By Joel Lazar
There’s more than one way to do Judaism. That is the unfaltering message that has accompanied me since my arrival to the Star Spangled States one month ago. And more than ever, it is a reminder that Australian Jewish-ness is yet to fulfil its communal potential.
Six months ago I took a sabbatical of sorts. At the tender age of twenty-two. A self-imposed hiatus from the familiar ebb and flow of university and community life in Melbourne in an effort to break the dry surface and find what I imagined to be a wellspring of creative Jewish thought and way of life. It was a pilgrimage of one, whose hand would lead me to the Jewish centres of Israel and America. It was a head-first dive into religious and communal liminality where all Big Questions, in spite and on account of their ‘heresy’, deserved my response. There was an intellectual imperative that all answers, due to their innovation and creativity were to be absorbed.
Four months spent at a Halakhically earnest yeshiva in Israel (Maale Gilboa), served as a bright spark to lead the way. I’ve tended to view the orthodox yeshiva world, with its seven am to eleven pm shteiging (lit. rise; ascend – col. Jewish study) as falling within the traditional bounds of Jewish life. Which isn’t a criticism per se. I recognise that that style of learning is Jewish tradition manifest; an act of taking the life of what once was and constantly checking for vital signs – maintaining a steady pulse and heartbeat.
This yeshiva however was unlike any other. Unpacking the historio-anthropologic influences of Jewish law and practice was never shied away from. Recognising the human, but no less divine, authorial influence of texts traditionally attributed solely to the One author, was not untouchable. Nothing was sacred and thus everything was sacred. It was an exciting place to be in.
Then came America where a number of experiences fertilized my long-felt feeling that the Antipodean Jewish community needs a No-Doze of Jewish creativity. It all started with a donkey, a couple of Jews and a farm. Kayam Farm in Reisterstown, Baltimore County.
Kayam farm is a Jewish community farm. Its mission is “to embody and inspire social and ecological responsibility by transforming…community through hands-on Jewish agricultural education.” Significantly, it is also an educational farm. During the summer they operate an active Summer Kollel (Jewish learning space; house of learning) through which participants spend mornings immersed in agricultural work, learning the skills and trade of organic plant and soil management, animal care and sustainable land practice. Afternoons bring farmers together to study texts that relate to Jewish agricultural principles, delving into Jewish perspectives on social welfare and justice, charity, food and environmentalism. School groups of various Jewish denominations and religions pass through the farm every few days in religious homogeneity and in a multi-faith context.
Notwithstanding the general environmental messages that filter through to the youngest minds there, it is the freshness of Jewish creativity that lingers long after the bronze pink sun begins to set each warm, Kayam night. Jewish groups frequent there for spiritual retreats and community building exercises. Jewish women discuss and discover the strength of their ancestors in the Matriarch’s Orchard. Volunteers (such as myself) come here and receive an injection of Jewish life that draws people near. This is not kiruv in the traditional sense of the word. Amidst the pyrotechnic show of fire flies and the new budding of nectarines, this nascent farm, only five years young, sends a bold message whose echo grows with every season, saying: This is place for a unique I in Judaism. Our tradition is not a cooking show with its host proudly declaring, ‘here’s something we prepared earlier’. True, relationship with tradition is an indispensible ingredient in sustainable religion, but what we eat should not be last week’s (or last century’s) cooking; it is today’s meal.
Surely there exists a place for every individual, as they are, within a deep and vibrant Jewish communal life.
I have now been learning in an intensive, two-month summer learning program at Mechon Hadar. It is a Halakhically egalitarian Yeshiva in New York, the first of its kind in the Jewish world and the brain child of a number of Jewish men and women who saw the unfulfilled potential of Jewish community and learning – and acted upon it. The place is a wholly unique phenomenon in the Jewish world of learning. Director and Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Shai Held, was recently awarded the Covenant Award, the most prestigious American accolade for a Jewish educator. Hadar is making waves and inspiring many Jewish communities around America to find Jewish answers for the plethora of American Jewry’s contemporary questions. It’s exciting. A significant part of the yeshiva’a mission is requiring students to carry out “projects” after the program’s end. These projects are intended to extend Hadar’s effect on the Jewish world through the alumni who become its many branches. Past projects have included dovening workshops for shule-communities, ‘Beit Midrash in the Living Room’, bat mitzvah training with a feminist lens and the release of a Jewish journal of ideas at Yale College.
Australia has its sparks. Secular Jewish learning group Ayeka in Melbourne, the outdoor-experience-meets-learning festival, Limmud Fest and Jewish Aid’s Derech Eretz trip to remote indigenous communities come to mind as stand-out creative products of inspired Australian Jewish thinking and initiative. Galus cannot be ignored in this category either. These are examples of community members fusing what they care deeply about and bringing it into the realm of their Jewish-ness . It is the re-birth of the ‘I’ in community life. It is the implementation of that which is quintessential to Jewish thinking – that Judaism is hardwired with the capacity to respond to every aspect of the human condition. The success of that response rests entirely on the motivations and creativity of its forbearers. Us.
Inspired from the Jewish experiences I’ve had in the last six months, this is a call to our communities. To be bold. To gather like-minded community members, whether that be across gender, generation and denomination, who feel a certain void that needs filling and create something new. To be Adam the Second. To dream big for us all and aspire to eventually say: “it is very good” (Genesis 1:31).
This piece is an affirmation that every Jew not only has the potential to affect his or her community, and do so in accordance with their personal world-view, but that it is incumbent upon that person to leave their mark and show that our community can and should be quirky, innovative, effervescent, active and alive. More than anything – it should be a place for us all.
Have you ever had an idea for our community that you would love to see come to fruition? Why haven’t you done it? What would you need to get it off the ground?
Galus is a perfect forum via which we can give life to vision.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I’? And if not now, when? (Hillel, Ethics of our Fathers 1:14)