Monday, May 28, 2007

Exploring the Impact of Panim Hadashot, Part 6

You may respond to this posting by going to "Contact Us" at the Panim Hadashot website. I will be glad to post your response if it will aid in creating a conversation on the subject.

Exploring the Impact of Panim Hadashot Part 6 in a Series of Reflections by Rabbi Dov

An Alternative High Holidays for Attracting non-Synagogue Oriented Jews

Panim Hadashot initiated a unique High Holiday event for in 2005 and 2006 which
attempted to attract Jewish people who wanted to mark the High Holidays in different
ways. The approach involved an emphasis on interactive study over prayer, brief
prayer and song over long services, and a revival and recasting of traditional meals
associated with the New Year. People did not have to come to the entire program, but
picked out what was interesting to them. In the upcoming short pieces I will
describe each piece and the approach we took to connecting with independent and
disaffected Jews.

You may respond to me by going to "Contact Us" at the Panim Hadashot website.

Study over Prayer

I had observed over my career that many people were uncomfortable with the prayer
services of the High Holidays. Would it be possible to expose people to an
experience of dynamic study to explore the spiritual themes of the holiday in place
of the traditional emphasis on prayer? Would people resonate to the holidays with
collective study instead of communal prayer? We discovered that the advantage of
study was that it allowed people to explore openly their ambivalence about
traditional themes. It gave people the opportunity to be exposed to Jewish wisdom
and debate over the spiritual themes embedded in the prayers, themes and scriptural
readings of the holidays.

The first year of our new approach focused on the theme of Teshuvah-repentence. On
Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur afternoons, I invited John and Julie Gottman,
nationally respected experts on marital relationships, to join me in the study and
discussion of texts on Teshuvah. Over 100 people attended each session as well as
other sessions on the texts of the holidays.

The Gottmans added their insights from their studies about relationships. I shared
with people the great texts on Teshuvah from the Bible, Talmud, and Maimonides. The
outcome was practical and meaningful to participants: Make teshuvah with 3 important
people in your lives between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.

The study had a real impact in that it imparted how to do a mitzvah and to
participate in a meaningful experience of the holidays. The barrier to participation
was low, no Hebrew skill or liturgical expertise was required. Both secular and
religiously oriented Jews could find meaning because the topic personally touched
them in one way or another. (We also held the sessions in the afternoon so as to not
conflict with those who wanted to attend synagogue services. ) People could also
sense the connection between tradition’s insight into human character and modern
psychological insights into relationships.

We did achieve something that is difficult to do on the holidays. People left our
experience with an appreciation of the depth and insight of Jewish tradition in ways
that had the potential to improve the quality of their own lives. By focusing on
study and taking a topic that had real meaning in people’s lives, people could
experience Judaism more directly and powerfully. People who would either not get to
a synagogue for the holidays or who for years had complained of uninspiring
encounters in synagogues left invigorated by our ‘Beit Midrash’.

In the next piece, I will write about our communal seders held on the high holidays.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Joys and Challenges of Serving Secular and Independent Jews

Exploring the Impact of Panim Hadashot Part 5 in a Series of Reflections by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

The Joys and Challenges of Serving Secular and Independent Jews

Who did Panim Hadashot serve? Many Jews (and non-Jews) came through our doors and into the homes we celebrated in. Many of these Jews were unaffiliated or loosely affiliated. We also, surprisingly attracted affiliated Jews who were seeking a way to deepen or enrich their home lives.

I will focus on two of our most successful programs in describing the people who came to our programs. The first is Shabbat around Seattle. The second is the Alternative High Holiday programs that we offered in 2005 and 2006.

Shabbat around Seattle was designed to partner with host householders to hold Shabbat dinners and afternoon gatherings. The hosts were counseled to invite friends who were disconnected from Jewish life or who did not ordinarily attend Shabbat home celebrations. In this way, our hosts partnered with us to do keruv (outreach)by connecting their social circles to a joyful Jewish event in their homes.

I would estimate that over 50% of the people we served in Shabbat around Seattle were unaffiliated or inactive synagogue members. I felt that a rich experience around the table offered a low barrier authentic experience of Judaism for people who resisted Jewish institutional life. These are the reasons I thought that secular or independent Jews would be responsive to this format.

