The reservoir. We'll see this water again soon in NYC.
I'm told that this says ברוכים הבאים ליהודים ביער ("Welcome to Jews In The Woods").
Jews In The Woods has been going on, in various incarnations, for nearly a decade. As the name suggests, the essential elements are:
2. in the woods
The first JITW was in the fall of 1997. A group of college students from schools around New England, who knew each other from various high school programs, went into the woods for a spirited Shabbat. JITW in those days was very different from what it has become. Its existence was somewhat secret: the founding participants were my year in college, and some went to my college, and yet I never heard of JITW until after I graduated. Though participants represented a variety of Jewish backgrounds, the milieu at JITW was essentially Orthodox, reflecting the preferences of the founder(s).
The original cohort graduated in 2001, and a new generation of college students revived JITW beginning in 2003. This time around, JITW developed a focus on radical pluralism and on decentralized organization, and continues to experiment with both. The gatherings are organized via an open listserv, which hosts (among other things) practical discussions of Jewish pluralism in order to set policies for upcoming gatherings. You see, when it comes to policies regarding Jewish practice and other things, JITW ratifies its rules each time (like the House of Representatives), rather than being a "continuing body" (like the Senate). This doesn't mean starting from scratch each time -- past discussions about pluralism have yielded renewable fruit, and solutions that took a long time to come up with the first time ("hilchot pluralism", if you will) can be implemented again with little additional effort. But it means that past practices are not assumed to be in force unless they are actively reaffirmed, and it is thus (in theory) easy to change these practices when new circumstances arise or the population changes. There is no mission statement defining what the community does; "JITW is" what its participants decide it is (echoing Phish).
It appears that I joined the JITW listserv sometime in late 2004 and started lurking. I no longer remember what prompted this; it may have just been general curiosity as an observer of (and participant in) the independent Jewish scene (this was around when I joined the NHC board). (It wasn't entirely out of the blue -- I knew a number of JITW people from the NHC and elsewhere.) From the email record, it seems that I considered going to JITW at various times, but never made it a priority, so it never happened. Meanwhile I was observing the pluralism discussions with great interest (mixed with a small amount of fatigue from the questions that won't go away, but not too much), while keeping my mouth shut. One of the more theoretical discussions bled over onto another email list that I'm on, so I replied there at length, and was then convinced by several people (after resisting) to delurk and post it on the JITW list. This email was later developed into "Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism" -- it is excerpted in the "Stage 2" section of that post and paraphrased in the "Stage 3" section.
As time went on, I participated more actively on the listserv, joining in to discuss the theory and practice of Jewish pluralism (e.g. the long thread about the "minyan check"), but steering clear of making any normative statements about what JITW should do, since that was none of my business. In the meantime, the JITW list provided a fertile source of pluralistic practices to write about in the Hilchot Pluralism series.
As the second incarnation of JITW has developed, though college students have remained the core demographic, many participants have remained active in JITW after going out into the world, and other post-college-age people have joined. The core geographical area has expanded beyond New England, extending as far as DC. And so it was that this most recent gathering included members of the leadership of at least four prominent progressive independent Jewish communities (affiliations listed for identification only): Kol Zimrah, Hadar, Tikkun Leil Shabbat, Kavod House, and probably others.
So by this spring, several factors conspired such that I actually made it to JITW: there was a critical mass of post-college people whom I knew so that I wouldn't have to feel like a sketchy older person (there were at least three people older than me at this gathering), the gathering was close enough to NYC that I could get there at a reasonable hour without taking Friday off (since there's a limit to how many Jewish weekend things I can do that for), and there was no Kol Zimrah that weekend or anything else competing for my attention in the city. And so it was (with some trepidation) that I ended up upstate this weekend, at the conclusion of an unusual path -- for something that is so experiential at its core, it must be unusual for someone's first exposure to it to be several years of theoretical discussion.
To discuss what JITW was like, I'm going to compare it (like Ruby K's comparison of the NHC Summer Institute and Limmud NY, but without winners and losers) with two other Jewish retreats that I have attended a total of 9 times: the Hadar Shavuot Retreat and the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute. All involve spirited davening, learning, and community-building in a bucolic setting, all take place outside the major Jewish denominations, and all are organized mostly or entirely by volunteers. (I'm leaving out Limmud NY; while it has all of the above things in common with JITW/Hadar/NHC, and has many more similarities with NHC, it's just too different for this analysis -- it's 800+ people in a hotel, with big-name presenters. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Oh right, one other thing in common: we've used Hadar Shavuot Retreat benchers at all of them!
