When Maverick Religious Leaders Meet


am among the millions of Americans who are horrified at the explosion of racial animus, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that has been stirred up in our country by the rhetoric of Donald Trump. And I am not the first to notice the parallel upsurge of organizing by Americans who believe that the strength of our country is based on reaching out across lines of difference.

While much of the organizing is political in nature, of even greater interest to me is the emergence of a multi-faith consciousness in this country that points to a significant transformation in the way religion is experienced by Americans. Much has been written about the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon that has resulted in the decline of membership in conventional religious institutions even as there is an upsurge of interest in living more mindful, intentional lives of purpose. While a handful of forward-looking clergy have successfully incorporated this new consciousness into the faith communities that they lead, most congregations continue to do business as they did 50 years ago. It doesn’t take a genius to guess which of the two types of faith communities are thriving and attracting younger people and which are aging and dying. 

For the past three years I have been leading a national effort to identify emerging Jewish spiritual communities around the country called Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network (kenissa.org). What we have been learning is that many of the most innovative efforts to redefine Jewish life and identity are not happening in synagogues. What has made this work all the more fascinating is a close collaboration with the How We Gather Project based at Harvard Divinity School, led by Angie Thurston and Casper terKuile, who are uncovering emerging spiritual communities in the larger American public square that parallel (and sometimes overlap) with those that the Kenissa Network is finding in the American Jewish space (http://caspertk.files.wordpress.com).

Recently, the third national gathering of the How We Gather Project took place at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. The 120 participants ranged from those who had no background in conventional religious institutions to clergy who are clear outliers in their respective denominational homes. Most, however, had some exposure to an historic religious tradition, even though the attitudes towards that exposure is deeply ambivalent. There are many reasons for this ambivalence but among the most paramount is the belief that no one religion has cornered the market on Truth. The currency of most religious traditions is to promote the view that they do, in fact, represent “the way.” For most millennials, this is a non-starter.

To a person, the young people who are driving emerging spiritual communities are deeply caring and thoughtful seekers. Putting them together in the same space for several days was an emotional, spiritual and intellectual feast. There is a hunger to experiment and explore different historic faith traditions and to create spiritual practices from scratch. On any given morning, a participant could attend a session on Mormon mysticism; an Islamic Dhikr practice of remembrance; art as a form or resilience; a meditative Jewish Shacharit service; or Afro Flow Yoga. Most people gravitated to the practice that was least familiar to them, not the most comfortable.

I led a session called Sabbath Praxis. To an audience that was mostly non-Jewish, we considered how “sabbath consciousness” might be the necessary antidote to a world that has made wealth, power, materialism and technology the idolatry of our times. We broke into pairs (chavruta) to do some study of excerpts of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath,” a book written in 1951, but which is as relevant today as ever. The group then broke into stations, each taking one of 10 principles that were created by a project called The Sabbath Manifesto that included things like: avoid technology; spend time with loved ones; go outside. Each group created a ritual to represent their principle. Many will now explore how they might integrate that ritual into their lives.

Participants were eager to experiment with practices that have been around for centuries. Wisdom was freely quoted and cited from a wide range of religious traditions. New practices were invented and new wisdom emerged from the experience we were sharing together. Forty non-Jews participated in a mikvah ritual led by Rabbi Sarah Luria, the founder/director of Immerse NYC, and they could not stop talking about it for the rest of the weekend. If religion has a future in America, it will look like this. And clergy had better find a way to get on the bus. 

Oh, yes, and I had to decide if I was going to take communion. It was certainly not my intention. I was, however, eager to attend a service called Liberation Communion. It was being led by an ordained Methodist minister named John Helmiere, who leads Valley and Mountain Fellowship, an alternative, progressive church in Seattle. The liturgy included many references to Jesus as a role model of political revolution who saw the ills of society and chose to speak truth to power. When John invited those who were comfortable to participate in communion — walking forward to ingest bread and wine — I asked him what those symbols meant in the context of the service he was leading. Of course, I knew that traditionally the bread and wine were symbols of the body and blood of Jesus and I knew that it was a religious rite meant exclusively for believing Christians. In the same way that certain rituals in a synagogue are reserved exclusively for Jews, I wanted to respect the boundaries of the faith community that I was visiting.

But John “reconstructed” the meaning of communion so that the bread represented the abundance of the earth we inhabit and the wine represented our need to embrace life with joy. The ritual aligned with the message of the creative liturgy John developed and I decided to accept the invitation to communion. As with so much of the experience over the weekend, we both learned about particular practices of faiths not our own, and discovered how the particular practices pointed to a larger, universal, shared aspiration for ourselves and for the world.

It certainly helped that the bread provided by the Jewish retreat center was challah and the wine was kosher grape juice, both Jewish comfort foods. Taking communion in that context made me no less Jewish, just as the mikvah experience did not make any of the participants less Christian or Muslim. All of us, though, were inspired to see how faith and practice can help make manifest the kinds of lives we want to lead.  

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the author of “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.” He directs both the Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network and the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a two-year fellowship for rabbis on visionary leadership. Both programs are housed at Hazon in Manhattan.