I am one of 100-plus people who represent Jewish agencies large and small, synagogues, interest groups, community members, parents, seniors, LGBTQ folks, interfaith, Jews of color, Jews by choice and much more.
In short, we look like Jewish Atlanta — an incredibly diverse group of people who care about the future of Judaism in Atlanta.
For me as a board member (and incoming president) of Congregation Bet Haverim, the opportunity to participate in an initiative such as this one could not have come at a better time. We at CBH are aware of the changing ways that people interact with and express their Judaism. Though declining membership is not an issue for us, we are nonetheless aware of the need to stay relevant and offer our wildly diverse membership a multitude of ways to engage.
At 30 years of age, CBH looks very different than it did when it was founded.
Thirty years ago, gay and lesbian Jews did not feel welcome in other synagogues, and so a bold group of men and women decided to form their own synagogue. Their vision was to create a space where they could feel free to express all aspects of their persons and not hide any aspect.
A key expression was the creation of the “Prayer for the End of Hiding,” which concludes, “Creator of the Universe, we ask that our hiding draw to an end, that we no longer feel we have to pretend, to promise falsely, to renounce ourselves, and that our fullest creative expression as Jews and as gay people be among the blessings you bestow upon us. Amen.”
Thirty years later, 54 Jewish organizations participated in Pride. Many gay and lesbian Jews now have options to worship in a variety of synagogues that meet their spiritual and religious needs. CBH is, thankfully, no longer the only option.
CBH serves an increasing number of people, from gender-non-conforming individuals and families to straight individuals and families and everyone in between. We updated our mission to reflect our expanded vision.
People are drawn to us because we are lesbian-and-gay-founded, or Reconstructionist, or progressive, or because of our music, or because of our mission, or because of our emphasis on social justice. The point is, people come to CBH for different reasons, and we at CBH have to continually look within to see who we are and how we are serving the disparate members of our community.
Though our work may look a little different from other agencies and synagogues, the reality is that synagogues and agencies all over Atlanta are asking themselves these same questions in the face of a changing world and changing expressions of Judaism.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta had the courage to look at itself and see that a change was needed. But instead of just engaging in an internal strategic plan, it had the courage to look at the bigger picture and really ask what Jewish Atlanta looks like.
Not only did Federation ask what Jewish Atlanta looks like, but it also is asking what Jewish Atlanta wants and how, ultimately, Federation can serve this changing community. It’s a bold move.
Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
The planners of The Front Porch are asking everyone to step up and make their voices heard, especially those traditionally on the fringes. Over the course of nine months, we will listen deeply to people, visit different parts of the community, share perspectives and explore different ways to stimulate innovation and strengthen impact.
The key to it all is listening and asking questions — listening from a place where we suspend our own judgment and being open to really hearing.
We know as Jews that we have opinions and aren’t afraid to share them. That part is easy. The hard part is suspending our own perspective just for a moment to hear:
- What does an Orthodox mom want and need?
- What does a gay senior want and need?
- What does a gender-non-conforming teenager want and need?
- What does an interfaith family want and need?
- What does someone with disabilities want and need?
In other words, what does a mixed multitude of people need from their Jewish institutions? There are as many ways of being Jewish as there are Jews, and so the challenge of our time is to have an array of options where everyone can find home.
Some things have to change as we evolve into what needs to be. Some things will never change. We want to remain a community that never turns its back on those in need. But we also want to be a community that is welcoming no matter where and how you live and that makes space for the next generation of leaders to innovate and create their own meaningful Jewish experiences.
Change can be scary. But if there is one thing I know, it is that a people with a history as long as ours has been through changes too numerous to recount. And it is up to us to look with clear eyes at our situation and claim and create the changes we need.
I hope you will join with us over the next months and make your voices heard. It’s your Jewish Atlanta, after all.
For more information, please reach out to The Front Porch’s project manager, Ligi George, at 404-870-1617 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to jewishatlanta.org/the-front-porch for a list of listening forums and updates on The Front Porch.
McKenzie Wren is a facilitator who specializes in equity and inclusion work. She is the first vice president of Congregation Bet Haverim.