The initial hypothesis that sent me riding out into the country to interview folks about God, can be summed up as follows: more and more it seems like there are people, ranging in age from their late teens to their mid thirties, single or partnered and/or with children, who, having grown up in one of the Traditional Western Religious Institutions (from here on out, “TWeRI”), are now finding themselves feeling somehow alienated from those TWeRI, and leaving the fold. Indeed, your humble writer counts himself amongst this number.
So I wondered: where are these people going? What are they looking for? What is changing in their beliefs, in their spiritual concerns? Is anything changing? Are they going to established fringe communities? To the cities where they invent fake gods? To make their own fringe communities?
I started my research the normal way. I casually asked friends if they knew the answers. Some did, and some knew some who did. Through the wonders of a real-life social networking, and with a few email exchanges, I was introduced to Rachael Cohen, a woman I was told was the de-facto godmother of the Jewish Intentional Community Movement.
Where was she? Boynton Beach, Florida.
So I went there.
The Cohens: Movers and Seekers
Rachael and Yishai Cohen have moved so many times over the last decade that they wrote a family song about it. It’s to the tune of “Oh my darling Clementine” (note: “Elul” is the last month of the Hebrew calendar), and it goes:
Every Elul, every Elul, every Elul, the Cohens move
First from Albany then to Israel then to Albany once again
Then to Hollywood (FL) then to Lawrencville (NJ) then to Albany once more
Now we’re living in Falls Village (CT) and we don’t want to move no more.
Needless to say they’ve since moved again. This time to Boynton Beach, where I met them this past Sunday afternoon, two moves after the end of the song, and with one to come in the next month.
“We’re looking, always seeking. Seeking seeking,” Rachael tells me as we sit and talk on the couch of their current, temporary, home. There are packed boxes all around us, and the two older children of the house are playing games and listening to Harry Potter on audio book (I did not see a TV in their home), respectively. Yishai is standing, moving around the room with the baby sleeping inside a carrier pouch on his front.
Since the birth of their first child eight years ago, the Cohens have spent their time bouncing around the de-centralized, non-organized, world of Jewish Intentional Communities. “There is the country of the United States and we have these dots all over, all over the states, with no locus,” she says, gesturing to the dots on the invisible map in front of her. To Rachael, these dots refer to those individual Jews who are looking for the kind of community the Cohens have been visiting, living in, and want to build. She laments how difficult it is to get these mindful, community-oriented Jews, to get together in one place, but is hopeful about Boynton Beach. “Boynton Beach is starting to attract new young families," she says, "and we are trying to encourage the growth in a way that’s meaningful to us.”
So just what are these intentional communities? They range from retreat centers, where residents come to stay in three month cycles, to frum (very religious) full-time farms, to eco-villages, to urban co-housing developments. Indeed, over the course of their search the Cohens have become regular mavens of the subject. Rachael helped spearhead the now yearly Jewish Intentional Communities Conference, which will have its 3rd meeting in December at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD. And for a short time Yishai worked on creating a database to keep all of these irregular communities of Jews on the outskirts connected, but with kids to raise and a full time job as a Jewish educator, there just wasn’t time to do it all.
But being busy with family and work doesn’t change either of their feelings that creative solutions are needed for today’s growing population of young disaffected Jews.
“You’ll hear me get angry,” says Rachael, “I’m angry. I don’t accept that which I know is not good enough. I’ve grown up enough to know that perfection is not real. There’s no Utopia. The question is, is it what I believe the best can be?”
So the Cohens are working on building a suburban co-housing Jewish Intentional Community in Boynton Beach called ‘Kumah (rise) South Florida!’ “We’re working on a kind of retro-fit co-housing,” says Yishai, “where we buy a house in a neighborhood, and then maybe a few others, and it slowly builds up.” The goal is to share backyards, have community gardens, create mutual-support systems, have safe places for the community's kids to play together. They hope to get a large enough mass together to take over the sometimes comically strict homeowners association in a neighborhood (the other day Yishai saw a child castigated for walking on the wrong side of the street).
Rachael sums up her feeling about the whole endeavor: “The usual attitude is, ‘this is really hard stuff, let’s go do it alone.’ How about instead we say, ‘this is really hard stuff let’s do it together.’”
Living Jewish Lives
Both Yishai and Rachael grew up in semi-secular Jewish households within the Conservative Movement on the East Coast. For those out on the lingo, the Conservative Movement (also the one in which I was raised), attempts to navigate the line between halacha (the “laws,” which Orthodox Jews follow to a T), and modernity by having a contemporary body of rabbis, based out of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who can, in theory, re-interpret some aspects of the law for the current world. Born in the United States in the late nineteenth century, it’s often considered a splinter of Reform Judaism, an early nineteenth century German movement that more fully leaves halacha and ritual for an embrace of modern life and progressive values.
