Re-imagining Synagogues and Communities

Rabbi Rachel Weiss challenges the assumptions of how a synagogue should operate by highlighting multi-generational programming and interfaith activism at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Ill.

The Challenge: Consumerist Jews and Individual Focus

We are living in a time in which Jewish life is in flux, traditional institutions are being challenged, the Jewish community is organizing—or de-organizing, or re-organizing—differently … and I am sure that all of us are asking the question of where we belong, what our response is, how do we orient ourselves in this new reality … And we are unapologetically committed to a progressive theology that recognizes the fundamental human need for spiritual inquiry, flourishing and transformation, and being able to cultivate the forms and language necessary to meet people where they are.    

Rabbi Seth Goldstein, RRA Inaugural Address, March 2017

Synagogues are primary Jewish institutions of connection, gathering, learning and practicing spiritual life. They must continue to evolve as the secular world in which we live evolves. The last major shifts in the Jewish synagogue world took place in the 1950s. At that time, synagogues moved physically from urban immigrant neighborhoods to the suburbs. The structures of membership dues, supplementary religious schools and social groups within synagogues have hardly changed at all in the last half-century; it is time that our contemporary institutions evolve in order to survive.  

A significant challenge of the 21st century is that the next generation of potential Jewish leaders is not strongly connected to the Jewish institutions that claimed the allegiance of their parents and grandparents. They are not invested in the importance of Jewish federations as support for community institutions or in the need for brick-and-mortar synagogue buildings with mortgage payments and maintenance costs. They do not require a fixed liturgical or ritual practice. They have access to websites like to find and decipher classical texts and to download onto their mobile calendars to mark Jewish holidays. They feel more empowered to use “rabbi google” to create their own individualized spiritual life. With all of these resources at their disposal, the physical synagogue and its fees and burdens are not compelling. How can our synagogues survive past the baby boomer generation?

Yet at some level, Jews are still connected—whether by nostalgia or by direct benefits received or by deep active engagement. They seek a context outside of themselves to support them in times of need, loss and celebration. Jews still seek community, or there might be multiple communities from which they glean different things. Even in an age of individualism, Jews still seek ways to come together as a community—whether through political marches and protests or the need to have as many “likes” on social media as possible. How can synagogues adapt and act to find ways to remain hubs of connection?

Firmly Planted, Yet Flexible

Psalm 92 reads, Tzadik katamar yifrakh—those who are righteous will flourish like palm trees. Date palms on the Mediterranean sway in the wind and bend; they flex with the elements. They are soft-hearted with abundant fleshy fruit, lush and prolific. Ke’erez balvanon yisgeh—like cedars of Lebanon they will grow. Cedar trees are firmly planted, grow tall and solid; they are durable and resist decay. They entwine their branches, connect with one another and have deep roots.

Psalm 92 provides a model for our congregations. Reconstructionist Judaism holds that belonging to Jewish community is paramount. We therefore need to be communities that are flexible enough to engage short attention spans, adapting to the changing needs of Jews and our fellow travelers, while also being firmly planted and stable, so that we can be the rock that members of the Jewish community need when things fall apart. Our hearts must be soft, open and compassionate, and our arms outstretched and entwined with one another.

Through our efforts to reimagine our learning program for children, our community has learned Design Thinking as a methodology of asking questions and dreaming big. Rather than identifying an individual “problem” to be solved, we shift the question. We might have asked: “Why don’t families with young children come to the Shabbat morning minyan?” or “Why don’t people come to adult-education programs with a high-profile scholar?” Now, we ask “How might we engage both families and minyan-goers dynamically in Shabbat programming?” “How might we build programs that integrate the interests of our members so that their needs are met by the synagogue?” It seems a small grammatical change, but it has shifted our focus to one of creativity and possibility, and away from the idea that something is broken. We engage proactively and from a place of generativity, not a place of defensiveness. We open the doors of our communal imagination even wider.

