Justice, Religion

TLS Takes a Step *Forward*

Intrepid investigative reporter and friendly-neighborhood-reb-student Julia Appel recently took a roadtrip to reflect and then write on Tikkun Leil Shabbat (TLS)* for The Forward. Her article captures many of the salient, if unusual, characteristics of the group.
In broad terms:

Washington – Tikkun Leil Shabbat, a participatory prayer group, or havurah, may soon have to find a bigger space.
The havurah’s average attendance has increased to upward of 150 from 30 since its founding barely two years ago. Even after halting their advertising on Jewish e-mail lists in Washington, every third Friday night dozens upon dozens of young Hill staffers, not-for-profit analysts, community organizers and graduate students spill out from the main seating area into the stairs and hallways of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s carpeted basement. For many of them, finding the havurah has meant finding a home in the Jewish community — one they feel actually expresses their progressive values.

She also considers its connection with broader trends:

At first glance, the havurah resembles other new independent prayer communities along the East and West coasts — the mostly 20s age demographic, the volunteer leadership team, the desire for participatory and spirited prayer.

This is certainly an apt description. TLS has a lay-driven model as do many any other minyanim and havurot. However, there are also plenty of young folks at places like Ikar, BJ, and scores of other synagogues who do have professional clergy. There are also lots of progressive people of other generations who are in minyanim. Though there are progressive young people in lots of places, the havurah movement is certainly an important and growing space.
What makes TLS different from most other minyanim, havurot, synagogues, or ashrams? Appel says that:

The havurah also is unique in that it has an official co-sponsor: not the Jewish federation or even a supportive synagogue, but rather the activist group Jews United for Justice, known for its involvement in local labor and affordable housing issues.

In place of a talk about the weekly Torah portion, known as a dvar Torah, Tikkun Leil Shabbat has a dvar tikkun — a talk by a representative from a local social justice organization on the group’s latest campaign and what attendees can do to help.

This is important in clarifying that we expect an integration between spiritual and activist work.

“We’re framing the talks about local social justice work by giving them a Hebrew name and a sacred context,” Novey said. And her hopes extend beyond D.C. “One thing I would hope is that we could contribute something, that the idea of a dvar tikkun will become second nature for the next generation, just like how for us, we think, ‘Of course Tu B’Shvat is about environmentalism.'”
The model is sticking. Hundreds of miles north in Boston, the Kavod Jewish Social Justice House has instituted a dvar tikkun in its own services.

The model answers an important set of questions about what the purpose of a religious community should be and I am thrilled that it is spreading. As people increasingly search for a progressive language which is informed by values these kinds of integrated experiences are becoming more important.

Prior to the launch of Tikkun Leil Shabbat, JUFJ, like many Jewish activist groups across the country, had focused on more secular expressions of Jewish values.
Avi Rosenblit, who was director of JUFJ at the time, sees the havurah as coming out of a desire to shift this status quo.
“Here were people who felt like their interest in Jewish spirituality and in social justice were two disconnected parts of the same idea, but there was no place to synthesize them,” Rosenblit said. “The desire for that synthesis is what I think animated those first meetings and ultimately the continued success of the program.”
Rosenblit thinks the political backdrop does not sufficiently explain the appeal of the havurah. “People aren’t satisfied anymore with tack-on social justice or tack-on Judaism,” he said. “They want to really know it, on a deeper level.”In other words, while synagogues often shy away from politics and Jewish activist groups from prayer and God talk, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is diving into both.

I imagine that I am not alone in my envy for the politically-charged, value-based rhetoric coming out of gospel churches and evangelical enclaves. Sure the politics don’t match but many of us are thirsty for religion which stands for something and are attracted to a model of religious devotion which celebrates our tikkun focus. As I ask what my tikkun (reparative work) is, I am eager to be around other people who are asking the same question and doing it with a similar language.

At the same time, alongside the dvar tikkun, “greening” efforts have meant reusable dish ware, cloth napkins and recycling for potlucks, and attendees are encouraged to walk or bike to services in order to reduce carbon emissions.

I don’t imagine a lot of minyanim have thought through the logistics enough to have as little waste as TLS. I find the thought that went into the sustainability inspiring.

Of course, as much as organizers of the havurah talk about the social justice component, they also freely admit that a basic reason for its popularity is social. In a city as transient as D.C., Tikkun Leil Shabbat provides a welcoming community with a potluck dinner. But even for those seeking socialization, the self-selected constituency is important.
“I work in nonprofits, so it’s not like I’m looking for another way to get involved,” said Alix Davidson, who has been attending Tikkun Leil Shabbat regularly since its founding. “I come because I like having a space full of other progressive young Jews, who I know share my values.”

Alix is describing the benefit of creating a community which includes shared values. Certainly all values are not shared by all people and i can’t imagine people being actively excluded for conservative thinking (interestingly, a few members of the bush administration are attendees) but for the most part it is a place where young progressives come and spend time together, hear about how other people are dealing with common issues, and, of course, engage around issues that have little to do with progressiveness, judaism, or spiritual life.
The community does a lot of innovating. I hadn’t heard of divrei tikkun before TLS formed nor had I heard of a davening space with footprint-minimizing potlucks. Here’s to hoping that new ideas continue to be attempted, re-jiggered, and finely executed at TLS and that they spread.
*Full Disclosure: I am an active member of TLS. I mused a bit here on how/why the community works and those reflections shouldn’t be thought representative of TLS or any subset thereof.

6 thoughts on “TLS Takes a Step *Forward*

  1. ZT– Julia touches on the grape-beverage debate. is it too early to discuss how that’s been going?

  2. cute, but it misses the point.
    Ortho shuls may expect their congregant not to drive no shabbat, but I doubt they are thinking about carbon footprint. Take a look at the number the SUVs in a suburban Ortho synagogue parking lot for a thursday bar mitzvah. Liberal shuls expect congregants to drive. The bottom line, as Julia points out, is: Does the community have a values orientation, and how does that play out in community policies? This serious thinking through of what are our values and how should we express them, is what makes TLS so unique. Its lack in much of the Jewish world is one of the things that encourages many folks to run away screaming.

  3. re: grapes/wine/etc, i suspect more info will be forthcoming, but i don’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the community. A brief facts only tidbit: a new approach was attempted this past TLS where people who wanted to hold a glass of wine/grapejuice/hechshrer/not-hechshrered/etc were encouraged to do so and people made kiddush simultaneously.

  4. Pingback: Sarx » EmTopics
  5. Most Orthodox Jews do not own SUVs. Simply go into any Orthodox neighborhood and you’ll see many old station wagons, vans and small cars. I doubt, however, that there has been any real study done to break down the numbers.
    Based on the fact that Orthodox Jews are less likely to own and use a TV, video game systems, home theater system and completely abstain from most carbon-releasing activities on Shabbat, it can be reasoned that the Orthodox are leading the pack in Jewish environmentalism. They simply spend more time learning Torah than on websites like this. That is very admirable.

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