My way, the Sinatra style of Judaism

Grassroots Jews may be a fringe group now, but their concept has huge implications for the future

By Jonathan Boyd, August 27, 2009

Recently, i received an invitation — via Facebook — to join “Grassroots Jews”, an initiative by a group of knowledge able, engaged thirtysomething Jews to put on High Holyday services in north-west London. Not within an existing synagogue, not even in partnership with one, but entirely independently. They are flying in an exceptional cantor/teacher from Israel and are going it alone.

They are raising funds by charging £45 (less where that is prohibitive), and are offering two services — traditional and alternative.

The curious fact that the traditional option is happening in an alternative setting isn’t acknowledged any more than the bewildering fact that the alternative option is, of course, an alternative to a traditional option that is, in itself, alternative — if that makes sense.

What they promise, in a funky online film, is “the most exciting autonomous and non-hierarchical Judaism ever to surface”. Their community will only exist for three days, but their Judaism is profoundly dynamic, and their members will pay for exactly what they get. Their only focus is on providing serious High Holyday services that touch and inspire. They are doing it their way, on their terms, and with their people.

Who can blame them for wanting Judaism this way? We can get anything we like “our way” nowadays. Whether it is a car, computer or meal, we decide what we want and how and when we want it, and we expect our individualised needs to be accommodated. In such a context, the very idea of “one-size fits all” Judaism doesn’t exactly resonate.

But it’s more complicated than that. Grassroots Jews is loosely connected to another similar initiative called “Wandering Jews” that meets regularly to daven and eat in different homes. Describing itself as “a little bit Fight Club, a little bit minyan, almost 100 percent good”, each host determines the minhag — they do it their way according to their style of Judaism. No leaders control the agenda; instead “custodians” care for the group’s continued existence. Not indefinitely, mind; just while there is demand. On Jewish status issues, they are open to “all Jews and the people who love them,” and most intriguingly, they are “post-philanthropic” — they eschew funding as “asking for funding is akin to asking for permission to exist.”

These members of the “Net Generation” who have grown up with the Internet, differ significantly from their forebears in Jewish outlook, expectations and notions of community. They have little faith in the “authoritative” or “authentic” view — they scrutinize information online, and decide what makes sense to them. They refuse to be passive consumers — they satisfy their desire for choice, convenience, customization and control by designing their own products. And they don’t retreat into a lonely world behind their computers, they collaborate and network in the vast array of communities online. These behaviours are not a passing fad; even if this generation later gravitates to established frameworks, it will do so with a set of assumptions that will necessitate significant communal change.

Grassroots Jews is a fringe endeavour that, in 2009, barely registers on the communal Richter Scale. But the principles and behaviours that underpin it may herald a raft of changes to Jewish life in the future. Grassroots Americans recently elected the first Afro-American president; who knows what Grassroots Jews might achieve?

Jonathan Boyd is the Acting Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

Last updated: 12:20pm, August 27 2009