Joseph Berman, Lauren Spokane: Judaism Unbound Episode 181 - The New Synagogue Project


Joseph Berman, founding rabbi of The New Synagogue Project (NSP), and Lauren Spokane, NSP’s “lead instigator,” join Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about how their intentional community is looking to help build a better, more just world. [1]

(0:01 - 15:05): To begin the episode, Berman and Spokane respond to two inter-related questions that frequently arise for them: 1) Why on earth are you looking to start a new synagogue, and 2) But isn’t the synagogue model dead? They assert a variety of ways in which they believe synagogues continue to play a vital role, and they argue that they are particularly well-situated to serve the role of intentional community — something that many people desire, even if they might not yet be considering joining a synagogue. [2] They make the case for continuing to have forms of membership in synagogue contexts, arguing that even in an era when many decry a lack of “joiners,” people will affiliate with organizations that really deeply speak to their values. [3]

(15:06- 32:11): Spokane speaks to the ways in which social justice is the “bedrock” of the New Synagogue Project community and a community organizing approach is its “backbone.” [4] She suggests that an important function of their organization is to center those who have, in other Jewish settings, been on the margins (including Jews of color, people in interfaith relationships, LGBTQ Jews, and others). Berman carries that conversation forward, arguing that the realms of the religious and the political cannot realistically be seen as separate, citing as an example the ways in which belief in human beings as tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) necessitates standing up against white supremacy. The two guests then look at their geographic location within Washington D.C, and they consider ways in which spiritual organizations provide a context not only for resistance against the oppression we see in the world, but additionally for imagining what a more liberated future could look like. [5]

(32:12 - 48:40): Berman argues that there is a pervasive tendency towards seeing money as dirty, which in the long term does harm to progressive organizations which are often (as a result) under-resourced. He also discusses the beginning of NSP’s Hebrew school, which does not yet exist but will in the fall of 2020. [6] Turning to the topic of Israel-Palestine, Berman explores how The New Synagogue Project can stand proudly and publicly against the occupation, choose not to mix Jewish practice with political nationalism, and still simultaneously maintain a very big tent around Zionism and Anti-Zionism. To close the episode, Spokane and Berman reflect on some of the greatest strengths of their burgeoning project.

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[1] Learn more about The New Synagogue Project by heading to NewSynagogueproject.org. Find out the answers to some FAQs about the organization by clicking here.

[2] Find out why the name “New Synagogue Project” was chosen by reading this piece, written by Berman.

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[3] Berman alludes to an article by Toba Spitzer, on the subject of synagogue dues. Check out her piece, published in Sh’ma Now and entitled “The Covenant of Money,” by clicking here.

[4] Spokane mentions that both she and Berman have a background in community organizing through their training with the Industrial Areas Foundation. Learn more about the IAF by visiting IndustrialAreasFoundation.org.

[5] Berman cites a few other congregations around the country doing similar justice-driven work. Learn more about them at the following links: HinenuBaltimore.org (Hinenu, Baltimore), Kol-Tzedek.org (Kol Tzedek, Philadelphia), TzedekChicago.org (Tzedek Chicago), KolotChayeinu.org (Kolot Chayeinu, New York City)

[6] Stay tuned for many episodes of Judaism Unbound looking squarely at the topic of Jewish education, beginning just a few weeks after the release of this episode!