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A conversation with Rabbi Sara Luria

"At the mikveh, you have a ritual where you are lovingly held in a warm, supportive environment. And I wanted to create a mikveh on dry land."

A mikveh on dry land? That's Beloved, a community Sara and her husband Isaac launched on the heels of her time learning with us in the Glean Incubator. The community is nurtured out of Sara and Isaac's home in Brooklyn -- what Sara calls "an experiment in home-based Judaism."

Prior to Beloved, Sara's experiences as a community organizer, birth doula, and hospital chaplain inspired her to found ImmerseNYC, a pluralistic, feminist, grassroots-energized community mikveh project. We were blessed to welcome Sara into our inaugural cohort of the Glean Incubator back in January 2017 as she developed ImmerseNYC and feel blessed to continue learning from her as she nurtures Beloved.

"My Jewish language for this is covenant. Who do I feel a sacred obligation for? And with, and to?"

Adele Anderson: The first four weeks of the Glean Incubator class really drill down on this idea of “loving your problem, not your solution.” What problem are you trying to solve with Beloved?

Sara Luria: One problem is the obvious: in this moment in our religious landscape in America, people are gathering differently than they did and people are finding community differently than they did in our parents’ generation. That’s obvious. And I think that we, at our best, can be openhearted and creative about what are ways to acknowledge and lean in to the idea that we’re going to need to create community differently than our parents did.

The institutions we have are not always up to the task. Some are, but many aren’t. But the real question is: can we, as a Jewish community, acknowledge this and be flexible and creative and confident enough to know that our ancient wisdom and our traditions and our rituals and our values are strong enough and relevant enough to be carried into any generation in any situation? I always say that the job of a rabbi is to take ancient wisdom and make it relevant to the generation they live in. 

Another problem I would say is the crisis in American culture right now of loneliness and the lack of a third space. We have home, we have work, but what is that third space where we can be ourselves in all of the different ways that our selves are, where we’re seen in this full, three-dimensional way? And I say it that way because people do use their yoga studios as a third space, people do use their local coffee shop as a third space. I’m not sure they’re really developing community there. And I’m not sure that that’s a place to be seen in your full three-dimensional self. It certainly used to be -- and for some people it still is -- that the synagogue and church was a third space. And it doesn’t seem to be that it will be moving forward for most people. So we need to address: what is the third space?

"The feminist rabbinate is a rabbinate in which our work is to facilitate people’s ownership of their Jewish lives. That’s what I believe my top job is. I am not the bearer of your Jewish life. My job is to ask you questions so that you can deepen and own your Jewish life. And I don’t know how to do that, you know how to do that. I get that from community organizing -- because in community organizing we know that the person closest to the problem is the expert."

AA: How would you describe Beloved? 

SL: We created a home-based experiment in Jewish life and community. What that means is that we wanted to figure out if we could bring together the strands of food and ritual and a feeling of comfort and love and familiarity and Jewish tradition into one place, and that’s why we chose a home. And it’s also not our idea. It’s not like Sara and Isaac had this great idea to bring Judaism into our home. Judaism is a home-based religion!

Also, sometimes when people walk into a congregation, they’re not sure how they’re supposed to be. And there’s a lot of fear involved: “Am I Jewish enough -- well I’m only half-Jewish, well my mother isn’t Jewish, or I married to someone who’s not Jewish, or I am not Jewish myself, and I’m interested!" And the prayer book is backwards from what English is and you don’t know the words and you don’t know the tunes, and then there’s baggage from how much you hated Hebrew school as a child -- I mean there are so many reasons why it’s hard to walk into a synagogue.

We felt that, if we really want to communicate that experience of being in a loving, supportive, and nurturing Jewish environment where you feel like it matters that you’re there and that you are seen and heard for who you are in this moment, then a home is a good vehicle for that experience.

AA: What learnings from the Glean Incubator course have translated to Beloved, in creating and executing it?

SL: Jack [McGourty, faculty at Columbia Business School and instructor of the Glean Incubator course] asked “Who is your customer?” And I was working on Immerse NYC at the time and I said, "My customer is all Jews for all transitions." And he said, “That’s nice, but who’s your customer?” And I said, “My customer is all Jews for all transitions.” And he said “That’s nice but who’s your customer?” So I thought a lot about that.

And I realized that the volunteers for Immerse NYC were ultimately my customers. Once that happened, I realized that the highest best use of Sara is to create community among people like our mikveh guides. I want to create community among people who are really hungry for it. And one of the ways I put it is that, at the mikveh, you have a ritual where you are lovingly held in a supportive and warm environment. And I wanted to create a mikveh on dry land. Where we were lovingly holding people in a warm and supportive environment, but it wasn’t in water. That helped me realize I do have an audience that I want to serve, but I might have to change everything in order to serve them.

It feels really holistic to me. I don’t feel like I’m quitting one job and starting a new job, it’s very clear to me that it’s all part of the same Big Project.

What if we focused on our strengths? Emergent Strategy was so powerful for me to read, and one of the things that the author Adrienne Maree Brown says is “What you pay attention to grows.” What is the best highest use of myself, what are my strengths, and what can I contribute to myself, to the community, to my family, and to the world in a way that really speaks to who I am? If I focus on that, then it's going to grow.

The first two photos on this page are attributed to Marj Kleinman Photography.

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