Synagogues are institutions that open these doors—that focus on the Jewish people and develop our connections to one another. The specific issues or subjects that we focus on at one particular moment are less consequential than the fact that Jews continue to come together to explore what they care about. This is the balance between flexibility and perpetuity. This balance is at the heart of our movement, and now it’s time to apply the philosophy we’ve long directed at our practices and our theology to our synagogues as well.

People still seek connection: How might we create communities that are engaged, evolving, flexible, responsive, and desirable?

In the 450-household congregation that I serve, some of our members have been part of our community since 1964. Having broken away from an urban conservative synagogue in search of a more intellectually honest liturgy and grassroots leadership, they created a congregation in suburban living rooms and middle school cafeterias. Eventually, they constructed a building that embodies the Green Values of the environmental movement. They sought a community that would be a blend of their spiritual, intellectual, social and political needs.

Some of our members under 35 grew up in this synagogue, having reaped the fruit of the first generation’s seeds. They are seeking a more spiritually engaged, yet still intellectually honest liturgy, with similar grassroots leadership. They are more drawn to potluck Shabbat dinners in their city neighborhoods than to shul on Friday nights. They are seeking many different institutions to meet their needs, are open to JRC being one of them, but are reluctant to pay a large sum of money to identify any one institution as primary.

Many of our baby-boomers are at the stage of life when they “don’t need the synagogue right now.” They do not think they need education for their children or themselves any longer, they are empty-nesters in relatively good health, their parents are aging but still alive, and they have no foreseeable life-cycle rituals. Other than because it’s “what Jews do,” why belong? This generation is likely to contribute to the capital campaign, pay full dues, make tzedakah contributions to the synagogue for a yahrzeit or in honor of a fellow member’s life-cycle event, and attend High Holiday services.

Two things are happening, however. First, while they would never leave, these members do not find the synagogue particularly engaging at this stage of life. Second, their children’s generation isn’t likely to replace them in number or in giving capacity.

Engaging (Younger) Adult Jews

Yes, the next generation isn’t inclined to support their parents’ institutions, but we would do well to answer the question: How might we both engage this current cohort and simultaneously change how we engage the next cohort?

Shabbat and Holidays. We have found success when we integrate our holiday celebrations with political activism, as was the case when 200 people attended the Tu B’Shevat seder, held on the Shabbat evening closest to the holiday this year. In addition to nut-free tables of dried apricots, olives and Palestinian olive oil, oranges and fair-trade chocolate-covered coffee beans, the guest speaker was a local Jewish candidate for governor who spoke about environmental policy and climate change. Those who attended were not Shabbat regulars. They came because we integrated a Jewish ritual on Shabbat evening with an opportunity our members were seeking even outside of the synagogue. We provided food and child care at no additional cost.

Instead of focusing on how we fill more seats at Shabbat evening services, we hold our adult-education classes on Shabbat evening, preceded by a short service and dinner, in rotation with a Shabbat wine and cheese and board games, and a Shabbat dinner block party and BBQ with a member-composed pop-up band (ShaBarBQue!).

Social and political relevance. We have realized that adult education programming must be culturally relevant, responding to what is happening in the world now.  Our committees must be diverse and flexible enough to create educational programs that bring our members face-to-face with topics they are already engaged by and offering them opportunities to work collaboratively. In the aftermath last year’s presidential inauguration and the Islamophobic travel ban, members of our synagogue showed up at a mosque in a neighboring suburb at jummah prayer time with signs reading “Jews Support our Muslim Neighbors.”  For several weeks, we held a vigil on Friday afternoons, bringing our religious school children to meet Muslim Academy day-school students.

While the solidarity was warmly received and it felt good on both sides, many of our congregants were left with many questions. For some, it was their first time in a mosque. Politically, they are supportive, and they show it in the streets. Personally, they haven’t ever learned from Muslims as teachers. We responded by focusing our adult education and Tikkun Olam Task Force on Peace Dialogue on learning about Islam—academically, culturally, socially and through a social-justice lens, so that we can connect religious organization to religious organization. We invited members of the mosque as ushpizin (guests) to speak during our Shabbat evening service about the experience of Muslims in America. We arranged for academic and experiential learning sessions about Islam taught by Muslims, attended a play at written by a local Muslim woman, and are presenting a conversation between me and a feminist Muslim activist on “Judaism and Islam: Gender and Feminism.” Finally, we are hosting a series of meals with synagogue and mosque members together to talk about topics of common interest, “Across the Table.”

