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A Welcoming Community No One Can Join

May 15, 2009

As a rabbi at the Conservative Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, Calif., Rabbi Naomi Levy loved her congregation, but sometimes she felt drawn more to the people who weren't coming to services than to those who were.

"People would kind of poke their heads in, and I could tell they were Jewish — you can just tell. And then they wouldn't stay," she says with a laugh. "They would just kind of check it out, and then you would see them go into the restaurant across the street or something."

Nashuva tashlich
A parent and child stroll on the beach during Nashuva's tashlich ceremony. Photo from the Nashuva website used by permission.

Levy, who was named one of the top 50 influential rabbis in America by Newsweek in 2008, is the co-founder and rabbi of Nashuva, a Los Angeles-based Jewish community — "It's not a congregation," Levy explains, nor are its members actually members, since they don't pay dues — that aims to draw in unaffiliated Jews, with a strong emphasis on interfaith families and couples.

The majority of Jews in Los Angeles are unaffiliated with a synagogue (a population survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in 1997 showed synagogue affiliation at 34 percent), and for a long time Levy, who lives in Venice Beach, Calif., assumed that unaffiliated Jews were atheists. But that changed when she began to travel the country doing readings from her books.

"I would get to meet all these very interesting people in bookstores," she says, "who would tell me about how they would never have come if I'd given the same lecture at a temple. It was a safe spot, to meet a rabbi in a bookstore."

Levy started to become more aware of these "lost Jews," many of whom were involved in social justice or spirituality — but hadn't yet made the connection between those principles and Judaism.

Far from atheists, "they were the opposite — they were deeply searching, they were theists, they were on a spiritual journey," Levy says. "They would tell me, 'I've gone to temple, and it does nothing for me. I don't feel spiritually nourished, awake or alive.'"

One of the tipping points for Levy was when she visited a local church and saw how many Jews were listed as members — and even leaders.

"This church has so many Jews involved that they actually have a kind of Jewish havurah," Levy says. "They're not Jews for Jesus, they're just Jews who are part of this church."

One night in April 2004, Levy sat around her dining room table with eight people. They were a motley crew: Hollywood agents, attorneys, entrepreneurs. But Levy felt they would understand what she wanted to achieve.

And Nashuva was born. Among its founding principles:

  • You can't join.
  • There are no dues, no tickets.
  • People are encouraged to support the community purely out of their own free will.
     

The idea of not having paying members was particularly important to Levy, who felt that a dues-based system was one of the main barriers for hesitant Jews. "More than one person would say, 'Why, on Christmas Day, can I walk into St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan and not be hassled, but I can't make it into temple [on the High Holy Days]?' " she said.

Because Nashuva would not be affiliated with any Jewish denomination, Levy created a new prayerbook — one that was user-friendly, transliterated, contemplative and contemporary. She re-translated prayers and changed some that might offend interfaith families — such as the line in the Aleinu that thanks God "who did not make us like other nations." At Nashuva, that is changed to "who gave us the Torah."

Nashuva's first service was four years ago. For its debut, Levy and the Nashuva co-founders decided they'd advertise solely through word of mouth, put out prayer books and see who came.

Several hundred did.

The community has grown steadily ever since, and is currently trying to raise funds so it can start a once-a-month Saturday morning service, in addition to its weekly Friday night service. Beyond its services, Nashuva also engages in regular social action projects — "the expectation is that everyone who comes to pray comes to serve the community, too," Levy said.

Having outgrown its original home in Westwood Hills Congregational Church, Nashuva currently meets at a Presbyterian church in Brentwood, a neighborhood in west L.A. The use of a church for services "signals to me an openness to work with other faiths and embrace a kind of one-family, 'we're all in this together' world," said Nashuva community member Erin McCormack Mand.

On a typical Friday night, Levy leads the service, backed up by Nashuva's band — an interfaith ensemble if there ever was one. Levy lists some of its members: an Ethiopian Jew, a Filipino violinist, a Christian piano player. The two Jewish percussionists are intermarried. The singer is a Jew-by-choice.

