Fellowship Program

An Israeli journey from the spirit of the community to the soul of the building

By Ori Resheff and Ofer Sabath Bet-Halachmi

Its Friday morning, at the Petah Tikva community center. A large hall is filled with over 200 participants of the first gathering of Israeli grassroots communities that are exploring new directions in Jewish life. The location is anonymous, simple, almost bland place. Some participants exchange greetings but most are seeing each other for the first time.

The gathering begins with a song accompanied by guitar. Within a few minutes the music pervades hall and the collection of individual participants evolves into a true audience A group that is united through the music, by its joint singing together and listening – A sense of energy and inspiration reverberates in the circle of participants. The values of an evolving Jewish Israeli identity, the motive for the gathering, cohere the individuals into a true "audience" and, in turn, the audience into a "place of meaning."

This communal experience, like the many held around the country of each one of these grassroots communities, testifies to the renewed interest of many Israelis in a value-based, Jewish lifestyle. These gatherings give us the opportunity to adopt a renewed Jewish lifestyle that is relevant to contemporary life, to learn through questioning, and to maintain an open mind and creative spirit regarding various aspects of our culture.

"Journy from the soul of the community to the heart of the building" is a structured process in which a community comes to learn its values and mode of action. This includes increased knowledge as well as a sense of personal and group experience, which offer answers to critical questions regarding the future of the community. This process was developed by Ori Resheff and Rabbi Ofer Sabath Bet-Halachmi through the work of the Aspaklaria initiative (Paths to Renewing Jewish Creativity), and was conducted for the first time in the Tzur Hadassah progressive Judaism congregation upon its relocation to a new community campus.

The process involves three components:

These represent the hidden elements that connect individuals into a collective audience and this audience into a defined space.

These three factors are necessary for the existence of the triangle, but their size, importance and character may differ from one community to the next, as well as in the same community over an extended period of time.


Our working assumption is that there are multiple answers to every question and that each community finds its own appropriate path, which accurately reflects its value system and involves a heightened awareness of the three sides that constitute the triangle.

The interplay between these components -- along with the experiential "textual-visual" learning specific to the Aspaklaria method - works toward insights that shed light on the values of the community. It does so by assiting the community in understanding its needs, and subsequently to materialize these in a place that will meet both the communityʹs needs and defining parameters to be realized in the structure that will both meet community requirements and values.

We regard this as a learning process, a communal self-inquiry that is a value in itself, empowering the community.

Congregants

Members' meeting on a kibbutz, 1940's
Members' meeting on a kibbutz, 1940's

The gathering of individuals in the form of public, social and religious groups is an age-old phenomenon that reflects a human necessity, and which has been subject to countless variations throughout the course of history.

The sense that the power of the congregation at an assembly is larger than its individual parts motivated people to focus these gatherings toward social, religious and even political purposes.

The transformation of a group of people into a congregation and community is a gradual, dynamic process that is usually initiated by a handful committed people and in time takes on a life of its own.

The communities under present consideration usually prefer to create a framework befitting their individual participants. In this regard while a particular community may adhere to an existing ideology one can find significant differences in the nature and mode of action that characterizes otherwise similar communities.

Assembly at a "mega" Church - USA
Assembly at a "mega" Church - USA

Inasmuch as the growth of a community is a dynamic, ongoing process, taking time out for a period of self-reflection is of great importance. The clarification of value-related issues and organizational modes that have become a part of the fabric of the community's tradition generates periods of growth, unification and renewal.

The challenges that face a congregation include: durability, enlarging the circle of participants and creating a meaningful experience.

The more veteran the community the more essential it is to reevaluate the relevance of its basic values for the existing group. For example, a group of founding members made up of young couples with children becomes, after a period of 20 years, a group of middle-aged couples whose interests may be vastly different. At the same time the founding members usually wish to continue playing a vital role in the community.