1. A Shabbat home gathering is inherently social. Sharing a meal allows for much more interaction than a worship service. Like services there is the opportunity to create a sense of community through song. It is more intimate than synagogue, allowing an opportunity for more conversation and interaction. Secular Jews like their Jewish religious content in small doses or in contexts where they are not forced to be overwhelmed by wall to wall ritual. A ritual feast allows for more breathing room and when conducted thoughtfully can be entirely joyful and accessible.

2. There is religious content with the rituals and prayers, but it is much shorter and less intricate than many worship services. I have discovered over years of teaching that most Jews have fond memories or experiences of table rituals, especially of Passover seders. There is much less resistance to this type of ritual event.

3. Scholars have described ancient Judaism as a table fellowship religion. I believe there is a unique spirituality surrounding the gathering for a Jewish ritual meal. Victor Turner called it communitas. I have consciously tried to lead a seder meal that creates communitas. The tools are guided conversation, participatory ritual, teaching that touches emotions, humor, opportunities for personal sharing. Secular Jews find this as deeply moving as more observant ones.

4. There is always learning and questioning at the table. I am careful to select texts and themes that open up the humanity, diversity, and depth of Judaism. The danger of conducting a seder is to impart that there is a only one way to do it or only one answer to a question. Rather, I act to illuminate the possibilities of what a spiritually powerful seder and shared meal can be. This sensibility is often highly valued among secular and independent Jews.

5. A shared meal is a concrete practice of the mitzvah of hospitality (hachnasat orchim). Many places in the Talmud speak of hospitality as a super mitzvah, an act that leads to eternal reward. The implied ethical dimension of hospitality is something that ‘ritually challenged’ Jews can relate to very powerfully. I always pose the question of who are we willing to share our lives with and why is that important. How does doing Shabbat help us to share our lives and to encounter others who inhabit our ‘life space’.

In the next message I will talk about how we targeted and touched unaffiliated Jews with our approach to the High Holidays.

To Be of Not to Be a Community

Exploring the Impact of Panim Hadashot Part 4 in a Series of Reflections by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

To be or Not to be a Community

In the previous writing, I explored the debate within the leadership of Panim Hadashot about whether to become a community or to remain strictly an outreach and educational organization.

One concrete decision we made early on was not to offer worship services. Panim Hadashot offered an ongoing Shabbat gathering of study called 70 Faces of Torah. These took place in my home on a regular basis and in the beginning attracted 20-30 people each time. The experiment aimed to build a Shabbat community organized around dynamic and participatory Torah study.

One of the main ideas of Panim Hadashot at the beginning was to offer people experiences of community around celebration and study as opposed to communal worship. I believed that significant numbers of Jews would find this alternative approach, both more accessible and more stimulating than the worship and gatherings characteristic of synagogues.

While Shabbat around Seattle, our Shabbat outreach program kept on growing and attracting interest, the experiment to create a learning community foundered over time. The gatherings did not congeal into a community as I had hoped. We had also hoped that people attending our other outreach programs would join us for Shabbat learning, but this did not happen either.

Throughout the three years of Panim Hadashot, Shabbat around Seattle remained our most popular and sought after program. It was a pure outreach program which was created to turn people onto doing Shabbat at home. As we saw the Shabbat learning gatherings decline, we decided to stick with what had been successful. By doing this Panim Hadashot moved away from attempting to establish a unified community to providing outreach and educational experiences for Jews outside the community.

The impact of this evolution became evident. By not trying to be a community, we did find it harder for us to attract stakeholders who would volunteer and support Panim Hadashot. The real stakeholders had to be the communal institutions and far sighted donors that saw the value of Panim Hadashot. But as I have written earlier, we were unable to convince enough institutions and donors of the communal value of Panim Hadashot in the Pacific Northwest to make it sustainable.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

To be a Community or Not to be a community; That was the Question

Exploring the Impact of Panim Hadashot Part 3 in a Series of Reflections by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
To be a Community or Not to be a community; That was the Question

During the approximately three years of Panim Hadashot’s existence a the leadership debated whether or not it should be an organized community. One school of thought argued that Panim Hadashot should not be a membership organization. It should serve a pure outreach function, serving as a bridge between Jews on the margins to the organized Jewish community. The other school argued that Panim Hadashot needed to have two tiers, an outreach tier and a communal tier for those who became more engaged in study and celebration and living more a more engaged Jewish life.