In some ways, JITW and the Hadar Shavuot Retreat are each other's antiparticles. (Which one is the good twin and which is the evil twin? That's in the eye of the beholder.) The NHC Summer Institute (though distinct from JITW and Hadar in some ways -- it's larger, longer, and has less rustic facilities, catering to a more multigenerational population) can be situated in between them on a number of axes, serving as a sort of synthesis.
As different as they are, I should note that there is substantial overlap of participants among all three of these retreats (or certainly between any two of them). To be sure, each of them also serves a population segment that is not represented in large numbers at the other two:
- JITW - people who won't daven in egalitarian minyanim
- NHC - people over 40
- Hadar - people wearing suits or high heels
At the Hadar Shavuot Retreat (like at most Hadar activities), things start and finish on time. In addition to the printed schedule that all participants get, the organizers have a secret schedule that says when things are really supposed to start. So even if you think something is starting 15 minutes late, it might actually be starting right on time (since someone predicted that people would arrive 15 minutes after the publicized time, and set the publicized time 15 minutes early).
We used a similar approach when ER and I co-chaired the NHC Summer Institute last year -- the internal schedule said when all the behind-the-scenes things had to happen. For possibly the first time ever, kabbalat shabbat started on time (because people thought it was starting 15 minutes late).
I didn't see any schedule posted or distributed at JITW. Some of the organizers had a schedule (with fabulous fonts), but it didn't have any times on it; it was just the order of events (Opening program, davening, dinner, learning session I, etc.). The starting time of each event was announced orally at the previous event. It's possible that there was another schedule even further behind the scenes that had times on it, but it did seem like some decisions about timing were being made in realtime.
I'm not saying that one approach is better than the other; I'm just being an amateur ethnographer and reporting two very different approaches to time.
Unlike just about every other Jewish and non-Jewish conference that I've been to, there were no nametags at JITW. (A Limmud NY staff member suggested that all Jewish babies should be issued a nametag when they are born, which they can bring with them to every event they go to, so that new nametags don't have to be printed each time.) This reflects JITW's origins as a group of friends and friends-of-friends going into the woods together -- with a group of that size and nature, there was no reason for nametags.
Parallels are sometimes drawn between JITW and Weiss's Farm (the inter-havurah retreats in the 1970s that developed into the National Havurah Committee). I wonder, did they have nametags at Weiss's Farm? If not, then at what point in its history did the NHC start having them?
All volunteer-led communities are walking a fine line between transparency/inclusivity and efficiency, and each one has to decide how to structure its planning to take each of these values into account appropriately.
The Hadar Shavuot Retreat is organized by the Hadar gabbaim along with a subset of the Leadership Team. This planning takes place mostly outside the public eye, and is invisible to most participants until they arrive. (I'm not complaining. I could probably get more involved if I wanted to, but I haven't tried, because I appreciate having Hadar as the one Jewish community that I regularly participate in purely as a civilian.) People seem to be happy with the results, though I'm sure all kinds of stuff goes on behind the scenes that I'm shielded from.
The NHC Summer Institute programming is organized by a set of co-chairs along with a planning committee that takes different shapes from year to year, with logistics (registration, site, $, etc.) run by a year-round managing director and a summer intern. In addition, the course committee (which solicits and selects courses) runs entirely autonomously, and a wide swath of the community is involved in some way in making Institute happen. And no one has ever hesitated to state an opinion about how they think something should go at Institute.
JITW has a very active email discussion list. I think if it were possible, JITW gatherings would be organized non-hierarchically by the whole community. But that's impossible with a group of this size. Some leadership is necessary. So they've balanced the need for leaders with the distaste for hierarchy by referring to the organizers as "comfy chairs". (The planning committee is the "comfy couch".) So the listserv can embark on freewheeling brainstorming discussions about each aspect of the upcoming JITW gathering, but at the end of the day there is someone whose job it is to make sure an actual decision is made and implemented. As far as I could tell, the comfy chairs and couch did a skillful job imposing the "wise restraints that make us free" / חרות על הלוחות when necessary, enabling the community to be its freewheeling self.
The difference isn't necessarily that JITW people are more opinionated/empowered. Over the weekend someone asked me whether I thought the NHC could implement the same kind of open planning discussion that JITW has. I said people would kill each other. It's the rule of 150 (or whatever the number is) -- when a group gets above a certain size, it's no longer the same kind of close-knit social network, and it's much harder to have the same kind of respectful discussions.
4) Relationship to year-round communities
The Hadar Shavuot Retreat is the signature event of a year-round geographically localized community that meets "many Shabbat mornings". Many non-NYC people join in as well, but are there as visitors. The Shavuot Retreat doesn't see itself as having its own communal identity, distinct from Hadar as a whole.