In this way, congregants were able to use their synagogue to connect with the issues of interested. They come to synagogue to pray, and to connect their spiritual lives to the political and social milieus in which they live. We are building relationships with one another, instead of studying one another from afar. To that effect, this coming year, we are exploring “Judaism and Racial Equity.” We are selecting topics that are relevant to the world around us, and we provide education, opportunities for self-examination, Jewish sources, and we spend time in other communities to engage in this vital social-justice work. We ask, “How might we use the places where we feel safe as a container to explore personal and spiritual growth? How might we transform our congregation into one that actually welcomes Jews of Color, and names our mostly white racial privilege? How might we be better allies? We bring these transformative programs to our Tikkun Leil Shavuot program, and through a congregational trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery. Our adult-ed book group will read How the Jews Became White People. Through our synagogue community, we actively live in two civilizations.

Sharing Judaism’s Spiritual Riches

Our members are intelligent and well-educated, and they find opportunities outside the synagogue to learn about their interests, political commitments, and spiritual practices. Yet many Jewish adults haven’t been in a Jewish learning environment since adolescence, and often, they feel ashamed about their ignorance about Judaism. They don’t know how to connect their personal values with what Jewish teachings, texts and practices. Many seek spirituality outside of Judaism because they do not imagine that Judaism has something to offer them. And this disconnect makes sense: If we stopped learning any subject at a 13-year-old level and then tried to engage in it as an adult, we would not find it so enticing or nuanced. We must offer them opportunities to take the ritual practices that inspire them, bring them solace, nurture their souls and draw them into the synagogue.

For the past nine years of my rabbinate, I have taught a Spiritual Autobiography class. Modeled on RRC’s Contemporary Thought class, this course gathers adults in a small group to meet weekly for a month, sharing connections to Jewish spaces and places, liturgy, holidays and memories, social activism, and personal moments of awe and calamity. After a month, we break, and the participants reflect upon and then write the narratives of their own spiritual journeys. The group then gathers together to share their stories aloud.

These sacred texts often reveal three major things: First, the practices that many associate with their own “spirituality” have often not been seen as “Jewish” by the writer before this experience. Second, this is often the first time the writers have examined their lives through a spiritual lens, and they are moved emotionally to discover they even have spiritual experiences. Third, the classmates who witness and validate these spiritual writings become deeply connected to one another, and this continues after the class ends.

This class often surprises congregants and provides Jewish legitimacy for their personal beliefs and practices. They become connected to Jewish traditions they never learned about: the rise in use of the mikveh as a physical tool for healing, the creation of new rituals for divorce, creative ideas about what to do with the wedding cards. If they have a daily yoga practice, they might initiate a coffee ritual in the morning. They are introduced to the world of Jewish kavvanot as a way to make life more meaningful.

We need to bring in our adult members for learning and spiritual engagement that is nourishing to the stage of life they are in now. Not only can they learn not only about Judaism and Jewish topics, but they also are able to view their own spiritual journeys through a Jewish lens. We need to be nourishing the souls of our members, not just nourishing their need to volunteer. Classes like “Spiritual Autobiography,” or even classes on liturgy and ritual, can feed their hunger for spiritual knowledge and experience.

Not Knowing

Most liberal Jews know Judaism advocates Tikkun Olam, but they have never been exposed to what our texts and customs teach. One way that we can serve our members is to be explicit that it’s okay to “not know.” In fact, it speaks to the deep Jewish value that learning is never complete. Many folks—those who grew up in a Judaism that departed from Orthodox or traditional practice, those who chose Judaism later in life, and those who aren’t Jewish—never had this education to begin with, and contextualizing it in the way liberal Jewish communities function, we open the doors to learning opportunities and engagement. We have to model that not knowing isn’t reason to refrain; rather, it is a chance for folks to try something for the first time that might be meaningful to who they are now. We need to entice our unengaged members with opportunities to learn about traditions that most liberal Jews never accessed before. Using the framework, “What’s Jewish About?”, we can draw explicit connections to ways in which our members live their lives—through parenting, protesting, work/life balance, grief, transition—and bring Judaism to them, rather than bringing them to Judaism.

