Self-serve Judaism

Montreal's Mile End Chavurah takes a novel approach to Jewish identity and ritual.

Montreal Jews (photo credit: Andrew Princz)
Montreal Jews
(photo credit: Andrew Princz)
At a recent service of a nascent Jewish group here, a woman announced her coming out in front of her community. But the point was not that she was gay. Her friends already knew that, she said. It was because, she admitted, she didn’t believe in God. But her lack of faith didn’t impede her desire to participate in Jewish ritual and spirituality. She was comfortable surrounded by a community with whom she could explore Judaism.
Shortly thereafter, the Mile End Chavurah’s spiritual voice, Rachel Kronick, guitar in hand, followed suit in admitting her own atheism. For this exceptional service, having taken place in the presence of a Torah, she offered to pretend. While some members of the group may individually profess ambivalent views toward the notion of God, this vibrant community is united in its desire to explore Judaism and its rituals.
Its approach values individual journeys toward Judaism in an open environment. This is self-serve Judaism, where one can take or leave or even adapt traditions, depending on personal convictions.
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“There are so many people who don’t fit anymore in the boxes of traditional synagogues,” says Kronick, “There are so many people who identify with Judaism, and approach Jewish identity with a sense of ambivalence.
They might not have a straightforward, uncritical view about Israel, or they may have married non-Jews.
“While they are deeply curious about Jewish spirituality, they are uncomfortable with the orthodoxy that exists within many synagogues. They just want something that feels heimishe.”
Kronick begins some services with a sort of poetic ode. She welcomes a diverse lot that range from those whose backgrounds are anchored in Jewish life to others for whom Jewish rituals are altogether new.
“Some of us were dragged here – by our partner, by a parent, even by a child – and we aren’t convinced we even want to be here,” recites Kronick. “Some of us are Jews by choice... Some of us are not Jews.
“Some of us don’t read a word of Hebrew,” she goes on, reciting at a metronomic pace. “For some of us, Hebrew is our mother tongue. Some of us keep kosher.
Some of us keep kosher at home and eat bacon out.”
The Mile End Chavurah grew into a community from a small group that Kronick gathered together for a founding meeting in a local café in the spring of 2009. She set out to develop a grassroots, innovative community that she felt would fill a need for an open space to study, a place to debate and explore Judaism and its rituals.
“It was intriguing because suddenly I was meeting other people who had similar things to say about their relationship with organized Judaism,” says Layla Dabby, a founding member, recalling the first meeting.
“It was responding to a sense of alienation or disconnect, of not feeling represented. It was surprising to me; up to that point I didn’t realize that other people existed besides me that felt that way.”
The group began by celebrating small Shabbat dinners at each other’s homes, initially with 10 to 20 people attending. They later adopted a church and cultural center which was once a synagogue. This is where the group holds services that include Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, guest speakers and meditation in the context of potluck vegetarian meals.
The group follows in a tradition of havurot that date back in North America to the 1960s and 1970s. These fellowships were initiated to hold holiday prayer services or facilitate Shabbat dinners. They have traditionally favored an egalitarian approach, rather than hierarchical structures.
“Most fundamentally I get a community,” says Dabby, who has since been joined by other family members. “I have this group of people that I can see myself getting older with, going through different stages in my life and with whom to share major events, of sharing and exploring an identity. It is a great gift that I never expected to have, and I am very grateful for it.”
Among its growing number of programs and events, the Mile End Chavurah recently held a community-wide educational event featuring Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, a progressive New York-based Jewish community, to share the approach of a more inclusive form of Judaism.
These groups are two of several North American movements that are challenging stratified notions of Jewish celebration. They are taking religion out of the synagogue and into people’s homes, encouraging the adaptation of traditions to individual desires. The Mile End Chavurah welcomes gays and lesbians, and offers the space to approach traditions with a critical eye.
“We are not trying to do flashy cool things, but we are simply trying to engage in an authentic spiritual inquiry together,” says Kronick, herself the product of a mixed marriage whose mother converted to Judaism.
“There is nothing that we are not open to.
Someone can come to chavurah and say that ‘I am really uncomfortable with Judaism,’ or ‘I am uncomfortable being a Jew.’ There is space to explore. People can come in and say that I feel really committed as a Jew, and there is space for that, too.”
In a matter of months, the Mile End Chavurah went from intimate Shabbat dinners in people’s apartments to members participating in regional retreats and conferences.
It even surprised some in the community when some 250 persons attended High Holy Day services, and potluck dinners also began to attract a wide variety of new members.
Through a newsletter and social media, the group mushroomed and finally received granting from Gen J, a funding body of the mainstream Jewish community which is intent on attracting a new demographic into the larger Jewish community.
The group now includes a diverse array of members whose interests include ways to express Judaism in environmental, gastronomic or spiritual terms.
Tamara Kramer brings an international flair to the table with her radio program Shtetl on the Shortwave, which doubles as a Jewish cultural magazine. The program has a dizzying array of themes from in-depth interviews with proponents of this city’s vibrant musical scene to a talk with the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya, a Jewish community in Uganda.
“The new generation wants much more freedom in how they define their way to be Jewish,” says Andres Spokoiny, chief executive officer of Federation CJA in Montreal.
“They demand much more openness, an inclusive space to be able to express their Judaism in the way that they choose to do so.”
While the definition of openness put forward by Spokoiny differs markedly from that of the Mile End Chavurah, the CJA has welcomed the group at arm’s length, but significantly with financial support. One key to understanding the shift is a changing demographic among the community here.
Montreal’s Jewish community has become increasingly multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic. From a predominantly Anglophone and Ashkenazi face, migrant populations, Russians, a vibrant Sephardi community, Jews from South America and even Israel have now enriched it.
Yet while Spokoiny talks of inclusion in terms of mixed marriages between Ashkenazim and Sephardim or integrating Jews of various ethnic backgrounds into the greater community, the Chavurah remains much more open-ended.
For the traditional Jewish institutions of Montreal – one of North America’s most dynamic communities – associations like the Mile End Chavurah also represent a strategic interest. For them, opening to those with less traditional approaches to Judaism comes down to demographics.
These movements act as a catalyst to attract new segments who don’t feel at home with the more traditional institutions.
“There can be a beauty in people disagreeing, and in the Jewish community, it is a kind of a stereotype,” says university student Simone Lucas, who attends Mile End Chavurah events. “I think that with this group there is more of a willingness to discuss without having to arrive at a conclusion.
There is a willingness to make things work with what we have without having to put boundaries attached to one view or perspective.
Those are the underlying values.”
Lucas was attracted to participating in Jewish ritual, an open-ended approach to Judaism and seriously prodding intellectual questions. But for her, it doesn’t stop there.
Being exposed to the contentious issues surrounding Israel on the university campuses led her to seek a space where openness existed to talk about these issues without preconceived notions.
“There is a lot of talk about Israel and a lot of activism around Palestinian liberation, but there is an emotional difficulty in talking about it,” she says. “Hillel, for instance, doesn’t respond well a lot of the time. We have been fed a lot of narratives and stories that are hard to detach ourselves from.
Sometimes there is a need to talk about it, because it is really important. Jews feel certain accountability for it.”
The writer is a member of the Mile End Chavurah. He visits and reports on diverse communities around the world, and is the editor of the travel website