even established what he calls Oneshul.org, the world’s first virtual, lay-led independent minyan broadcasting live, interactive classes, prayer services, holiday events and a virtual prayer wall for yahrzeit and misheberach. “We use contemporary tools to promote something ancient,” says Aleph.

It’s Do-It-Yourself Judaism, or as Brooklyn digital strategist and web designer Daniel Sieradski puts it, “Jew-it-Yourself.” (www.jewityourself.org) One DIY project may look very different from another, but their battle cries are similar: Take back the ownership of your own Jewish experiences. Find fulfillment by accessing what is meaningful to you, individually or in a community. Embrace diversity and inclusiveness. Learn what you need in order to create what you want.

Characterized by this empowered and consensus-based approach, DIYers are spawning innovative projects to satisfy their thirst for knowledge, connection and personal meaning, often outside the lines of established institutions. A DIYer might be the individual who searches for online resources to fashion a meaningful seder or a sustainable Hanukkah celebration, or a participant in the nearly 100 lay-led, volunteer-driven independent minyanim that have sprung up across the country. DIYers have initiated projects like Moishe Houses, a network (now up to 46 homes in 14 countries) through which twentysomethings plan and provide Jewish programming for their college-grad peers in exchange for rent subsidies, and Kevah, which brings together groups of friends who convene regularly to study Jewish texts in comfortable settings. And many DIYers gather at Limmud (“Learning”), a massive annual conference planned completely by volunteers that bills itself as an “opportunity to craft your own Jewish world.”

“In an age when many American Jews are increasingly unaffiliated, disaffiliated, postdenominational, post-institutional, and `fluid’ in their identities, writes Sieradski in “A Jew-It-Yourself Mini-Manifesto” (Sh’ma, Feb. 2010), a younger generation of Jews informed by the openness of the Internet has harnessed their own “imaginations, inquisitiveness, and appreciation for the Jewish tradition…to forge new communities of thought and practice.” DIY proclaims the individual as master of his or her own Judaism, undertaking a spiritual quest not tied to any denomination, hierarchy, or central leadership.

A decade ago, sociologist Steven Cohen and American Judaism scholar Arnold Eisen (now chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary), described “The Sovereign Self: Jewish Identity in Post-Modern America” (The Jerusalem Letter, May 2001): Today’s…Jews are even less interested in denominational differences than their parents’ generation was, insisting on the right of individual autonomy when it comes to deciding the details of Jewish practice. On the other hand, theology is far from irrelevant…God is often quite important to them; spirituality is a felt concern; ritual and texts resonate with religious meanings that they view positively…they want to be Jewish because of what it means to them personally—not because of obligations to the Jewish group…” Personal meaning is the arbiter of Jewish involvement for this generation, say Cohen and Eisen, and Jewish meaning is “constructed, one experience at a time.”

According to Shaul Kelner, assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, the DIY phenomenon in general American culture emerged in the 1970s as a reaction to the mass-produced, homogenized and highly commercialized music industry. People started producing their own art and music instead of being passive consumers. “Today’s Jewish activists have picked up this critique,” writes Kelner (Shema, 2010).

“I can’t stand cookie-cutter Judaism,” says Jay Michaelson, 40, a writer, scholar, and activist whose work addresses the intersections of religion, sexuality, spirituality, and law.  A contributing editor to the Forward, Michaelson wrote an article last year [sept 2011] entitled, “Don’t Call the Rabbi, Make Your Own Rituals.” “I don’t want to follow orders,” he says. “I don’t want to be a customer, a consumer or an audience member. I want to be a participant, a co-creator and a co-owner of the world I inhabit.”

Michaelson did exactly that in planning his wedding this past summer. Though a rabbi-friend officiated, Michaelson composed and wrote his own ketubah in language based on the traditional form—reinterpreted and adapted for a same-sex couple. He and his partner created and took vows, which are rare in Jewish tradition. Michaelson, who has developed numerous rituals and liturgies for Shabbat, holidays and lifecycle occasions, and recently officiated at the funeral of a family member, admits his level of fluency with Judaism is high, but, he says, “a huge percentage of Jewish practice doesn’t require a paid expert.”

The independent minyan movement espouses that philosophy. Its major voice is Mechon Hadar, an educational institution that seeks to “create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer, and service” through two main initiatives: Yeshivat Hadar, the first full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America, and the Minyan Project, which provides resources to the network of independent minyanim. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of Mechon Hadar’s leaders and co-founders, aptly titled his recent book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights).

DIYers agree that Judaism has always encouraged ownership of one’s religious life. Sieradski even positions Abraham as the first DIY Jew who, according to the midrash, set out on his own path after smashing his father’s idols. In the most recent past, the initiation of the Havurah movement in the 1970s reflected the search for alternatives to institutional Judaism. The National Havurah Committee (NHC) continues to spearhead a network of diverse individuals and communities who, according to its Web site, “envision a joyful grassroots Judaism, and has provided the tools to help people create empowered Jewish lives and communities. The NHC is…nondenominational, multigenerational, egalitarian, and volunteer-run.”