The perception of Judaism by the secular Israeli population deters a great number of Israelis from participation in a Jewish lifestyle that is relevant to contemporary life. Some will attend isolated activities in the community, relating to particular cultural or social matters, or take part in a prayer service on Yom Kippur. What will make them feel a sense of belonging? What will spark their curiosity and desire to participate in other activities without feeling threatened?

Members of a considerable number of new Israeli communities begin their journey with little background on Judaism in general and prayer in particular, and with great suspicion of the -"unknown." The reconnection to the Jewish sources occurs gradually. This journey of reconnection in new communities takes place in the context of a group, making the process easier for participating members and transforming it into a unifying, exciting experience.

The question of accepting new members into existing communities necessitates serious consideration along with methods that will lessen feelings of embarrassment and ignorance.

Place

Assembly at a "mega" Church - USA
Assembly at a "mega" Church - USA

The assembly takes place in an environment that represents the second side of the triangle. Whether held in an arbitrary public building, outside or in a designated space, the environment hugely impacts the nature of the meeting, the participants and the assembly's added value.

In general we take for granted the spaces that we use. We need to acknowledge that we are greatly influenced by spaces, on both conscious and subconscious levels. The way in which we relate to our spaces determines whether they work for us or whether we become subject to them.

The height of the ceiling, amount of light, outside view, wall color and floor type all influence our feelings when we inhabit a particular place. This is especially true in a communal gathering whose aim is to transmit to participants a comfortable and even uplifting feeling. The furnishings and interior design also have a great impact on the participant's feelings.

Zedek Veshlom Synagogue – Surinam
Zedek Veshlom Synagogue – Surinam
Photo – Micha Baram
Photo catalog of Mordechau Arbel's collection by- Yad Ben Zvi

Many congregations have ignored the role of the space in creating a desired communal experience.

It is essential that communities which assemble in temporary spaces or other public buildings invest time in finding ways to influence the character of the space, if only for the time of the gathering itself.

In designing the gathering space there are usually tense relations between those in the community who long for a sense of permanence and a familiar, homely feeling, and the desire of others and new members to influence the place and make it their own.

A decision on the architectural message of the space intended for pluralistic Jewish assemblies in Israel necessarily involves a discussion of the values that community members wish to convey upon entering the building. Where do they situate themselves on the secular-religious continuum? What is the message given to secular or religious visitors? What is the message conveyed to passersby?

Values

The aspect of values interweaves the audience and space in an ongoing and organic fashion. Any decision regarding the character of the service, choice of texts, seating arrangement and of course the shape and nature of the space constitutes a decision of value as such. A debate regarding different fields and subjects also requires an acknowledgment of the community's basic values.

Prayer is perhaps the most problematic aspect for most members of the audience who were not raised religiously. The possibility of feeling "connected" to prayer is tied to the text which in many cases is problematic and unaccepted. The use of "diversion" techniques like ecstatic music and interpretation do not address the heart of the issue.

The creation of blessings and prayers that refer to subjects relevant to our lives, in line with the values of the community, as well as the incorporation of Israeli song, will allow more people to experience a meaningful prayer service and to connect on a spiritual level to the community and the scriptures.

Take for example the ceremony of lighting Sabbath candles. A familial lighting ceremony at home is of different value than a communal one. Similarly, the placement of Sabbath candles at the margins of the gathering hall bears a different weight than placing them at the entrance or facing the audience. It is clear that the use of a prayer which invokes the name of God is different than the messages conveyed by an original personal/communal blessing, as well as deciding when to light the candles.

A study and deliberation on the elements of the ceremony, in addition to the varied possibilities of conveying values through it, will show us how many of these originate in deep-seated perceptions of identity, and so bring about a meaningful and fruitful discussion.

The desire to draw in a wide audience of differing means of "connecting" and diverse values greatly influences the design of the ceremony and content in the community. At times design and content cohere randomly while at others in a self-conscious fashion. In any case it is important to remember the strength and impact of the messages they embody, so as to bring their spiritual foundations to the surface. The combined use of learning tools, experience and creativity in the Aspaklaria method allows to traverse the path between the soul of the community and heart of the building.

Rikma