When I speak with them, Rachael and Yishai explain that, in their experience, the current life of Conservative Jews that they see around them is a little too much window-dressing: people go to synagogue and listen to services every once in a while, and then return to their secular materialistically-based lives.
“We want to live real Jewish lives,” says Rachael, "we want to be mindful," and, regarding the kids, Yishai adds, "we do a good amount of positive brainwashing." Rachael jumps in, "We really tell them, 'this is what we do and here's what he believe.'"
Both describe the seed of this love for Jewish communal living as having been planted in summer camp.
Here’s Rachael: “When I was 16 I went to a Jewish day camp as a CIT and saw people living in a Jewish way and was transformed. But,” she’s explaining her current state of disappointment, “that apparently stays at camp. Since I’m 16 I’m looking for this camp feeling of ‘we’re doing it together. I’m connecting with you, you’re connecting with me.’ Once you experience it one time, you know it’s possible. [But] as you become an adult it slips farther and farther away. “
For now, while they work on attracting young Jews to South Florida, the Cohens belong to an Orthodox synagogue, although it is not an ideal situation, especially for Rachael. “I can’t go somewhere where Orthodoxy is the only way,” Rachael says, “I’m not able to be in that box. And, you know, I have daughters” (the Orthodox sect is non-egalitarian).
Yishai does identify as an Orthodox Jew, and is in fact in the process of getting smicha, that's rabbinical ordination, as an Orthodox rabbi, although, as he says, “I’m pretty laid-back for an Orthodox Jew." The sense I got from Rachael, often made explicit in what she said, was that she finds herself more spiritually concerned with issues of community, food, sustainability, and health than necessarily the religion of her upbringing.
She says, “My constant struggle is: what’s more important to me, what’s more important to the children and the generations ahead of me, what do I want to give them? Do I want to give them Judaism [as in, the specific laws of the TWeRI], or do I want to give them connection to the earth, and real love of other human beings? I really want them to enact a real connection between people and I don’t see it [in the mainstream religion].”
To that end, the Cohens flirted for a time with joining a Bruderhof community. Bruderhof is a Christian brotherhood that includes communes around the world. For them, connection to the Earth, income sharing, love and respect for humanity, and closeness to God and Jesus Christ are the bedrocks of daily life. (I visited the Bayboro Bruderhof in St. Petersburg, Florida later in the week, and will post about that encounter in the coming days).
They still see that kind of community as a great model, as it embodies the virtues of one of Rachael’s favorite words, “connection.” But the strict Christianity was a deterrent. Yishai talks about his responsibilities to Jewish continuity in the world, and Rachael adds, "Yes, we are Jews. We are Jews. People think all Jews are the same, but we’re just not.”
The Spiritual Bottom Line
My visit happened to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret. This day, celebrated on the last day of Sukkot (the “Festival of Booths,” in which Jews spend time in temporary living structures to commemorate the forty years of wandering in the desert. It is also traditionally the fall harvest festival), is a holiday in the truest sense of the word. The rabbinical interpretation of it is that, having enjoyed the last seven days of Sukkot so much, God has invited the people to share one extra holy day.
It being the holiday, I turned off my recorder for the festive meal. Yishai led the traditional blessing over the wine and challah, and over the course of eating a meal full of fresh vegetables, we commenced a long conversation about God and meaning, the specifics of which I won't go into at the moment, but surely come back to in later posts. I bring it up because, as it turns out, Rachael and Yishai, having been married already eleven years (since they were 21), still have very different notions of God and spiritual practice. And this made our conversation all the more enlivening. Indeed it seemed like similar discussions were not out of the norm in their house, which for a storytelling spiritualist blogger (that’s me), was quite refreshing.
There was vigor at the table.
There was perhaps no better evidence of this than during the post-meal songs, in which the children participated pretty raucously, thanking God for all the gifts of daily life, from family to food to Harry Potter. Here’s the important thing that really stuck with me: it wasn’t lip service. They were really thanking God. Harnessed creatively, this is the kind of energy that leads to innovation, to pioneering work. Hopefully this translates into a successful run in the creation of Kumah South Florida.
“I hope in ten years this [Boynton Beach] won’t seem so random,” Rachael says, “Maybe in ten years it’ll be like, ‘oh Boynton Beach that’s the place with all those hippie Jews.'”
Spoken like pioneers of the contemporary world.