Reform-Led Chabad-Style House Opens In Brooklyn


As soon as Libby Lenkinski entered the foyer of the Clinton Hill row house, she started to cry.

It was the music. Rabbi Sara Luria and about a dozen social justice activists were singing a Hebrew prayer.

“Tears started pouring down my face. I couldn’t stop them … for the whole two-and-a-half hours” of the gathering, she said.

“I understood as soon as I heard the voices that I would be able to just listen, or sing if I wanted to, but that I wouldn’t have to have answers or explain … or be ‘on’ in any way,” she added by email.

Lenkinski, vice president for public engagement at New Israel Fund, was at the inaugural meeting of the Beloved circle for Changemakers, held in late December. It is one of several circles that Rabbi Sara Luria — of ImmerseNYC fame — runs out of her home. And it is part of a growing trend of small-batch, pluralistic Jewish start-ups that is expanding the definition of worship and belonging.

For Lenkinski, 39, the circle was a place where she could stop being a social justice organizer and focus on herself.

“I am at New Israel Fund because I’m somebody who’s sensitive to social justice and injustice in the world, and so this last year has been brutal,” she said, referring to the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. “There’s no time and there’s also really no space to say … ‘How is this landing on me as a person?’”

The Beloved circle, she said, is “a place where I can go and talk about how I’m doing and sing and actually feel like I can sing at the top of my lungs and not worry about it. … Where you can get some strength back, get some light back and take a step out of … organizing at every turn.”

The other component that allowed Lenkinski to focus on her feelings was the structure of the meeting.

“We sang, there was guided meditation, smaller conversations … [with] some really simple prompts like: How are you doing today?” she said. “Just the facilitated-ness of it changed the experience.”

These circles are part of Beloved, “a home-based, open-hearted Jewish community,” according to its website. Rabbi Luria, 35, comes to this venture after founding ImmerseNYC, a program that introduces non-observant Jews to the mikvah.

She decided to shift gears the day after Donald Trump took office, on the way home from the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

“I was thinking … No messing around anymore … we’ve got to get really serious and double down on what our strengths are so that we can resist in all the ways we need to resist,” she said, referring to Trump’s presidency.

“I wanted to be able to create a deeper community of people who are serving in some way.”

She thought about what would be the best use of her “gifts and talents and hopes and dreams,” and realized that for her “it meant building the Jewish community that I had been dreaming of building.” A community where any Jew could find “warm, creative, accessible Jewish experiences” and where Jewish activists and leaders could find a “nurturing home base,” according to the website.

Rabbi Luria, who grew up in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, was inspired to start Beloved by the strong connection that had formed among ImmerseNYC’s mikvah guides. “I wanted to be able to create a deeper community of people who are serving in some way,” she said.

As a home-based Jewish organization, Beloved has similarities to places like Chabad, Base Hillel and Moishe House. Like Chabad, it serves people of all ages and backgrounds while Base and Moishe House cater to the post-college, pre-marriage set. Like Chabad and Base, a rabbi-and-spouse team runs it, while Moishe House uses a peer-led model. Like Base and Moishe House, Beloved is adamantly pluralistic. And like all three, the leaders open their homes for Shabbat and holiday meals, Jewish learning, social events and other programming.

She opened Beloved with her husband, Isaac Luria, director of voice, creativity and culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in September.

But Beloved also has unique aspects. For one, it’s not connected to a larger organization, but is independent. In that respect, it’s like the hundreds of shteibels that dot Orthodox Brooklyn, but unlike those congregations, it’s pluralistic and led by a Reform rabbi.

While hundreds of independent pluralistic communities have started up in recent years, Beloved is the only such community that is based out of the rabbi’s home, at least as far as Rabbi Elan Babchuck, director of innovation at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, knows. Rabbi Babchuck runs the Glean program, an incubator for “spiritual entrepreneurs,” where Rabbi Luria was a fellow in 2017.

In addition to the circle for Changemakers, there are two circles for families with young children and plans for ones for meditation, women clergy, seniors and engaged or recently married couples.

“It comes from an obvious place of — it is not good to be alone. That we should not only join hands on the front lines [of activism] but join hands in our living room so you can feel buoyed,” said Rabbi Luria. “We thought one of the best mechanisms to do it is to have groups of 8 to 12 members who gather together monthly to share their lives together.