“The issue in the 1960s and ‘70s was that nobody was taking personal responsibility for their own Jewish life and figuring out what they needed and how to get it,” says Sharon Strassfeld, 61, who in 1973 co-edited The Jewish Catalog, a “do-it-yourself kit” that taught everything from how to make a tallit to “using the Jewish establishment—a reluctant guide.” A real estate investor who lives in Great Barrington, MA today, Strassfeld says that the three Jewish Catalogs sought to increase comfort level with tradition.

So how innovative is DIY Judaism? What’s new, says Michaelson, is the ethos and the mass scale. People in their 20s and 30s take for granted that they will be creating their own experiences, he says, much like generating a playlist on an iPod rather than simply spinning a record.

“I don’t think the individual independent spirit is new,” agrees Aleph. “What’s different this time is the huge role of technology.” He clarifies that DIYers use two kinds of technologies: tools and communities. “YouTube and books are tools that show videos and provide information. Social media like Facebook create community, real community, the same as a synagogue or JCC.”

A punk musician who grew up non-religious, Aleph attended a community college and began exploring Judaism at age 23. He felt like an outsider in the Atlanta-area synagogues he attended—too religious for the liberal community, too liberal for the Orthodox world, and marginalized by the academically oriented Jewish perspective. “I was part of a community that was not being spoken to and had no resources,” he says. Loneliness motivated him to start the PunkTorah blog in 2009: “I wanted to find my place.”

Aleph adopted his last name as an adult (partly to remove himself from conventional Jewish geography) and intentionally chose to label his Jewish identity with the punk descriptive. “It’s the most aggressive term you can use for an outsider rebel innovator,” he explains. “It’s meant to shock people out of complacency and into the reality of what Judaism is about: the individual relationship to the divine.” He is especially adamant about every individual’s access to education. “Jewish learning is not confined to those who go to rabbinical school. It’s about the individual taking control. Every person who wants to enter into the Jewish experience owns Torah. There’s no qualification.”

Paradoxically, Aleph is now studying to be a rabbi himself through the distance-based Rabbinical Seminary International. His online community asks spiritual and practical questions all the time, he says, and he wants to facilitate the answers.  “DIY means educated people making their own decisions as opposed to uneducated people thinking they don’t have the right to make decisions. Therefore we have an obligation to study, so we can come to our own decisions and conclusions.”

DIY Judaism spans all the denominations and does not necessarily imply an outsider status, says Michaelson, who has lived Conservative, Orthodox and non-Orthodox lifestyles and has incorporated other spiritual traditions into his practice.  He himself dodges the question of his current denominational affiliation, preferring to call himself “non-denominational” (“It’s easier to say what I am not”). He founded Nehirim, a national community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews who are committed to creating “a more inclusive and just religious world.” The experience of exclusion led him and others to innovation, but it is not a necessary component, he notes.

In fact, traditional and knowledgeable Jews often do more themselves, and some Orthodox Jews are counting themselves among DIYers. Several independent minyanim, for instance, follow the model of the “partnership minyan,” in which women are included in ritual leadership (they may read Torah, receive aliyot and lead parts of the service like kabbalat Shabbat), but a quorum of ten men is required; men and women are separated by a mehitza, and the traditional liturgy is used.

It’s in the progressive Jewish world that creating Jewish experience requires education, effort and persistence—and DIY Judaism is not for those who “want answers handed to them on platter,” says Michaelson. “There’s a reason there are mega synagogues,” adds Aleph. “It’s easy and comforting to have someone do it for you. DIY organizations don’t have the same financial resources, brand names or seal of approval. That forces us to work harder. You can’t do this and be lazy. But there’s a feeling that you matter.”

Sieradski was one of the first to tap into the impulse of DIYers to share their knowledge. “Jewschool,” the blog he pioneered in 2002, kicked off the trend on how to “do” Judaism. Opensourcehaggadah.com, another Sieradski project (2003), facilitates the assembly of a customized haggadah and encourages Jews to construct their prayer experience. The Yelp-like ShulShopper.com allowed individuals to locate synagogues and independent minyanim, then to read and post reviews; it floundered because Jewish funders were wary of its potentially critical nature, says Sieradski, who calls himself a “post-Orthodox,” or “post-halakhic Jew:” “Sincere spiritual introspection and adherence to one’s innate, God-given sense of righteousness is more important than strict adherence to halakha.” One new Jew-it-Yourself project focuses on an engaging series of three-to-five-minute videos on meaningful options for Shabbat rituals, or how to do Shabbat at home with friends.