Social-Justice Activism is a defining feature of most Reconstructionist congregations. When I meet with b’nai mitzvah families, and I ask their parents to tell me what is most compelling to them about being Jewish, most comment that the way they most deeply connect to Judaism is through our focus on tikkun olam. However, most folks cannot talk about what Judaism has to say about tikkun olam, or how it connects to them personally. To address this, we begin each Social Justice Committee meeting with Jewish texts and ideas, bringing more Jewish tradition into this work.

On the other hand, our congregation is having trouble engaging our members in our social-justice committee work. What is compelling about coming together with their synagogues communities to call legislators, participate in climate marches or volunteer at soup kitchens, instead of doing so with their civic organizations or groups of friends? How can the synagogue create connections between the work that they do as activists and their Jewish identities and spiritual lives. What is the unique voice that we can play because we are a Jewish congregation, not just as concerned citizens?

We can create portable liturgies for protest marches—blessings for taking to the streets as a form of prayer that anyone can lead when the group gathers. Our psalms—Min hameitzar karati yah (Psalm 118:5), Olam hesed yibaneh (Psalm 89:3), and Pitkhu li sha’arei tzedek (Psalm 118:19) lead our voices in the streets and adorn our protest signs, and then connect our justice initiatives when we are back inside the sanctuary at services. We can gather to share a meal or stories about how food is related to our Jewish identities before we work in a soup kitchen. We can study the historic immigration laws and look at our own family histories before we go together to stand vigil before ICE hearings at detention centers. We can mandate that all of our b’nai mitzvah social-justice projects be within synagogue task forces, so that our students do not merely produce a one-time project, but rather engage with the larger multi-age community. Many of the kids who do this remain engaged post-b’nai mitzvah, as do their parents.

Bringing in Gen X, Y and Z

Over the years, our Jewish communities have done a tremendous job in engaging our members from birth through b’nai mitzvah, and from early parenting through death. There are 20 to 30 years between becoming bar mitzvah and becoming a preschool parent (if they have kids), which is 25 percent of the lifespan. And yet, there are a plethora of organizations that capture the hearts and Jewish souls of folks in this age bracket. Camp Havaya, Hillel, Moishe House and Avodah are a few well-known spaces for this demographic, as well as for Jewish political organizations of every stripe. Rather than cede this cohort to these groups, we need to partner with them. The new generation of unaffiliated, emergent Jewish communities is sexy and intriguing. Rather than submit to our anxiety about competition for membership, we ask: “How might we bring our communities together to strengthen an event, or bring different perspectives to an initiative?  We both have important things to offer. We don’t have to become one entity, but neither should we become threatened by our Jewish neighbors.

On the Wednesday before Tisha B’Av, I gathered with folks in their 20s and 30s at local bar to learn about Tisha B’Av and its contemporary meaning. Not all were members of JRC, and not all are going to become members. Some were anchored to JRC; others were connected to Moishe House, Avodah, Svara, Orot, local veggie potluck Shabbat dinners and to justice activism groups. The conversation was rich and curious. The 18 young adults who joined together to study an old holiday of mourning brought insights, empathy, criticism and a deep desire to find the ways in which Judaism feels authentic and real. We discussed what it means to offer tokhekhah (rebuke) to beloved institutions when they no longer display the values we adored in them, and the feelings of sadness and loss that arise. We discussed our relationship to the Earth and how wild edible plants seem to die right around Tisha B’Av and blossom at Tu B’Shevat, a contemporary cycle of death and birth.

We recalled the other calamities that took place on Tisha B’Av, and our mandate to remember them: expulsions from England and Spain, the day Germany entered World War I, the Nazi creation of “The Final Solution,” and the day the Warsaw Ghetto was emptied to Treblinka. We searched for meaning in a holiday that we might not find meaningful or one we may have never learned about at all. We brought in comparisons to the period of Lent in Catholicism—mourning, abstaining from certain pleasures, and ultimately rejoicing—practices with theological similarities to Jewish tradition. I was deeply moved and engaged by this gathering.

