In a Brooklyn coffeehouse one day this summer, Isabel Burton, a 30-year-old native of London, discussed local social activism opportunities with a 40something Jewish woman who lives in the borough. What issues move you, “what keeps you up at night?” Burton asked.
In another Brooklyn coffeehouse another recent day, Yehudit Feinstein, a Sabra, talked with a fellow Israeli native about the social and cultural needs of Brooklyn’s Israeli population. Both artists, both 35, both mothers of young children, they agreed that more programming needed to be created for Israelis living in Brooklyn.
Burton and Feinstein weren’t just philosophizing or sharing lattes — they were taking the first steps to create a new vision of the American synagogue.
The two are newly appointed Revson Fellows at Congregation Beth Elohim in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, a Reform synagogue that over the last half-decade has developed a reputation as a center of spiritual and cultural innovation — an outer borough version of Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun.
The synagogue now houses Brooklyn Jews, a seven-year-old program geared to the religious and educational needs of unaffiliated Jews.
The latest innovation at Beth Elohim is its Neighborhood Fellows.
Burton and Feinstein — along with Lauren Greilsheimer Shenkman, the congregation’s Bronfman Fellow for Community Engagement; and Marc Katz, its Revson Rabbinic Intern — began working three months ago as half-time employees of the synagogue, their work funded by national philanthropic organizations. The money provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation allows Beth Elohim to expand its outreach beyond its 1,000-member base and to concentrate on areas that appeal to the largely progressive Jewish residents of Park Slope, says Rabbi Andy Bachman, who has served as Beth Elohim’s spiritual leader since 2006.
A synagogue fellowship, says Rabbi Bachman, is “a chiddush — we created it,” using the Hebrew term for something new; a fellow has the opportunity to spend more time on one assignment than can synagogue employees who have divided responsibilities, or interns who often have other jobs or studying obligations. “It’s a way to bring more talent into the Jewish community.”
The rabbi says his shul, and IKAR, Rabbi Sharon Brous’ self-described “spiritual community” in Los Angeles, the other recipient of the Revson Foundation’s initial synagogue-based fellowships, are the first participants in this Revson fellowship program.
“The Revson Foundation is supporting two spiritual leaders whose synagogues are ‘living labs’ for what vibrant, urban Jewish community can be,” says Nessa Rapoport, senior program officer at the foundation. “You won’t find Andy behind his desk. He’s out in the cafés and streets of Brooklyn. The Revson Neighborhood Fellows base their community-building work on a profound understanding of the young Jews they serve.”
Since coming to Beth Elohim, Brooklyn’s largest Reform congregation, Rabbi Bachman has started or approved a series of creative classes and minyanim that earned it a spot on Newsweek’s list of the country’s 25 “most vibrant” synagogues last year. (The other New York synagogues on the list: B’nai Jeshurun, Central Synagogue and Kehilat Hadar in Manhattan, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and White Plains’ Temple Israel.)
The latest, most visible sign of Beth Elohim’s outreach to Brooklyn’s Jewish community — called Israelis In Brooklyn — may be its effort to organize the borough’s Israeli-born Jews.
While several existing programs — organized by the broader Jewish community and the Israelis themselves — offer a wide variety of activities in Manhattan and Queens for New York’s Israelis (estimates of their numbers vary widely from 80,000 to almost half a million), few such programs exist in Brooklyn, Feinstein says.
She says at least several thousand Israelis live in Brooklyn.
“To the best of our knowledge,” Beth Elohim’s synagogue bulletin states, “there is no other synagogue in the greater metropolitan area that has made a commitment to reach the Israelis in their midst.”
Feinstein, who moved to New York City a decade ago to pursue her painting career, joined the congregation’s religious school staff eight years ago and started organizing social activities for her Israeli friends in the borough two years ago, after she gave birth to twin boys.
She needed more social contacts then, a way to ensure that her sons would grow up in an Israeli milieu. “The need for a real community started to emerge once the boys were born,” Feinstein says. “I had to do it by myself.”
