Neesa Sweet on We’ve Created A Holographic Community

Neesa Sweet

We’ve Created A Holographic Community

There is a reason people lingered in the Hotel Moraine parking lot after the shofar sounded on Yom Kippur, a reason aside from the apples and fruit juice and challah enabling everyone to break the fast together. The fact was, that over the course of two days of Rosh Hashanah and a day of Yom Kippur, a community had been created, a community based on intensity of shared emotions, learning, sharing of each other’s stories, physical activity, soul searching, symbolism, ritual and prayer.

We thrive on that intensity, on that community. And we create, and recreate, it often throughout the year. It is as though the norms we have come to value as defining Aitz Hayim — norms which include liturgic conventions (rooted in tradition yet open to interpretation), our standards of intellect and emotional involvement, and a shared sense of hospitality and mitzvot — are portable seeds. We plant them in a variety of settings and situations and thus we bring the “total Aitz Hayim experience” to Shabbat services, high holidays at the Moraine, Camp Beber , travel through Israel and wherever else we come together.

The interesting thing is that “we” are not always the same people. In fact, we have developed distinct groups who appear on Saturdays, on Friday nights, who participate in the pods, in the Women’s Group, for the High Holidays or for special events. And yet, we experience a complete community with those who come and participate in each of these venues.

Beyond Hierarchy

The fact that we value this is a unique feature of Aitz Hayim, an evolutionary step ahead of much traditional congregational thinking. In “The Art of Public Prayer”, for example, Larry Hoffman describes an intricate congregational sociology that grows up in conventional settings based on the interplay between individuals and the congregation at large. He describes a “metalanguage,” a shared understanding of body language and unspoken signals that, in effect, give “regulars” a set of permissions and shortcuts that tend to enforce norms, but that also keep out individual expression and congregational evolution.

At Aitz Hayim we have, in effect, opened this metalanguage so that everyone can understand it. We consciously are aware of our own conventions — our niggunim, our Shma, our dancing and Torah passing, our various aliyot — and how everyone of us can use them and share them to create inclusion.

In a sense, we both create a new community and draw on the ongoing community every time we come together.

More Than a Synagogue

Aitz Hayim was founded as the Center for Jewish Living, not just a synagogue, not just Shabbat services, not just a school, not just a place to celebrate life cycle events, not just a social network, but as all of those parts, a systemic entity that ties together a complete Jewish life.

As such, it welcomes a variety of people. Yet all are connected to the greater entity, and even if they come for only a few days a year they are able to sense and partake of the spirit at the same intense level as everyone else.

That’s because Aitz Hayim was also founded as a model of Jewish involvement and relevance for the 21st century. In this light, we might think of it as a kind of “holographic” community. In a hologram, every part of the hologram contains the complete image of the whole. In our futuristic — and current — scenario even those who come for only a part of the schedule want no less than the total experience. As we recreate our community on every occasion, we are able to make that happen.

Modern Levites

In this open, holographic model, the role of what Hoffman might term the “regulars” takes on a new meaning. No longer the people who guard against change, the people who come frequently can become Levites, taking on the responsibility, the hospitality, and the sharing to create that community for themselves and others on an ongoing basis. Just as the Biblical Levites were “commanded” to care for the infrastructure of religious life, modern Levites feel an internal command to engage others and to serve those who come less often by being sure they have the “whole” Aitz Hayim experience available to them.

It is almost as though we have created a microcosm of Israel in the days of the Temple. There, the vast population of the country came to the Temple sporadically — some for the festivals, some for special sacrifices and some regularly throughout the year. The rest of the time they spent tending their flocks, their crops, and their businesses. It fell to the Levites to care for the Temple, the center of religious life, the rest of the time. The work was not glamorous. They were the shleppers , the cleaners, the water carriers. Their primary purpose was to make sure everything was in readiness for the rest of the population when they arrived.

Today, the core Aitz Hayim members are like the Levites in that they care for the spiritual needs of the community by doing the “shlepping.” Yet today, we do so by “shlepping” the energy and intensity that is generated by the community and making sure it reaches everyone, much as we make sure everyone has a siddur, a bagel, and a chair. The fact that this energy comes from everyone, not just a few, is what draws people in and widens our circle.

Jewish Reclamation

People who are attracted to Aitz Hayim share a love of Jewish learning and participation with the added desire to recapture various traditions to make them our own. We draw on and are inspired by the various forms Judaism has taken throughout the centuries. We are meticulous in following historical data and liturgical sources. Yet merely replicating the Judaism of another time and space — be it the sacrificial cult of Temple times, the shtetl Judaism of Eastern Europe, or the Conservative Judaism of America in the 1950’s — is not sufficient. We are committed to authenticity — but it is the authenticity that arises out of our own perceptions and truth and the realities of our contemporary lives.

As a community we continue to weave together our own expressions with our ongoing learning. We honor and draw on the liturgical customs of our childhood and previous synagogue experience, yet we know that these are only particular manifestations of particular incarnations of our heritage.

Today, we are living in an unprecedented era when translations and a wide variety of materials are readily available. It is a rich set of threads from which we can weave. We feel a responsibility to explore and incorporate other expressions, be they Hasidic, Yemenite, Sephardic , or modern Israeli.

And so we incorporate children’s aliyot, niggunim, and a custom of touching the challah and connecting with each other as we say the motzi . When we say the Shma, we live out the centuries old metaphor of linking the gathering the four tzitzit of the talis with the image of gathering all the Jews together in dignity. The ritual of the entire community being linked together by people holding each other’s tzizit is a powerful reaffirmation of responsibility for each other.

On holidays we reclaimed the tradition of duchening, the Kohanim reciting the priestly blessing while the entire congregation becomes groups covered by talasim. But our Kohanim are egalitarian; daughters of Kohanim are included.

On Yom Kippur the entire community was invited to prostrate themselves during the Aleynu and the Avodah service. We did so both from a position of strength and with the modern psychological perspective that a physical act could help us let go of the barriers that separate us and our connection to God.

And so we continue, continually adjusting the image of the hologram while, at the same time, we care for it and make sure it is available to those who are attracted to us. It is a warm and welcoming, growth oriented message.