I would like to introduce you to The Box. The Box helps define, categorize and organize. It’s comfortable inside The Box. We were raised in The Box. Our families helped build The Box. Whom would we be without The Box?
The Boxes of Judaism, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Israeli and many more, have been neatly stacked and acquiring dust over the past hundred years. While decades ago these Boxes seemed necessary, they could now prove to be obsolete.
But what happens when The Box becomes cramped and no longer provides what we are looking for? What happens when we as Jews start getting nothing but answers to our questions from within Our Box? What happens when we look into the Other Boxes and see pieces of practices that resonate with us?
Welcome to Nondenominational Judaism, where it is acceptable for Jews to both play guitar on Shabbat and wrap tefillin, to not keep kosher and to enjoy studying with a chavruta. Nondenominational Judaism refocuses Jewish life from an overarching experience to a more personal one – focused on what communities, families, and individuals need and want. Nondenominational organizations and communities, by definition, are unaffiliated from traditional Jewish institutions and movements allowing for more freedom. As another such branch of Judaism, the Post-Denominational community claims that a movement or label is no longer necessary. By stepping outside of The Box, these two types of Judaism are able to assess the vastness of our Jewish experiences, picking and choosing pieces that directly relate to the community, family, or individual they serve.
The Kitchen, based in San Francisco, describes itself not as a congregation but rather a “religious start-up.” On their website, the first few lines of their mission statement read: “We believe that Jewish religious practice can transform: It can change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world. This transformation requires a flexible, living ecosystem of Jewish experiences. That’s what we are building.”
As an outsider who has ventured to The Kitchen, I can attest to the fact that their prayer experience resides outside of The Box. On Friday night, they create a full Kabbalat Shabbat experience with singing and instruments, but they also retain the traditional nusach. It is then followed by a scattering of readings from their own, “Kitchen-sourced” siddur, which connects modern themes to reflect on the past week’s events and to the introduction of Shabbat. Then a Dvar Torah is given by one of the most on-fire, spiritually in touch, female rabbis in the country, Noa Kushner. The Kitchen’s environment intentionally removes participants out of Their Boxes by creating a unique prayer experience, taking bits and pieces from different styles of Judaism that at first might create discomfort. The use of instruments during services may rub those raised in Orthodox synagogues the wrong way, while people who grew up in the Reform movement might feel lost in the Kabbalat Shabbat that is normally condensed in Reform communities. Over time, the community grows through this collective prayer journey, learning truths about themselves that they could not otherwise while inside The Box.
The Kitchen, as it is totally unaffiliated with any sect of Judaism, runs entirely on its own, and in the nature of any start-up, it looks to cut costs and provide the best product — in this case the best experience to the community — whenever possible. To lower overhead, The Kitchen functions with a small staff and no permanent synagogue. During holidays, they rent out venues around the city, and on Shabbat they rent out the Friends School in Mission District’s historic Levi Strauss building. Membership fees are done on a needs basis. Need a bar mitzvah? Pay for a bar mitzvah. Want to stay for catered Shabbat dinner? Pay only for the meal, not for services. Become a full “subscriber” and receive all the options available for one total price. Still love your home congregation, but are no longer in love with your congregation, or just want different options? Pay a fraction of the full membership cost and connect to two Jewish communities. This model gives The Kitchen one of the most unique communities in American Judaism, almost exclusively young families.
Executive Director Yoav Schlesinger affectionately calls The Kitchen “a solar system in which the city offers a variety of Jewish experiences that may not connect directly to attending prayers services or holiday celebrations.” This novel model appeals to many in younger Jewish audiences.
Ultimately, what is unique about The Kitchen is that it is a community of Jewish do-ers. They do not simply preach that you should learn but rather hold Torah study classes with visiting speakers who vary in observance and background. A social justice group within the community actively lobbies and participates in San Francisco and California politics. The Kitchen is not Jewish life reimagined, but rather Jewish life re-enlivened in the 21st century.
Likewise, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem dedicates itself to being one of the first and foremost progressive, co-ed, nondenominational Batei Midrash and communities in the world. It is part Beit Midrash, part graduate school, and part modern Jewish think-tank. Pardes takes a piece of classic Jewish practice, studying text, and pairs it with what most people think is a dividing factor in Judaism today —individual theology. At Pardes, that diversity is vital to the intense text study that revolves around chaverutah and wrestling with our traditions. Most learning at Pardes is directed by the students, leaving little room for institutional bias. But where the institution does step in to add its voice, it speaks from a place of love for Jewish knowledge as well as a desire to make that knowledge relevant in the 21st century.
The environment that Pardes strives to create is one of inclusion. Alumnus Joseph Shamash described first entering Pardes. “Nobody made me wear a kippah… They let me learn to own this tradition.” After spending an unexpected year and a half at Pardes, Shamash turned his focus from film making and television to a career in Jewish professionalism and now acts as UCLA Hillel’s Rabbinic Intern while he studies at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and he now wears a kippah.
The Dean of Pardes, Dr. David Bernstein, echoed Joseph’s remarks, saying that at Pardes “you come as yourself and leave as yourself” – hopefully with a better grasp of Jewish literacy. The faculty at Pardes emphasize the importance of “owning” these sacred texts, of being literate and having the knowledge to make informed choices regarding Judaism. There are a multitude of minyanim in different styles for students to choose from and after each service is done, all the students gather in the same Beit Midrash to study the same texts together. Bernstein says that there is no reason to lend precedent to the idea that Reform Jews should know less about their Judaism than Orthodox Jews or that all Orthodox Jews believe the Torah means the same thing. He went on to say the ultimate goal of Pardes is to “open the gates of Torah study as wide as possible” and to let “Torah unite us.”
In a religion that reveres itself for its longevity, communities like The Kitchen and Pardes are recognizing the necessity for Nondenominational Judaism. Just as branches of Judaism were formed out of the need for structure and directed communities, now the movement of Judaism is steering away from the movements towards a modern yet classic styles of Judaism that are inherently personal.
With interviews from Exceutive Director of The Kitchen, Yoav Schlesinger and Current Dean at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Dr. David I. Bernstein.