Apart from the Summer Institute, the NHC also sponsors three annual regional weekend retreats. Perhaps more importantly, the NHC is an informal network of grassroots Jewish communities across North America, and the Institute is a time to gather these communities together to share resources and inspiration, and catalyze new ones. Thus, like the Shavuot Retreat, the Institute is an event connected to year-round communities. At the same time, the Institute serves a second function: it has formed a community of its own that exists for one week a year (people always talk about Brigadoon) to which people return year after year.
JITW falls entirely into the latter camp. JITW is not tied to any specific communities that exist in between JITW gatherings, other than its email list -- the JITW community is the people who come to semiannual JITW gatherings. However, like the NHC, JITW has inspired the creation of new geographically based communities.
Hadar has a set of gabbaim who keep Hadar running, appoint their successors, and recruit volunteers for other tasks (including the Shavuot Retreat).
The NHC has a board which keeps the organization in structural and financial shape, and appoints Institute co-chairs who oversee Institute planning.
JITW has no such structures. Though there are comfy chairs for each gathering, there are no metacomfies with formal leadership roles in between gatherings. This leads to an issue that was the main topic of discussion at the "town meeting" on Saturday night: The comfies are selected by volunteering, and there has always been the right number of comfy chair volunteers (there are have been no instances when no one stepped up, or when multiple people contested the position), but there is no person or body with the authority to say "Ok, now you're the comfies", so the comfy selection/ratification process has been awkward. Presumably it would be even more awkward if 0 or 10 people volunteered. No consensus was reached, and this issue is still active.
6) Communal prayer
All three retreats have communal prayer as a focus.
At the Hadar Shavuot Retreat, everyone davens together. It's a program of Hadar, which is first and foremost a minyan, so there is one service (at a time) on the retreat, run according to Hadar's minhag. At various times people have inquired about having alternative services with other practices, e.g. a non-egalitarian minyan, or a service that recognizes the second day of the retreat as Shabbat but not yom tov (what? stop looking at me like that!), and had their requests denied, because Hadar retreats have Hadar services. All things considered, this is probably for the best.
The NHC population has diverse davening preferences, and the Institute is also an opportunity for people to experiment with davening styles outside of their familiarity, so there are around 4 options every morning. This is also probably for the best. The planning committee only organizes egalitarian minyanim, but anyone who wants to organize another style of minyan is welcome to do so, and is provided with a room and a sefer Torah. The one major time when everyone davens together is on Friday night. Finding a way to do this to meet everyone's preferences is a perennial challenge. While the issues of ideological diversity that JITW wrestles with are rarely applicable at the NHC, the diversity in aesthetic/spiritual preferences may present an even greater challenge. (This is discussed in the third section of Hilchot Pluralism Part VI.)
At JITW, as at Hadar, "everyone davens together" is a core principle. Except not at all like at Hadar, because Hadar has a known style, take it or leave it, and JITW attempts to accommodate the seemingly incommensurable identities of its participants. I'm not nearly as optimistic about the possibility of finding ways for everyone to daven together in Stage-3 harmony in each scenario, but I'm glad someone else is. Many times when I've thought "This is impossible without multiple minyan options", JITW has come up with a pluralistic innovation to address the situation. Other times, they haven't. So I'm still convinced that it's not possible in those cases, but I won't be surprised when they prove me wrong one day. As noted above, JITW's job is made easier in that the community is basically in line about the aesthetic issues and the general experience of prayer. Of the various services I attended throughout the weekend, each was different, but there were common threads to all of them.
Checklist of practices discussed in the Hilchot Pluralism series:
Part I - All the food was "Table 2" style. There wasn't really any need for a two-table system. All of the prepared food was cooked in large quantities in a few kitchens, so it was easy enough to find kitchens that met this standard. It wasn't a potluck where everyone was bringing something; people who weren't cooking had lots of other ways to contribute to the weekend.
Part II - Yeah.
Part III - In the past, JITW has resolved the gender issue in ways that would not have been egalitarian enough for me to consider it (even temporarily) my community (though I'll daven anywhere once), but since it's not a "continuing body", these policies aren't presumed to be in effect unless they're reaffirmed for a given gathering. The prayer coordinators solicited volunteers to lead services, and then emailed the list saying that the question of service leaders' genders was moot, because everyone who volunteered was male. This may point to systemic issues, but I chose to ignore that, because the absence of any explicit non-egalitarian policies made me feel more ok about participating. The actual set of people who led services ended up being different from how it was described in that email, but I decided not to ask any questions about how individuals were assigned to lead specific services, because sometimes it's just best not to see inside the sausage factory. In any case, any qualms I had about JITW not being egalitarian enough were more than compensated for by the designations on the various sleeping areas: "male gender-specific", "female gender-specific", "gender non-specific", if I recall correctly. This placed my position of "Gender exists, but doesn't matter" in the mushy middle, so I was happy.