This year on Tisha B’Av, we will partner with Hands of Peace, hosting Jewish Israeli, Arab Israeli, Palestinian, and American Jewish, Muslim and Christian teens. They will share three different perspectives on being in relationship together, and we will reinterpret the loss of homeland observed with the destruction of the Temple through these different, parallel narratives. The political becomes personal, which becomes ritual, and we use the shared emotion of lament as we chant in Eikha trope from each of their stories of loss. Few congregants are inclined to come to a program on a Saturday night in July to mourn the loss of the Temple 2000 years ago. But many are mourning the destruction that impedes peace in Israel/Palestine, and will come to this observance.

This conversation would not have happened if we told this group that the only way to be engaged in Jewish conversations is to pay membership dues to a synagogue. But if they have Facebook friends who are attending a program, if the conversation is interesting, and if there are opportunities to engage with other Jews, then they feel they belong in the moment. Down the road, if they need a Jewish resource or community, a connection has been initiated. We must have courage to grow and change our institutions.

Some worry that we should make demands. We at JRC have chosen to create easy points of access without requiring financial support of the synagogue. There’s no cost or need to be a member to attend a learning session and conversation with the rabbi at a bar night, with food provided. To attend all of our High Holiday services, those under 35 can buy a Chai Holiday Ticket for $18. It costs $36 per month to become a member. Our 25-year-old board member is a social worker who cannot afford a $400 annual dues payment in one lump sum, but if she pays monthly liker her gym membership and student loan payment, the dues become more accessible. She and the other leaders of the 20s-30s group who were invited to the annual gala at no charge could not have afforded the $180 ticket, nor would have chosen to spend their money that way. But all of them spent money on silent auction items once they were there, and they witnessed folks who pledged $10,000 to the capital project. If we bring these young adults to the table and encourage them to affiliate with our synagogue as one of their many communities, we are more likely to keep them involved when they have more money to spend, and they will want to support the synagogue fiscally. If likewise we show up where they do—at rallies, marches, bars, theater events—then our Gen XYZ members will see that we share their concerns.

By electing a 25-year-old to our board, and establishing a committee run by 20- and 30-somethings, we created space and resources within the synagogue that allows this generation to create their own programming and articulate their own needs. These folks have a voice at every level of synagogue decision making, which creates buy-in and validates their presence and their opinions.

Our college students receive care packages from me at Rosh Hashanah, and they are invited to lunch with me over winter break. The care packages contain requisite apple and honey sweets, but also the packet of reflective readings from our services, and thought-provoking questions for the season of the year. For the student who goes to Hillel, or comes home to celebrate with fiscally family, or has an exam on Rosh Hashanah and eats dried apples in their dorm room, this lets them know that there is a connection with a synagogue community waiting for them. Our high school students are invited to “Kafein with the Rabbi” at a café once a month after school, where the coffee is on me, and the topics of conversation are up to them. Last month, we discussed their school’s walkout in the wake of school shootings, being Jewish and having white privilege, civil disobedience and our relationship to the police who chaperoned the event. Then one teen brought out the tallit she is making for her sister’s bat mitzvah, and the whole group learned to tie tzitzit and talked about the symbols we wear—all in a local café. It’s an opportunity to bring my rabbinate and our synagogue into the lives of our congregants. When they feel like they need to come in, it’s up to them, but they can more easily find the open door in their 20s.

Multigenerational Communities

One role that our multigenerational communities can play is to create a community stable enough to provide ever changing ways for Jewish people to come together and explore what they care about. Our role as congregations is to emphasize the value of community in which members show up for one another. In multigenerational communities, we show up for one another as witnesses and to fulfill our obligation to one another as fellow Jews. Synagogues often create families for those who need them. If we are to fulfill our obligations to one another, we may not even like each other, but we still show up.

