Here we are: congregation planting in Baltimore

Rabbi Ariana Katz describes the process of envisioning and constructing Hinenu, a shul and Jewish home for those marginalized by mainstream Jewish communities.

Welcoming the Torah to Baltimore. Photograph by Dorret Oosterhoff.
Welcoming the Torah to Baltimore. Photograph by Dorret Oosterhoff.

The sun was hanging low in the sky on Rosh Hodesh Kislev 2017, and something was changing before my eyes. Crowded into a living room in Pikesville, Md., I sat on the floor alongside 16 others as they were draped over chairs, leaning against their friends’ legs, eating dregs from the bottom of bags of snacks that were scattered about. Everyone was staring at a sheet of white chart paper taped to the wall. Written on it were five words, and no one could figure out what to do next.

“I’m not leaving here until we pick a name,” R said. “Without it, we can’t move forward.”

We had spent a full-day retreat—16 engaged dreamers invested in creating a synagogue—asking questions of “what do we stand for” and “whom do we serve”; debating governance models and political affiliations. It was the end of the day, and the one thing we all wanted to conclude with was a name. What, Shekhinah help us, would we call this little synagogue we’d been talking about?

To open our retreat that morning, I led a text study on dreaming. Kislev is a powerful month for dreams, which tradition tells us is so because nine of the 10 mentions of dreams in our Torah occur in parshiyot read in the month of Kislev.

What, I asked the assembled group, could we collectively dream into existence, like Jacob and his ladder? What environmental and emotional needs do dreamers have to be ready to do the work of big dreaming? We studied in passing Bereishit 28:11, in which the sun moves suddenly in the sky necessitating Jacob to get ready to dream.

:וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

Rashi explains כי–בא השמש:

כי בא השמש BECAUSE THE SUN WAS SET: It should have written, “The sun set and he tarried there all night,” but the words “he tarried there all night because the sun set” imply that the sun set unexpectedly—not at its proper time—in order that he should tarry there overnight.

We continued to debate and began to narrow down the list, round by round. At the last minute, someone offered one more suggestion. We groaned, but she said, “just add it to the list—Hinenu.” As we continued to narrow down our list, we saw our answer emerge, suddenly. As we looked around the room at one another, realizing our new name was about to be Hinenu, the sun set suddenly. The room was bathed in pink and golden light as we managed to rest in מקום ההוא, that place, like Jacob. Necessitated by a sudden move in the sky, by landing upon a place and needing to learn from it, Hinenu has formed out of desperate need for the shelter that one can offer another.

* * *

For more than seven years, I had been dreaming of a shul that organized, davened, mourned, celebrated together, informed by the best of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s vision of a shul with a pool and cooperative houses alike. The shul was concrete in my mind, but the location itself foggy. In December 2016, I began I traveling from Philadelphia to Baltimore for days of back-to-back coffee meetings to gauge the interest and need for yet another synagogue in Baltimore—one focusing on intimate and humble settings, and a commitment to justice work in the streets and in minyan. By August 2017, we had our first group convening; by November 2017, we had a name. This spring we formalize our membership and chart the path forward.

Why did even the naming of this community become a profound and spiritual experience? The need to belong can be held in a name—to know that a community can be safe and holding—because people are yearning for Jewish community: Jews and non-Jews who are drawn close to Judaism; people raised in Baltimore for generations and new transplants. As a young adult of the dreaded millennial generation, and all that is so often claimed about our independence and selfishness, I am softened again and again by the waves of tenderness and desire this community possesses to be together.

* * *

At one point this fall, I sat outside, drinking iced tea with T. Talking about the city, her career as an educator and the books she was reading, our conversation snaked out before us, going off in exciting tangents. We stumbled upon the topic of salt—T had just finished a book about the history, politics and myth of salt, and married to a baker, she was enthralled. Of course, I shared the story of Lot’s wife, a story familiar but not on the tip of her memory. I tell her my favorite teaching about the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife turned into: that it was not a literal rock formation of NaCl, but a metaphor for the tears that poured from her eyes upon turning and seeing her home on fire. We spoke of the #MeToo movement, freezing under pressure, and the power of tears.

When I asked T if she’d want to learn that text with me, she enthusiastically agreed. Only after we had planned to put a date on the calendar and I loaded myself back in the car to drive to Philadelphia did I realize it was the week of Parshat Vayeira, when around the world, Jews would be reading about that pillar of salt.

It was through that conversation with T that we dreamed up the Beit/Midrash and joined together for our first meeting a few weeks later at Red Emma’s, a worker-owned anarchist cafe and bookstore. Sitting at a long table with humashim (the Pentateuch), dictionaries and source sheets surrounding us, 10 of us studied the story of Sedom and Amorah, hospitality and violence, and tears.

Meeting in a public space, physically accessible and familiar to the majority of the people who came, we staked out space. Staked out space precisely in a text that has been used for homophobic violence. (Medieval interpreters understood the sin of Sedom as homosexuality, and the oppressors of homosexuals have claimed biblical sanction from this interpretation.) We staked out space in a politically radical communal space for religion. We began to integrate these parts of ourselves into the fabric of a community struggling and building together.

Our Beit/Midrash has been meeting for five months now in a beautiful room at the back of Red Emma’s dedicated to the Free School. We rearrange the chairs and tables so hevruta (study pairs) can sit across from one another and welcome whoever shows up that month to learn. This program has become a cornerstone of how we spend time together as a synagogue.

