Igniting Community Through The Home

Igniting Community Through The Home

On July 1st, 2015, Faith and Jon Leener set out to build their home. They were newly married, about to finish graduate school, and only had a few boxes of books, some clothes, and a poster of the Beatles’ yellow submarine. That same day, in a different borough, their best friends, Avram and Yael Kornfeld-Mlotek set out to build their home. The Mloteks unpacked all of their instruments, Yiddish books, and placed a signed copy of Judy Chicago’s “Rainbow Shabbat” on the wall. Within weeks, both couples were hosting dinners, teaching classes, running support groups, cooking for the homeless, and collaborating with local institutions to run High Holiday services — all within the four walls of their Brooklyn and Manhattan apartments. This was not your typical first home.

The Leeners and the Mloteks are part of a new movement by Hillel International’s Office of Innovation to make pluralistic Jewish homes the center of education and spiritual life. Each couple runs what we call a Base, the private home of religiously diverse rabbis and educators that are explicitly open centers for learning, service, and spiritual practice. Base is founded on three principals: hakhnasat orchim (hospitality), gemilut chesed (acts of loving kindness), and elu’velu (to showcase and respect diverse perspectives).

Focusing on the home is not a new idea. Chabad has been sending shluchim (emissaries) to open Chabad Houses across the globe since the 1950s. Despite the success of Chabad, pluralistic Jewish communities have been reticent to focus on the home. We have centered our attention on spaces of worship and education. This choice has made it an extraordinary time to be a committed, educated, modern Jew. There are multiple master’s programs, rabbinical schools, and Batei Midrash. But if, for any number of reasons, you had an alienating experience with Jewish life, didn’t have the opportunity to gain textual fluency, or never found yourself within a welcoming community, your access points are few and far between. Hillel International’s Office of Innovation seeks to remedy this oversight.

Imagine, for a moment, that you just graduated college and are living alone, for the first time, in a new neighborhood. You meet a young woman at a coffee shop, who invites you to Shabbat dinner at a rabbi’s house. You have never been to a rabbi’s house. You arrive to a regular-seeming block, to a regular-seeming door, and you notice the strangest thing, the door is unlocked. The couple is expecting you. Faith and Jon greet you personally at the door, take your coat, and offer you something to drink. The room smells of fresh bread and the sounds are boisterous, the conversation irreverent and intimate. You learn that Faith grew up in an unaffiliated family and that, like you, only one of her parents was born Jewish. You also learn of Jon’s struggles to learn Talmud and become fluent in Jewish texts, of his deep desire to be of service, and of his devotion to his older brother with special needs. At the end of the night, Faith and Jon walk you to the door, hug you goodbye, and find a time to meet with you personally over coffee. Two weeks later you come back, you greet your friends, and you feel immediately at home.       

The Leeners and the Mloteks developed the approach and culture of Base under the guidance of Rabbi Dan Smokler, the chief innovation officer at Hillel International. Rabbi Smokler is an expert in, and a proponent of, what he calls rabbinic entrepreneurship. The position of Rabbi, he explains, no longer “comes with Jews.” Rabbis and educators have to learn ways to find and reach the individuals they will come to serve. Base couples build coalitions between seemingly disparate organizations and help community groups enhance their work in the field.

Base educators are trained to be more than just charismatic leaders; they are trained, in Smokler’s words “to be catalysts of Jewish life.” The charismatic model of leadership, he explains, is centered on the desire to build membership. In contrast, Smokler’s model, the catalytic form of leadership, “is less like a bright light and more like an electric current, it animates the entire system.” A Base doesn’t measure success on membership alone. Bases succeed when they enhance the work of their partners and give back economically and socially to their local community.

For the Mloteks and the Leeners, Bases are not only places to build friendships and find mentors; they are, crucially, spaces where diverse individuals can be of real service to their local communities. The day Avram moved into Base Dwtn, he noticed a line of men, women, and children winding out of St. Xavier’s church. He went inside, introduced himself to the clergy, and learned that every Sunday, St. Xavier feeds 1300 hungry individuals. Avram looked at his new colleagues and asked: “How can we be of service?” Since that day, Avram, Yael, their three-year-old daughter, and every Sunday guest at Base Dwtn has cooked a dinner for that shelter.

Hillel International’s Office of Innovation is committed to the home as a central space of Jewish learning. It is in the home that ritual is passed down, that content and care is combined, and that the sturdy reality of place steadies the challenges of itinerant youth. Too often, explains Smokler, Jewish programs geared to the young take individuals out of their daily life and utilize the language of travel, movement, or journey. Base does the opposite, it takes individuals in a period of life marked by transition and gives them a consistent space to feel oriented and beloved. Base, Smokler explains, is “not a journey but a homecoming.”

It takes individuals in a period of life marked by constant transition and gives them a consistent welcoming space for them to feel oriented and beloved. The Mloteks and the Leeners are committed to meeting people where they are and building community through honest friendship.

In Pirkei Avot we learn of two Yossis. One, the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah teaches us that our homes should be a meeting place for the wise. The other, the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem, teaches us that our homes should be wide open to the poor. Today, the Mlotkes and Leeners are devoting their lives to both positions. They are opening their homes to become centers of learning, they are opening their homes to become spaces of service, and they are opening their homes to give every young Jew the opportunity to participate in the joy and exquisite depth of our shared and diverse faith.

There are currently two Bases in greater New York and a third will open in Chicago next year. We need more. It is time to lift the value of the home to that of the school, so that couples like the Mloteks and the Leeners can open their doors and ignite our community, through the profound act of welcoming us all inside.

Tamara Mann Tweel, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at Hillel International’s Office of Innovation and the John Strassburger Fellow in American Studies at Columbia University where she teaches courses on the history and ethics of philanthropy and aging in America.

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