The debate was a continuous one, but ultimately remained in ‘Teku’ (the Talmudic term for an unresolved argument). In the beginning I was strongly influenced by the model of the Gesher program in Portland, Oregon. My friends, Rabbis Gary Schoenberg and Laurie Ruttenberg, bought a big house 15 years ago and used it as a base to host regular Shabbat and Festival gatherings. They served what they called ‘Jews without Memory’ who came to their feasts and became inspired to celebrate Shabbat in their homes. Gesher did exactly as its Hebrew name indicated; it sought to serve as a bridge from disconnection to connection. Rabbis Schoenberg and Ruttenberg built relationships with the Portland congregations and schools and plugged people into them when they felt that their programs had served their purpose.

I had watched them over the years and admired their devotion to this project and the concrete impact it had on the Portland Jewish community. I decided to imitate their model, but to take it one step further. I would not only host events in my home, but I would go to other homes to cohost Shabbat gatherings in other homes. In this way I would help people to actually experience a powerful Shabbat experience in their own homes. This would help them to envision what it would be like to become engaged in practicing the mitzvah of hospitality and Shabbat at the same time.

Those who advocated this approach also felt that it would get greater community support, since it did not threaten the synagogues as a competitor. The key to the approach was getting the community to embrace Panim Hadashot so it could be an effective bridge and partner with the established institutions.

But as Panim Hadashot began its operations, there were others who said that this model would not work unless Panim allowed a community to emerge from our activities. Panim needed to be a destination itself. Those who argued for this believed that the type of Jewish expression and commitment we encouraged was not being provided by the local synagogues. The intense focus on learning and home celebration was unique and should be used to cultivate a shared sense of community. They also argued that developing an alternative model of community, while competing with established communities would spur greater risk taking and innovation in the wider community.

This debate repeated heated up when we discussed two issues. The first was whether Panim should be a membership based community. Those who argued for Panim to cultivate a community supported the idea of some form of membership. Membership models promote stakeholders-people who become heavily invested in the organization or congregation. Those who argued against a membership model pointed to the general dissatisfaction with synagogues among many Jews. Many people saw membership and dues as the preoccupation of established institutions which focused on financial survival and serving a small core of committed people. As an outreach organization our focus was connecting people and keeping the barrier to involvement as low as possible.

The second issue concerned worship. Those who sought community wanted to establish regular worship in some form. Even though worship did not appeal to many Jews it was the way to get a core of committed folks and also would allow Panim to develop a unique approach to worship that would distinguish itself from other communities. Those who argued against instituting communal worship felt that Panim should not put itself in a place to compete with the synagogues. Afterall, we all agreed early on that Panim would not function like a congregations.

To be continued.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Exploring the Impact of Panim Hadashot Part 1 in a Series of Reflections by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

During the next few weeks Panim Hadashot will be wrapping up its programs here in Seattle and the East Side. I would like to reflect on the impact and lessons learned from 3 years of running New Faces of Judaism. Panim Hadashot was an experiment, an attempt to think outside the box about contemporary Jewish life and community.

In this message, I would like to address the question of the role that Panim Hadashot attempted to create in the community.Panim Hadashot was conceived to be a community resource which worked cooperatively with local synagogues, Jewish organizations, and agencies. Our focus was on non-denominational outreach, education, and celebrations. Our programs and events were designed to provide very positive and joyful Jewish experiences for participants, especially those who had not formally connected or affiliated with the organized Jewish community.

I would often use a military analogy to explain our work (lhavdil-to differentiate). I saw the synagogues and Jewish organizations as conventional forces. Panim Hadashot acted like special forces, primed to be flexible, portable, and focused. Our work enabled us to meet Jews who do not make their way easily to the synagogues.Two examples of our approach illustrate this effort.

First, our alternative High Holidays programs sought to engage independent and secular Jews who do not resonate with the traditional services of this time of year. We offered text study, special festival seders, and "services for the ambivalent". The program was a thinking person's high holidays which encouraged questioning while engaging people with Jewish tradition. We purposely met in neutral settings and simplified prayer services to make them more accessible without compromising the richness of the presentations, teaching, and dialogue.

Another example of our approach was the Shabbat Around Seattle program. This flagship program of Panim Hadashot brought the rabbi into homes of hosts to share with guests a powerful Shabbat experience. Hosts were encouraged to invite guests who were less connected with Jewish institutions but who might enjoy the informal and joyful celebration in a home. Our approach to programs was to offer our participants rich, engaging, thought-provoking, and ultimately joyful encounters with Judaism. We wanted to stimulate hearts and minds, but also to respect the thoughtfulness and intelligence of our participants. We did not have an specific ideological agenda except to share the joy of Judaism with those we encountered. We wanted to serve as a bridge to a wider and diverse Jewish community.

