JITW: No Bar/t Mitzavah Afterall

New Voices just published a piece about Jews in the Woods disbanding. After a streak of 12 consecutive shabbatonim all over the Northeast and even in Israel it seems JITW has run it’s course.

Emily Fishman and Abigail Friedman were distraught. The two students had just returned from the spring 2007 gathering of Jews in the Woods (JiTW), the biannual student-organized Shabbaton known for its pluralistic, spiritual environment. After serving as the chief organizers of the event, the Brandeis sophomore and Columbia senior had expected to recruit a new pair of volunteers to organize a gathering for the fall. They were shocked when none of the 130 students present volunteered. Together, they composed an e-mail to the group’s listserv. “This one isn’t going to be easy,” they wrote. “It’s a concern that goes to the root of what JiTW is, what it should be, and what road this community is headed down…There no longer seems to be a pool of JiTWniks with the interest, experience, and right kind of energy to step up…and lead this group forward.”

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been very involved over the years with helping this community work and have been struck deeply by it. So much so that for a long time I viewed it as home even more than my parents shul or my college hillel, both of which i loved and love very much.
This is the first semester since the fall of 2002 in which there won’t be a JITW shabbaton. My feelings are mixed. I am delighted that JITW didn’t just go because of inertia. If it happens it will be because someone or some group of people sees a deep need unmet, tries to meet it, and creates a home the way I found a home.
Michael Brooks once told me that he opens Michigan Hillel Meetings with a motion to defund and shut down that Hillel and they don’t proceed until someone can provide a good reason not to do so. In that case it is brilliant rhetoric, in JITW’s case it is the real deal. This semester no one came up with a Brooksian good reason.
In part it is because since 2002 dozens of beautiful new communities have popped up. Havurot sprung to life at many schools that fueled JITW in years passed like Brown, Columbia, and Brandeis. Minyanim have also erupted in the 20s and 30s set. A lot of those dynamics overlap. JITW folks are disproportionately involved in visioning and stewarding those minyanim. All the people who met, endeavors that sprung up, and hearts which opened convince me that the work I did in the JITW community was well worth it even if its time has passed. That is why I am happy even in a sad moment.
I am very sad that folks who heard about JITW over the last decade, since its inception, and are just now getting to college may never experience it. At a personal level, it is upsetting that my younger sister, who just started college, may never get to go. But, if there is so much sadness, people will step up and make it happen, fill it with shabbos joy, and help it be a nexus of next-step Jewish creativity and node of experimentation again. If it is that, it will always have a place. If it were anything less, i’d be sad that it came back.

7 thoughts on “JITW: No Bar/t Mitzavah Afterall

  1. JITW is dead!
    Long live JITW!
    The trail’s been blazed and marked. The meme is loose. The book is on the shelf, ready to be checked out again at any time.
    More than anything else, JITW was about community and ideas: an almost messianic pursuit of pluralism, a playful willingness to try new things, and an open-hearted love of shabbat, prayer, sharing, & learning.
    Wherever you find these things, I think that there you’ve found JITW. And just maybe some new group of Jews will find them all together, at a cheap retreat center or inactive summer camp, ‘jewing it themselves’ for another magical Shabbos a few years from now, once again.

  2. Man oh man, after years of talking about it, I finally make it to one JITW, and then it turns out I killed it. Sorry everyone!
    But seriously, I don’t think there’s any deeper meaning to the lack of JITW this semester, beyond the fact that it’s an organization (or anti-organization) run by college students, and all such organizations ebb and flow as their core participants graduate. Some of the organizations I was very involved in during college are now gone. So it goes. This ephemerality is part of what makes college so exciting. And, I suppose, life writ large, except on a longer timescale, and with the key difference that you live to see what happens after you graduate, and you don’t live to see what happens after you die.
    JITW is somewhat different from other college-based organizations in that some of its core participants (such as you, ZT) have stayed active after graduation. But once the center of gravity has graduated, this is harder to maintain, in part because, as you mention, many of the JITW folks are now involved in other Jewish communities, so they’re putting their energy into those endeavors and don’t have the energy to put into JITW. May all these endeavors flourish.

  3. If anything, this could be a lesson to some of the larger, older, more established Jewish organizations facing a leadership vacuum and declining interest from membership.

  4. i never went to JITW, but i do have to say this: all true communities serve particular purposes. when they are done, they are done. if they stick around just for the hell of it, then they become institutions, which serve their own perpetuation as their highest purpose.

  5. I’m also noticing more energy (regarding future shabbatonim) in places farther afield from the east coast cities and campuses where it’s largely been concentrated thus far.
    And besides, I figure this kind of thing, in some form or another, in some place or another, will keep happening, whether or not it uses the phrase “Jews in the Woods”. And it’s ok that it’s changing, because that’s how life goes. Even the most beautiful things get stale if they’re repeated just because it was beautiful last time, not because it’s the right thing at the right moment *this time*
    So I’m not seeing much “death” so much as resting and changing.

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