No instruments on Shabbat (and whatever - I had instruments the previous Shabbat and I'll have instruments the following Shabbat, it's no big deal), but using instruments in non-Shabbat services (e.g. Saturday ma'ariv) is an option being discussed for the future.
This was my first time experiencing a trichitza! And it was everything I imagined. The trichitzas were even on wheels, so the size of the sections really could shift in response to consumer demand. For each service, the leader led from wherever s/he wanted. Since I was in the gender non-specific section and some people led from the male section, this was my first time being on the opposite side of a mechitza from the sha"tz. It's a perspective that everyone should have.
Part IV -Everyone does whatever they want and no one asks questions (except out of curiosity) - the way it should be. The macroscopic/microscopic policy for service leaders seems to be implicitly in effect, though I'm not sure it has ever been explicitly expressed.
Part V -This was also my first time experiencing a minyan check. The only time it was necessary was on Sunday morning; for all of the Shabbat services, the number of people in the room was >> 10, so no questions were asked. The minyan check came up positive. I think it was MCA1, but I'm not sure. It was early and I had just lost an hour. It was noted that a minyan check involves two counts: first, each person makes his/her own count to decide whether to raise his/her hand, and then a second count is made of all the hands that were raised.
Part VI - Woot.
There was some excitement on Shabbat morning during the Torah service: somewhere in the second aliyah, the sefer torah was discovered to be pasul (invalid) -- one of the letters was not what it should have been. The sefer torah was rolled up and put away without the usual fanfare, and seeing as no other Torah scroll was available within many miles, the Torah reading was continued from a printed text, without blessings.
The community was somewhat shellshocked for the first few aliyot of this, but then started to make the best of it. Since the usual protocols for reading Torah were no longer in effect, new minhagim were devised spontaneously. The person who would have been called up for the fifth aliyah said "la'asok bedivrei Torah", the blessing for Torah study, since we were still studying Torah even if we weren't formally reading it. He then did a line-by-line English translation (from the JPS edition), with trope, following each line of the Hebrew text.
After that, I couldn't resist. As ZT has posted, we did the next aliyah with line-by-line Aramaic targum (courtesy of Onkelos), as we did for one iteration on "Simchat Torah". The big surprise was the last line: in Hebrew it says לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו (Don't cook a kid in its mother's milk), and the Aramaic "translation" says לא תיכלון בשר בחלב (Don't eat meat with milk)! (Later, I checked the other two instances of this commandment to see if the Targum talks about cooking and benefiting, but no, they all say the same thing.) For the final aliyah, the reader translated each verse into Yiddish on the fly. Though I don't know Yiddish, it wasn't hard to pick up the general gist, about Moishe's punim. The reader had some difficulty translating מסוה (the veil that Moses puts over his face), and someone called out "shmatta". He said "I'll get back to you on that." All the while, someone else was doing simultaneous translation into ASL. The Torah was given in 70 languages!
Due to a complicated series of events, I found myself leading ma'ariv at the end of Shabbat. I had been led to understand that havdalah (which I wasn't leading) was the main event, so I set out to make ma'ariv merely the opening act, making it mostly mellow (in that motza"sh kind of way) with a few strategically placed punctuated bursts of non-mellowness to create some tension.
All I can say is I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.
For kaddish shaleim at the end, (imitating the end of Yom Kippur at Hadar) I used the Carlebach "Eliyahu Hanavi" melody, to provide a little teaser for havdalah. At the end I slowed down, and then immediately started loudly mumbling Aleinu. Um, no. The kahal would have none of that. The "yai dai dai"s erupted, and the whole room was dancing after a few rounds. So much for a mellow transition into havdalah. But we couldn't change course and do a raucous transition into havdalah either, because there were people saying kaddish. Some of us tried to loudly slow the music down, but that was to no avail -- the only option was to wait until people got tired out, and then let mourners' kaddish proceed.
It's great to be in a place where the kahal is so empowered and energized; it was my fault for not planning better. I debriefed afterwards with a few people about where I messed up. One said I probably just should have kept it mellow the whole time, and was playing with matches by using tunes like that. Another said the problem is that one person can create sound, but one person can't create silence.
Havdalah itself was one of the least coercive fruity havdalahs I've been to. Sure, there was the usual clump of swaying concentric circles of people with their arms around each other, but there were also a number of people standing happily on the periphery, and thanks to the extensive briefings about touch and consent, those of us on the outside were not subjected to scorn for this decision, and did not have misanthropic motives ascribed to us, and everyone was happy.
Also, I saw stars! Lots of them. And snow on the ground. The conclusion is that I need to leave Manhattan more often.
All in all, the woods were entered into.