* * *

Our population skews younger than most congregations, ranging from 22 to 40, though as we continue to grow, we’re attracting older members and families with children—something everyone welcomes. Multigenerational spaces are one of the blessings of congregational life, but because of the ways we’ve convened and the dynamics of synagogues in Baltimore, we start by serving this younger population. Our congregation is mostly white, which in a majority black city like Baltimore brings with it questions about how and where we congregate and take up space, and how we show up in solidarity with our neighbors. More than half of us come from multifaith homes or are in multifaith relationships, and there is a wide range of Jewish education and practice.

In my first 100 meetings with people interested in building a congregation, I came across a few central themes, and they have been the cornerstones of what we are building together in a congregation. A few of them are: accountability, progressive political action, spaces for healing and honesty within creativity.


As I sat across the tables in cafes all over Baltimore city, meeting up with interested people, I heard time and time again the desire to have accountable community. “I have enough friends; I’m looking for a community I have to show up for, that shows up for me.” This is a community formed around principles of mutual aid—an expansive vision of what the hesed (kindness) committee is needed for. If a congregant has a hard week at work coming up, can the hesed team drop off a few meals or walk the dog? When a congregant has gender-affirming surgery, can someone in the community offer a warm room for them to recuperate in, while others bring meals and take care of recovery logistics? Help to navigate governmental paperwork? Show up in times of mental-health crisis and pain? Celebrate life-cycle moments that are not related to marriage or birth? Figuring how to become a community of mutually accountable members has been a place of great generativity and excitement for our community.

This community is also planning for and wondering about the future. When thinking about climate change and climate disaster, some come to Hinenu to think about a central meeting space with a group of people who will look out for one another. Many of this community supported the organizing during the Baltimore Uprising following the murder of Freddie Grey, and we witnessed the ways in which hubs like places of worship can support this work.

“I have enough friends; I want people to be accountable to.” This message tells me that we are not building a shul for convenience or for our own amusement. Hinenu is coming together because many in our community see dark times ahead and want to turn to the promises that a covenanted community can offer in helping save each other’s lives.

Progressive Action

About half of our congregants are involved in three or more civic organizations in the city of Baltimore. They are working to elect progressive candidates, serving on neighborhood commissions, campaigning for clean drinking water across the city, coming together in parenting groups, organizing in solidarity with Palestinians, demanding police reform, pushing for fair access to better schooling and taking endless trips to the capital in Annapolis in order to lobby.

Most of all, I see Hinenu as a place we can nourish the neshamot (souls) of organizers so they can go back out into the world and continue doing their work, and so organizers can bring their enlivened and tired neshamot to rest, praise and receive care. Most of all, I see Hinenu as a place where Jews hungry for Judaism that is politically relevant to their city and this moment can learn more about those connections, and be inspired to go out into the world and get to work. We don’t need a tzedek (justice work) committee; this work is already being done!

A significant portion of the people who come to Hinenu are deeply distraught about the Jewish community’s silence at or complicity with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. To protect themselves, some have put down any Jewish learning or practice. Some have attended services at congregations where the sermons from the bimot condemn what they believe is truly justice work. Others have been distinctly ejected from Jewish communities that saw their leftist beliefs about Israel/Palestine as abhorrent. These people come to Hinenu to create a future in which the price for entry to passionate Jewish life is not blanket support for Israel.

Multifaith homes, queer healing

Our community has, from the very beginning, never questioned the full inclusion of patrilineal Jews, multifaith families, and non-Jews in the congregation and its leadership. I look forward to continuing to explore the ways we can uphold these values in our ritual and communal leadership, and in doing the work of learning halakhah (Jewish law), minhag (custom), and a wide range of practices and values.

For Hinenu, it is a question of whether they belong in Jewish community at all—and if they belong TO Jewish community. As I write this, we have begun the week of Parshat Aharei Mot, in which Leviticus 18:23 is read—a verse interpreted and weaponized by homophobes for centuries of violence against queer people. Many LGBTQIA+ members of our community are hungry for a place where the people and the Torah taught are queer; where religion is not used against LGBTQIA+ people, but taught for and by and with queer people; and where the damage done by religion that has denied the sacredness of queer and trans people can begin to be held, healed and undone.

Honesty and generativity

As much energy as there is as we build this new community—as novel as it might feel to those of us in the thick of it fighting for places to pray and persist together—the model we’re building is a pretty traditional one. This is simply another covenanted community where we learn, pray, celebrate and mourn together. Deeply inspired by shtiebel buildings where life, prayer and learning co-exist and inform one another, this community is curious about how to make and do Jewish without reinventing the wheel, rather bringing in some necessary modifications to keep it moving forward.

For some, the best way to find the passion in people is to go to them—to the places where they congregate or the modalities they are familiar with. I follow and respect the work of clergy who have pop-up chaplaincy sessions on campus sidewalks, or pastors who have Bible study in bars. By contrast, Hinenu is turning to think about models that have already worked and what shifts they need to be relevant to our lives. I wonder about how not only to bring authenticity to those interactions, but how to ask for a certain level of buy-in, accountability to those models. It is one thing to translate the richness of faith and culture and text into a context someone already knows. It is another to build a welcoming web of relationships so that people might walk in and transform a context deeply in need of their presence—a context that is a community.

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