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Where Would Darwin Daven?

Depending upon your perspective, Jewish spiritual communities are either calcifying into pillars of salt, or experiencing a renaissance unlike anything since the havurah movement of the early 1970s.

The view from 30,000 feet is one of institutional religious Judaism, where membership in synagogues (at least in the non-Orthodox world) is both aging and diminishing. These synagogues are frequently failing to attract 20- and 30-somethings, which means their lifeline to the future is starting to fray. But the view from the street is that the growth of independent minyans and new spiritual communities is exploding, and is largely fed by that same demographic that is missing from many synagogues. If the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t get hip to what is driving the new start-ups soon, a whole parallel universe of Jewish communal life might just rise up and make the old structures irrelevant.

The Jewish emergent-community phenomenon is just beginning to coalesce — but one could argue that we are not seeing something brand new, but rather that these communities exhibit characteristics of what has always been compelling about organic Jewish community through the ages, distilled to its essence. Perhaps there was a similar blossoming of micro-communities after the Romans wrecked the Temple as rabbinic Judaism began to take hold. While an inherent critique of institutional Judaism fuels many of the upstart Jewish communities, from an evolutionary standpoint the whole Jewish religious ecosystem stands to benefit from their emergence.

One evolutionary theory holds that species go through periodic bursts of rapid adaptation in between long stretches of relative calm. We are now experiencing such a time of religious flowering across movements and faiths.

Some leading thinkers from the mainstream Jewish world have argued that the emergent phenomenon is a fringe development at best — and, at least in terms of the numbers of individuals involved, that is true. Synagogues are still the central institution of Jewish life, and the place where the vast majority of those searching for a Jewish spiritual community go. There’s also the argument that the new communities aren’t sustainable and that, in any case, they aren’t true synagogues. Last year’s study of the participants of these communities sponsored by the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar may indicate otherwise. Many of the emergent communities may eschew the “synagogue” label, but some are evolving to create a complete synagogue environment nonetheless.

The important distinction is not about nomenclature, but about inner nature. Many shul-goers would agree that there are plenty of synagogues that fail to be sacred communities. But we should also recognize that there are Jewish sacred communities that aren’t exactly synagogues.

Mainstream synagogues aren’t dinosaurs, but they do suffer from the kind of complacency and inbreeding typical of geographically isolated species. In the Galapagos Islands, which is famous for its secluded fauna, there is a species of bird called the blue-footed booby that has no fight-or-flight instinct at all. You can walk up to one, pick it up, poke it and prod it without the bird trying to escape or even reacting at all. The blue-footed booby simply has no experience with the idea of another animal being a threat.

Imagine what would happen if the ocean lowered enough to create a land bridge to the mainland. The boobies would have no skills to deal with the oncoming predators and get eaten for lunch. Synagogues today may be facing a similar challenge.

There may not be anything wrong with the underlying genome of synagogues, but too many are stuck with what synagogue revitalization expert Ron Wolfson calls “revolving-door membership.” Parents join when their first child hits school age and then disappear after their last child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah. That might be good for business, but it’s not so great for building community. It’s the Jewish communal equivalent of a cushy island with plenty of vegetation and no predators.

But in the past few years a land bridge has emerged. On the other side of the bridge are alternate spiritual paths, a plethora of weekend entertainment options, online social networks, affinity groups based upon love for your local sports team and a whole lot of other competition. The emergents seem to be the equivalent of a highly adaptive strain of Jewish blue-footed boobies, one that has learned quickly to evolve to suit the new environment. They actually thrive in the more competitive milieu — and are succeeding at what many established synagogues fail to do: create intentional sacred communities that are both sustaining and sustainable. If we could isolate the meme for that (a meme being the cultural equivalent of a gene) and splice that dynamism into the cultural DNA of all the other shuls that need help, we would be a long way toward making all synagogues great.

Or perhaps the memes that permit the emergents to thrive are just dormant in the Galapa-gogues but are being expressed in the new communities due to some kind of hybrid vigor between the emergents and modern culture. And perhaps those dormant memes can be reactivated in the mainstream synagogues so they too can flourish in the new land-bridge scenario.

Some emergent communities may just be interesting experiments. But enough of the emergent communities have failed and enough have survived so that we can observe vigorous cultural selection in action. Emergents show the kind of adaptability and innovation that are hallmarks of a survivor genus. But since they share their basic DNA with Synagogus Mainstreamus they can (and should) interbreed. That kind of cross-pollination can only benefit both the established shuls and Synagogus Emergentus. We are living in a time of increasing bio-diversity in the Jewish eco-system — and witnessing the emergence of a 21st-century Jewish life that is the next stage in Judaism’s evolution. We should celebrate this fecundity and do our best to assure that all forms of spiritual community are fruitful and multiply.

Joshua Avedon is COO and director of strategic initiatives for Jumpstart: A Thinkubator for Sustainable Jewish Innovation. He is also one of the founders of IKAR, an emergent spiritual community in Los Angeles.


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