In tribute to its diverse background, the band draws on a wide range of musical genres, including pop, gospel, klezmer, hip-hop and even a bit of Led Zeppelin.

While Nashuva's openness is an obvious draw for interfaith families, because Nashuva does not have members in the traditional sense, it's hard to know exactly how many the community serves. But a survey taken when the community first began found that around 60 percent of participants were couples or families, and about a third of those were interfaith. Around 400 people attend an average Friday night service.

"It's become a very non-threatening environment for people to come together, to pray together, and to pray a service that feels non-judgmental and universal in its orientation," Levy said of Nashuva's appeal to the interfaith community.

Levy also noted that Nashuva doesn't think of interfaith families as being a separate group within its community. "We try to make everything as open and welcome as possible," she said. "We don't target interfaith families any different as we would target any other families."

For the most part, Nashuva's outreach is all word of mouth from Nashuva participants. "They're our best advertisement," Levy says.

That's how Mand and her husband, Michael, an interfaith couple from Santa Monica, found out about the community. Another interfaith couple told them about Nashuva, and "when we attended our first service, we immediately felt at home and Rabbi Naomi Levy had us hooked," Erin said.

Michael is Jewish, Erin isn't — but their 2-year-old daughter, Maple, was converted at Nashuva at 16 months. Their son, Oliver, was converted when he was 6 months old.

"Mike always knew that he wanted a Jewish upbringing for the kids," Erin said. "I want my children to be part of something bigger than themselves, a community that can help guide them as they make moral decisions and show them how to open their heart to embrace life. With Nashuva, I've found that."

While the Mands have converted their children to Judaism, other interfaith families have not — which is something Nashuva hasn't quite decided how to handle yet.

As an ordained Conservative rabbi, Levy will only perform a wedding for a Jewish couple or a bar mitzvah for a child whose mother is Jewish. At this point, that's not much of an issue — the community has had only a "very rare" bar mitzvah, Levy said, since it doesn't hold Saturday morning services.

But as the community grows and incorporates Shabbat morning into its customs, it will be harder to avoid the issue.

"We are contemplating that whole question of how to welcome the children of non-Jewish mothers in a way that would not be exclusionary," Levy says. "At this point, the way we've dealt with it is that we're not currently doing anything in our service, or regarding bar or bat mitzvah, that would be exclusionary, but when the time comes we'll have to figure it out."

Levy is currently considering two possibilities. One is that the community will encourage interfaith families to consider converting their children if they want to raise them Jewish. The other is to turn the community into "a vast umbrella," as Levy calls it — in other words, to bring in Reform and other rabbis to lead a variety of services at Nashuva, and potentially perform ceremonies that would not be allowed under the Conservative aegis.

That option would make Nashuva "an outreach umbrella... with different subgroups led by different religious leaders," Levy says.

This past fall, Nashuva made headlines for partnering with the Jewish Television Network to offer a Webcast of its Kol Nidre service. Like Nashuva itself, the Webcast project began with limited expectations: "We kind of assumed it was a service that would be able to help people who were homebound, or sick, or hospitalized," Levy says.

JTN tracked the hits to the site, and Levy was shocked to discover that 200,000 people tuned in. She received hundreds of grateful e-mails from viewers across the globe — including college students, people in hospices and hospitals, and those living in far-flung countries like Colombia and China, among others.

Many of those watching were interfaith families and disaffected Jews, Levy says. "It was another outreach tool to welcome people back."

For Mand, Nashuva's open-arms policy to interfaith families is what keeps her and her family going back week after week.

"Not being Jewish, I have often felt alienated at certain temples," Mand said. "With Nashuva, I feel the freedom to adapt Judaism to my life.

"The congregation embraces all who come. Everyone is so excited to be there, the enthusiasm is contagious. You feel it — people want to be there. They aren't going because they have to. For once, I found religion not to be intimidating, but adaptable to my life today — and even fun."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "our duty," it's the name and first word of a prayer recited at the end of three daily services in traditional Jewish liturgy. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rachel Freedenberg

Rachel Freedenberg is a staff writer for j. weekly.

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