DIY Judaism provides free or low-cost alternatives to experience Jewish life, adds Sieradski, co-organizer of Occupy Judaism, which he describes as Occupy Wall Street’s independent minyan. This past Yom Kippur, 1500 people participated in a Kol Nidrei service organized in just two days.  “We didn’t charge. No one was asked to make a pledge. It wasn’t about keeping the lights on in an otherwise empty building. It was about bringing Judaism into our lives and making it relevant to the things we care about.” Volunteer musicians, rabbinical students and one rabbi worked together to create and lead the service, which was also shared online with Occupy Philly, Boston and DC (Oakland did its own service spontaneously). Since then Occupy Judaism has posted blogs on how to “occupy” (design events for) Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh and more. “That’s the ethic,” Sieradski notes. “We created something and shared it with others.”

While some may view the DIY movement as threatening to mainstream Jewish institutions, sharing resources has benefited both. When a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly read on the Facebook page that Occupy Judaism needed mahzorim, softcover versions of the Kol Nidrei service from Lev Shalem, its new mahzor, were quickly on their way, says RA executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld.  A PDF copy was available on the Facebook invitation for the New York City event.

“Wherever people are engaged in Judaism and bringing their passion and questions and Jewish neshamah to it—that’s exciting and positive. We want to bring resources to it wherever that happens,” says Schonfeld, pointing out that a havurah or independent minyan would not have been able to produce a similar mahzor (it took 12 years for a panel of rabbis and scholars). “There’s always room for people to reinvent Judaism in our own time and place.” The most important thing, says Schonfeld, “is that people are building community and have a connection to the worldwide Jewish community. Building new communities and new expressions is part of the exercise of all times.”

UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based organization which cultivates and funds innovative ventures like Kevah and Wilderness Torah (“Start up your Jewish idea!”), also consults with existing organizations like the 115-year-old Hebrew Free Loan Society in strategic redesign and connects a community of change-makers to ideas, resources and to each other. “We can leverage innovation, technology and creativity with the existing infrastructure to build a stronger community,” says Toby Rubin, UpStart’s CEO and founder. A Midwestern community, for instance, contacted UpStart to reimagine its model in the face of a shrinking and aging Jewish population and synagogue membership.

Rubin, 57, offers a reminder that DIY Judaism is not restricted to the younger generation. She had little Jewish knowledge herself—not even a bat mitzvah—until she made Jewish friends and became involved in leadership at the JCC where her children attended preschool. She was later accepted into the Wexner Heritage Foundation program and veered away from her legal career to become a Jewish professional. “I was 42 before I knew what I didn’t know,” she says. The overwhelming majority of Jewish adults today don’t go beyond bar or bat mitzvah, and many don’t even have that base knowledge, she notes. “It’s scary to create a Shabbat experience if you don’t have the tools to even ask the questions.” The groups she funds, she says, help people find their way to connect to their Jewish identities and to Jewish wisdom.

Rubin founded UpStart in 2006 to reflect the entrepreneurial spirit with which she wanted to energize the Jewish community. “I like leadership, and that’s where my creativity comes out. So I created an organization that is creating other organizations that are creating more meaningful Jewish experiences. I’m working with game-changers. It’s not that young Jews don’t care. When it’s the right thing, they do.”

Rubin does express some concerns. Jews in America are learning how to be “voluntary Jews,” she says. “There’s nothing other than maybe familial guilt requiring us to be Jewish. Every day that we do something Jewish it’s voluntary.” In addition, she says, in the context of American culture in which everything is tailored to individual needs, what will the impact be on Jewish peoplehood? On the value of being connected through ritual and practice? One of the benefits of DIY Judaism—that there’s no one way to be an authentic Jew—may also be its drawback—“there may be no common thread we can learn from.”

The “consumerist” approach to Judaism also troubles Strassfeld. “The sense that we are obligated to do certain things has been lost. People want a solely personally fulfilling Judaism.”  She expresses dismay that some Jewish parents don’t feel obligated to ensure that their children receive a basic Jewish education. “It’s harder to begin a journey as an adult when you have no background,” she says.

DIY Judaism increases bifurcations between “boutique” and “mass market” Judaism, notes Michaelson. “The challenge is how to accommodate DIY folks who want a juicy, engaged experience as well as people who have other things in life and prefer to just come to shul for something familiar and low-impact. The “new frontier,” he says, is the “full lifecycle phenomenon,”—when DIYers age and have children, or their parents pass away and they take on death and mourning rituals like chevra kadisha and sh’mira. Rabbis will always have a place, he says, but he would love to see progressive American Judaism encourage participation as the norm, not the exception.

“We’re living in an exciting time to be Jewish because of the flow of creativity. We don’t know the answers to what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century,” says Rubin. “We’re all artists and creators and we are looking forward to joining with leaders of existing organizations. There may be a lot of pain as we go through the process of change, but the faster we embrace the possibilities the sooner we will be able to move forward.”

Whether DIY Judaism is transformative only for the individuals who embrace it or also for the Jewish community as a whole, it represents “one more frequency in the spectrum of Jewish life,” says Sieradski. “It gives people who didn’t have a place before a home in the community.”