In order to make our efforts as accessible as possible we did not structure ourselves as a synagogue with membership dues. We rarely charged admission fees or placed high barriers to participation in our programs. In fact we avoided any semblance of being a congregation at all. I saw Panim's role as a catalyst, a networker, and a resource. While I think this was a strength of Panim, it was in the end part of our weakness. In my next column I will tackle the question of outreach and community as this series continues. Please feel free to comment by writing to

Exploring the Impact of Panim Hadashot Part 2 in a Series of Reflections by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

The Relationship between Panim Hadashot and the Wider Jewish Community

The first program that Panim Hadashot conceived was an festival outreach program called Shaarei Tikvah-Gates of Hope. The program invited families with disabled loved ones to join us for a festival services and programs that created a nurturing and accepting environment for severely disabled children, adults, their families and compassionate friends. I took the idea to the Jewish Family Service, where it was embraced by JFS staff, Don Armstrong and Marjorie Schyder. Soon afterwards, Cantor David Serkin-Poole of Temple Bnai Torah joined in what was to be an effective team to lead this wonderful program.

This is a good example of the attempts by Panim Hadashot to create communal coalitions to bring new and impactful programs to the wider Jewish community. From the beginning, Panim Hadashot saw itself as a communal resource and catalyst for this type of outreach. During the last two and ½ years we have worked with several Jewish organizations and synagogues on other joint programs. We worked together with the Jewish Federation on offering the Hartman Global Beit Midrash. We joined the Hillel Foundation to offer a Tu Bishvat Seder.

While these programs helped to enrich the Jewish community, Panim Hadashot did not receive any funding for them. In an attempt to provide resources while also obtaining critical funding we developed a consultation to work with rabbis and congregations to build up their Shabbat table community. This consultation led to close consultations with Herzl-Ner Tamid (Conservative) and Kol Haneshamah (Reform).

Despite these successful collaborations and our principled efforts to work with the community, Panim Hadashot was not able to receive the type of communal support that would have made it a viable and contributing force in the Jewish community. Below are a series of observations about outreach and community support based on our experience.

1. The organized community is not yet willing or able to support pluralistic oriented Jewish outreach.
2. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues in the area are focused on their programs and survival to coordinate with the community outreach that Panim Hadashot offered. While lip service was given to Panim’s innovations, local rabbis for the most point did not have the time or inclination to utilize Panim’s resources.
3. Orthodox outreach organizations have built strong networks in Seattle that make it difficult for a non-Orthodox organization to take hold. There are over 20 rabbis (and rebbetzins) from organizations like Chabad, Kollel, and Aish Hatorah. Much of their support comes from people who are not Orthodox. I admire the success of Orthodox outreach in our community, but believe they cannot meet the needs of the overwhelming large number of disconnected or independent secular and non-religious Jews in our area.
4. Panim Hadashot approached United Synagogue for funding to build up Conservative Jewish outreach in the region. While there was strong interest in this, the movement does not have resources to support a much needed initiative to galvanize Conservative Jewish institutions in the area.
5. The Federation, JFS, and the JCCs are logical partners in the type of Jewish outreach Panim was doing. While we worked with all three, none were able to offer funding outside of small grants to help Panim achieve sustainability.
6. Panim Hadashot depended on the generosity and support of local donors and funders. Their vision and support helped us to establish and develop Panim Hadashot for 3 years. We came close to winning national grants, but local funding was hard to come by to give us the time to mine national resources.

I would take responsibility for not doing enough to build relationships with other Jewish organizations and synagogues. Panim Hadashot highlighted our work as a bridge to Jewish community, but we did not do enough to highlight programs and activities of the community in the outreach work that we did. Taking more time to do this would have shown the value of our outreach and might have engendered more support and grant possibilities.

For example, we had a very popular food booth at a local Whole Foods. It would have been an excellent opportunity to inform people of programs at several institutions as a way of welcoming unaffiliated and independent Jews to participate. It would have been a good opportunity to recruit volunteers from different synagogues to join me at the booth and to meet folks. This is the close collaboration necessary to demonstrate the value of Panim’s work.

To be successful, future organizations like Panim will need to work harder to establish the value of its work to local institutions and to make them true partners and beneficiaries of the unique outreach work that we were able to do.