Non-Traditional Synagogue Network Launches, With Fellowship


What do a religious start-up, a spiritual cooperative and a 570-plus household Jewish community that meets out of a high school have in common?

They’re all part of the Jewish Emergent Network, a group of seven innovative Jewish communities that have been meeting together for two years to think about what the congregations of the future will look like, according to a Jan. 6 press release from Lab/Shul, a New York-based, artist-driven, experimental community that’s also a member.

The network has worked together before, on a website about Chanukah, but now they’ve announced their existence more forcefully by also launching a long-term project: a rabbinic fellowship that will post new rabbis in each of the network’s seven members for a period of two years starting in June 2016.

“Many of the folks that engage in these communities were not engaged anywhere else in their adult lives,” said Dawne Bear Novicoff, an assistant director at the Jim Joseph Foundation, which is granting up to $3.2 million to fund the fellowship for four years. Crown Family Philanthropies is also providing funding for the fellowship and other organizations supported the network during its learning and discussion phase.

“The thing that captured our imagination was the network, the idea that innovation could be pushed out from there,” Novicoff added.

Synagogue membership outside the Orthodox community is declining; according to a 2012 report from the SK3 Synagogue Studies Institute, this is especially true among younger people. Their 2010 survey showed that young adults aged 18 to 34 made up only 8 percent of Conservative and Reform synagogue membership.

The foundation will formally grant the money to IKAR, the 570-plus-household network member that meets in Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school in Los Angeles.

The religious start-up is The Kitchen in San Francisco; Kavana in Seattle calls itself a cooperative.

The group of seven congregations decided to create the fellowship because they heard from many younger rabbis and students who wanted to learn from them, and because the extra hands would help them more fully serve their own communities, said Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen.

“The bottleneck is around me,” she said. “I’m one rabbi. We are very blessed to have a full-time staff of four, but we’re serving thousands of people.”

The fellowship will accept applicants from any Jewish denomination, according to the press release. None of the member congregations officially affiliate with a denomination.

While receiving weekly supervision, the fellows will serve as rabbis. They will also travel as a group to each of the network organizations for conferences.

The network also includes Mishkan, a multi-site spiritual community in Chicago; Sixth & I, a synagogue and cultural center in Washington, D.C. and in New York, Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation on the Upper West Side known for its Eastern-influenced services.