Where are the places we need to show up? We witness the photo exhibition of the eighth graders who looked for examples of hesed (kindness) around the city as part of a curriculum on photography and the Jewish lens. We witness the person ending years of chemotherapy and taking herself off the refuah (healing) list by bentsching gomel (a new tradition for her—the blessing for escape from danger) and dancing. We witness two member households saying Kaddish for their young children and being surrounded by arms singing Oseh Shalom. We witness new members having an aufruf (being called up for an aliyah before your wedding) when their family of origin would not support their marriage. We witness a member returning from a trip with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and sharing her stories of seeing the Occupation. We witness a funeral where none of the 70 people in the room were related to the meitah (deceased), but three of them performed taharah (ritual cleansing) for her, one was her power of attorney, and many were members from Hesed who came to sit by her bedside. We show up when 20 kids fly across the country to Camp Havaya, and the older ones call the parents of the younger ones when the flight is delayed. We use Jewish tradition to push against the age of selfishness and individualism by showing all generations the way in which we cannot be Jewish alone, and there are always new ways to be Jewish.

Partnering With Other Organizations

Synagogues have always provided a venue in which Jews across the lifespan can engage with one another. We need to recognize that many members, not just millennials, are looking for meaningful, spiritual, adult Jewish communities. This word is plural by intention—one institution (even a synagogue!) will never be sufficient to meet everyone’s needs. By partnering with other communities, and creating multidisciplinary programs across our different committees, we keep our members engaged, and we stay relevant, so that we do not put synagogues in the position of having to be all things to all people. It’s OK to specialize, but we must stay engaged in what is relevant so that our specialization evolves with our changing world.

Unity in Diversity

It’s not always easy or comfortable to be in a congregational setting with passionate and diverse Jews. Our congregation spans the gamut of liberal political positions. We are a community that feels deeply and acts with conviction, but we live in the tension of how to not let this divide us. The understanding of peoplehood propels us to stay connected because it deepens our souls and our community. In a recent response to anti-Semitism, intersectionality, and the Chicago Dyke March, I wrote to my community:

As a Lesbian, a Jew, and a rabbi, I believe the LGBTQ community needs to be expansive enough to include religious, political, and personal voices. We know from history what silencing can do. The queer community cannot exclude Jews. The queer community cannot exclude those with whom we disagree, no matter how profoundly. For this I am deeply dismayed and saddened at what took place at the 2017 Chicago Dyke March.

I also believe the Jewish community has to be a big enough tent to include Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. We must engage in more conversations, and not exclude the elements we don’t like or even with whom we deeply differ. Sometimes, our own multiple, internal identities are in conflict. I personally am against the Occupation and believe in the right of self-determination and liberation for the Palestinian people. I also believe in the right of the State of Israel to exist, and the need for thoughtful engagement and critique when necessary. This is one of those times, and there is no one way to achieve this. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t fit in a single symbol.

I want be part of real, live community, to engage with people who can disagree with one another, including leadership, and also deeply respect our individual and collective experiences. We must listen, learn, and participate in self-reflection.

There are elements of the question of “What might the twenty-first century synagogue look like” that are completely new.  They push us out of the buildings and our dues structures, and require us to take an active position to engage, rather than being an organization that is necessarily and presumptively supported by our members.  On the other hand, we need to be stable and strong, and be the people that others can rely on for support, conscience, and inspiration. We must educate, act and feed our souls and our hearts.

I don’t know everything. What I do know is that this place feels vulnerable, uncomfortable, and filled with nuance. Let us embrace complex feelings and ideas, both ideologies and identities, and create spaces for all who desire a seat at the table for collective liberation.

I wrote this sentiment to my community in the face of division and fear.  I truly believe that if we as congregations are to stay relevant and engaged, then we are to move ourselves from a place of defensiveness to a place of seeking.  We must ask our members what they want and what they need, and we must join them out in the world where they are. We must dream together, ask “How might we” rather than “why don’t they,” and experiment, reconstruct, and keep visioning.  We must connect one to the other.  This includes online, in the streets, in cafes, and yes, in our sanctuaries.  The container changes and becomes new, but if we are mindful and creative, it remains holy.

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