As I wrote in my previous post, my family attended the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference last weekend in Maryland. We were thrilled to connect with many other young Jewish families who have the same yearning for value centered community as we do. One person who I felt a special kesher (connection) with is Rachael Cohen, a mother of two awesome daughters the same age as my children, who lives at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. She gave a speech at the conference and I am so excited to share it here (you can also find the speech and many other inspiring posts on our friend Tovah’s blog The Good List). I want to share Rachael’s story with you to explain her journey, as well as to shed light on why we and so many others are interested in something like intentional community building. Check out her Facebook group New Jewish Communities and stay tuned for a piece on the Huffington Post about Rachael and others at the conference!
The Jewish Agency for Israel, Hazon (America’s largest Jewish environmental group), Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and Pearlstone Retreat Center joined together this weekend to convene the inaugural conference for a growing national Jewish movement of intentional community building. This speech was given at the first plenary.
My passion for intentional Jewish community building is likely a result of the social isolation I felt in my early years. I was a child of suburbia. My mother went back to her job when I was six weeks old and I went off to a babysitter each day. My father spent most of his waking hours at work. Both sets of grandparents lived out of town. My sister was five years younger and, in my opinion, an unacceptable playmate. We were minimally affiliated Jews. I went to Hebrew school, but we had no connection with synagogue life. We rarely, if ever, had guests. What if the house wasn’t clean enough? The food tasty enough? We gave cursory waves to the neighbors, offered quick smiles to people we passed in the supermarket, made perfunctory exchanges with gas station attendants and bank clerks. I observed: be pleasant but detached.
I felt a loneliness and lack of connection that I could not adequately voice to my parents. As I matured, I had windows into other people’s lives. Friends whose families took vacations together, my large pack of cousins who all lived in the same distant town, kids that went to one summer camp year after year, families with many children. These groups were building a shared sense of belonging and I felt envious.
When I was fifteen I worked at a small, rural, Jewish day camp. For the first time I felt held and supported through a sense of deeper meaning and connection to community. That fall I joined my synagogue’s youth group, and again, felt the tenderness of intimate communal belonging I had never known but so instinctively craved. As I gently allowed myself to feel relevant and purposeful in these chosen communities, I saw myself defined not just by my own individual qualities, but by who I was in relation to the community. It was a revelation. Who I am is directly linked and impacted by who I am to you and who you are to me.
It took me fifteen years to find that sense of belonging again. I attended five colleges, nine programs in Israel, made Aliya, left Israel, and was a resident of more municipalities in America than I have fingers to count. I dragged first my husband Yishai, and then our kids, around with me to numerous conventional communities, gauging the social climate, measuring, calculating, computing, and assessing all aspects of the prevailing social systems and interpersonal patterns. And over, and over, and over again I was disappointed – sometimes despondent – over the inherent lack of intention and substance. Yet I could not give up my search. I was compelled to address the insistent demand I felt within – to belong to something bigger than myself; to define who I was in the context of something greater than my individual experience alone.
Despite finding a handful of secular intentional communities that seemed absolutely perfect for our family, when I seriously considered our ultimate life in one of them, I realized a non-Jewish community could not serve our purpose of social sustainability. We would not be able to participate fully or authentically in community life without the aspects that define a Jewish community and resonate so profoundly for us. Regular communal prayer, shared holidays and life cycle events, acknowledgment of Shabbat, awareness and consideration of kashrut, and the collective consciousness of almost four thousand years of shared history are all imperative to me.
Finally, last year, when a seasonal job was advertised with Teva, the Jewish environmental education program, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, I knew we had to seize the opportunity.
Isabella Freedman is first and foremost a retreat center, hosting transformative theme-based Jewish retreats and rentals. But for those lucky enough to find themselves a position there, as staff of the retreat center or Teva, or as participants in the Adamah farming fellowship, it also serves as a Jewish intentional community. It is a short-term, cyclical community in that most people stay seasonally, for three to four months at a time. There are approximately fifty people living and participating on-site at any given time, most of whom are single and between the ages of twenty to thirty. Communal meals provide the setting for powerful relationship-building opportunities.
Yishai interviewed for the position and was offered the job. We were met with some raised eyebrows and questioning expressions from family and friends. Were we crazy? How would we survive on so little? Where would we live? There was no on-site housing available for families. No Jewish day school for our five year old. No regular synagogue services. Only three other families with children.
By moving to Isabella Freedman, we have chosen a lifestyle based on ideals. Despite some very real obstacles, we are more content and fulfilled than we ever have been as a family. Our children are growing up in a social environment much larger than we alone can provide. They have many aunts and uncles who love them, teach them, discipline them, and watch over them. The depth and meaning in the relationships that they are creating is palpable, and the single most important reason we live in community. Authentic access to other human beings is sorely lacking in society today.
We have had to use savings and live frugally, but the rewards have been life-changing. We have opportunities to develop deep, authentic relationships based on shared values such as environmental stewardship, a progressive stance on Judaism regardless of affiliation, Jewish farming, mindfulness and personal improvement, and commitment to communal living. The friendships we grow and nurture with members of our community serve to strengthen and enhance our own identities, interests, and independence as individuals, and ultimately, improve our relationships with each other as family members.
This type of community experience must become available to any Jew that desires it. In order to proliferate the creation of Jewish intentional communities, my husband and I created New Jewish Communities, an internet forum where ideas and views on Jewish intentional community building can be exchanged for the purpose of 1) connecting people with existing, forming, and conceptualized projects of intentional Jewish community; and 2) establishing the first Jewish Ecovillage in America: an intergenerational community of people who are consciously committed to living Jewishly, in the same geographic location, with the intention of becoming more socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.
There has been much support for the agenda of New Jewish Communities. As a part of a growing global movement for a more sustainable world, these communities will integrate a supportive social environment with a low impact way of life. They will connect Jews through active and deliberate social participation in a vibrant Jewish context. They will strengthen and repair the individual, the family, Judaism and society by developing a system of mutual support that is becoming more difficult to achieve in conventional social systems. In this way, New Jewish Communities will change the face of contemporary Jewish life, and I look forward to being a part of that transformation.
Rachael Cohen is a big-picture thinker, captivated by social systems and social change. She believes in the process of community building as a means to remedy social disintegration and repair individual well-being. Rachael has a masters degree in macro social work and community practice, as well as a certificate in nonprofit management. She is currently working on relationship-based social change through the internet forum New Jewish Communities, and in Falls Village, CT, both at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and within the local community. Rachael’s full time job is raising two marvelous daughters.