Setting up a Facebook page and Google group, using the word-of-mouth network of Brooklyn’s Israeli Jews, she attracted about three-dozen people to a potluck dinner at Beth Elohim. Attendance at subsequent events has steadily climbed, to 100 people, some from Manhattan and New Jersey, she says. “People were thanking me. People were craving for Israeli connections.”
The Israelis show up because the activities are in Israeli hands, Feinstein says, adding. “Israelis are running away from Jewish-American institutions.”
Israelis in the United States notoriously have little contact with the organized Jewish community, joining neither synagogues nor Jewish community centers.
“There is so much Israeliness we have not tapped,” because of the minimal contact here between Israelis and other Jews, Rabbi Bachman says. “Just as Russians [who have moved to the U.S.] tend to live in [ethnic] enclaves, so do Israelis.”
Usually they socialize among themselves, in parties or celebrations they put together.
Like what Feinstein has been doing.
As the Revson Fellow for Israelis In Brooklyn, Feinstein can do this organizing work on a more formal basis; this fall she is establishing at the congregation a weekly educational program for young children called Keshet (Hebrew for rainbow), and a separate bi-weekly program for toddlers. Feinstein will also run regular holiday and social events for families.
Next: a post-Rosh HaShanah party on Saturday.
To spread the word, Feinstein arranged meetings with many Israelis, mostly at cafés, this summer. “All the meetings were very intense, very intimate,” she says.
“People were begging me to have more activities,” says Feinstein, a native of Rehovot who served as an education officer in the Israeli army and has studied psychoanalysis.
Some of the Israelis In Brooklyn members have subsequently joined Beth Elohim, she says. “They feel embraced [by the American-Jewish community] for the first time. They feel welcomed.”
Most of those joining Israelis In Brooklyn are young families. “Unlike their predecessors in earlier eras, this group resists being categorized in the simplistic and judgmental category of ‘yordim’ (those who have ‘descended’ from the State of Israel) and instead are seeking to create a positive experience of community while living here,” an information sheet produced by Israelis In Brooklyn states.
Sharon Avnon, an Israeli-born graphic designer who has lived here 12 years, says she joined Israelis in Brooklyn for its social emphasis. “I’m not religious,” she says.
“I think I’m typical,” she says. Fellow Sabras understand “how hard it is to live here in the United States without your family.” The activities organized by Feinstein, Avnon says, are “a great opportunity to meet people who speak Hebrew, to have the kids in a Hebrew-speaking environment. It helps people feel more at home.”
Unlike Feinstein, who is expanding a pre-existing program, Burton is starting a new one.
As Revson fellow for community organizing, she is working to focus the activities of the Brooklyn Jews group, who already have an interest in social action issues, and to interest synagogue members in becoming participants in social action programs.
“The aim of the position is to find ways for the CBE community to get even more involved in local concerns and wider social justice issues,” according to the current issue of the Beth Elohim bulletin.
Burton has spent the summer on a “listening campaign,” introducing herself to the local Jewish community, in one-on-one meetings in coffeehouses or in the synagogue library or in people’s homes, to determine social issues of greatest concern.
So far, such issues as the environment, homelessness, rights of restaurant workers and prison reform rank high, she says.
“I have met so many interested, passionate people,” says Burton, who previously ran similar programs in England and Brazil.
After the High Holy Days, Burton says she will start developing programs about specific issues.
To complement her fellowship, she is receiving training in community organizing from the Jewish Funds for Justice.
Rabbi Bachman, who came to Beth Elohim after directing the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, says the spirit of the fellowships is consistent with the synagogue’s history (it was part of the synagogue-center movement of the 1920s, which incorporated extracurricular activities like athletics into the institution’s primarily religious mission) and with its recent legacy of activism (it regularly sponsors such events as blood drives and food drives).
“We have a long tradition” of addressing the needs of the wider community, Rabbi Bachman says. “We were very good at succeeding in one-off [one-day] social programs,” he says.
The fellowships give the synagogue’s social activism and outreach to Israelis a more sustained, permanent basis, the rabbi says.
The success of Burton and Feinstein, Rabbi Bachman says, will be traced to the hours they spent in coffee-houses this summer, asking what was on the minds of Brooklyn’s Jews. “You have to listen to what Jews want.”