“It comes from an obvious place of — it is not good to be alone. That we should not only join hands on the front lines [of activism] but join hands in our living room so you can feel buoyed.”

“The way I put it is: ‘The work is really hard. Why don’t you come over to have a cup of tea?’”

Rabbi Babchuck believes circles are key to maintaining a sense of community and intimacy as an organization grows and noted that they’ve long been a staple of mega churches.

“I am seeing that trend where small groups are coming back into play,” he said.

The appeal, he said, “is the feeling of being held in a really, really sacred container by people who ultimately will care about you and be with you and when your kid gets the flu they’ll come with chicken soup.”

A third unique aspect of Beloved are monthly Torah readings, a mix of Torah study, singing, group discussion and reflection and, of course, lunch.

* * *

In mid-January, the morning of the second Women’s March, about two-dozen people gathered at the Lurias’ blue-and-white, 120-year-old home. The crowd was mostly families, with the parents, babies and toddlers on the main floor and a handful of older children on the lower level playing with a babysitter.

The Torah reading took place in the living room, where two rows of white chairs faced a makeshift bima. The group talked about what had brought them to Beloved and what they were grateful for. Then, in honor of the Women’s March, they sang the spiritual-turned-civil rights song “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom.”

Then Rabbi Luria chanted the Torah portion, Parashat Bo, stopping every few lines to translate and discuss, a technique that one participant called “rabbi jujitsu.”

“I think owning Judaism for people is to really be able to translate it into their own words, so that it speaks to our lives in a relevant way.”

“Sara has a theory on what it means to actually feel religion,” said the participant, who asked to speak anonymously because she feared offending her rabbi friends who practiced other styles of worship. “She gives … you an opportunity to truly feel it … to feel faith, to feel Torah, to feel religion, to feel your own emotions, to feel community. And how she does that is really powerful.”

Rabbi Luria said she sees herself as a translator.

“I feel like one of my roles is to lower the barriers to Judaism while maintaining the depth,” she said. “I think owning Judaism for people is to really be able to translate it into their own words, so that it speaks to our lives in a relevant way.”

During the reading, some children helped hold the Torah, while others stayed downstairs. Babies babbled and toddlers wandered.

The free-ranging-children component, along with the intimate feel that came with a small crowd and a warm home, drew many to Beloved that morning.

“I thought it was lovely to be in a small space with people where we got to interact socially — and beyond socially — meaningfully,” said one 40-something participant who was there with his wife and baby. He asked to speak anonymously because he wanted to keep his private life offline for professional reasons.

“I love the fact that all the kids were piled up on laps and running around the floor,” he said. “I think that it was homey in every sense of the word, and that makes a big difference.”

The Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation and The Angell Foundation provided funding for Beloved along with individual donors.

Mamie Kanfer and R. Justin Stewart, Lippman Kanfer board members and friends of the Lurias gave Beloved funding through the foundation and individually because they knew that the Lurias would make their vision happen.

“I feel like one of my roles is to lower the barriers to Judaism while maintaining the depth.”

“Justin is not Jewish,” Mamie Kanfer Stewart said, and the fact that Beloved is in a home “automatically eliminates some of the queasiness that comes with a synagogue. When you’re not Jewish.” Plus, she added, the “experimental” Saturday morning service is something “that you just can’t find anywhere else.”

Carrie Lee Teicher also came to Beloved — with her 2-week-old baby in tow — searching for community and a spiritual home. A Clinton Hill resident, Beloved was doable for Teicher and her husband, who also have children aged 2 and 5. Besides Chabad and the new JCC Brooklyn, there are no Jewish organizations in Clinton Hill that Rabbi Luria knows of, which was one of the reasons she and her husband chose the area to set up shop.

During her years of synagogue shopping, Teicher saw two options for families with young children: a “tot Shabbat” that might meet her kids’ spiritual needs but not her own, or an adult service where she would “feel like you have to be on top of your children at all times.”

At Beloved, she said, she found “a space where we can go and be involved and participate … where it’s OK that you have small children, and where they can participate.”