How Judaism Made God Cool Again

This isnt your mothers synagogue.

How Judaism Made God Cool Again

Andy Kushnir

This isn’t your mother’s synagogue.

Consider the “cool” youth pastor. His soul patch, his wavy hair, an acoustic guitar slung around his shoulders ready at any moment to begin singin’ bout the Lord. This guy’s about as cool as Hal Sparks. He’s too upbeat, makes every conversation about Jesus and nobody can figure out if he’s a virgin or not.

Nah man, no thanks, I’m all good.

Religion has always had a tough time earning the enthusiasm of young people. There’s just nothing sexy about going to church, synagogue, or mosque. Basically, if you can do it with your parents, it ain’t cool, man.

So it’s no surprise that millennials’ fondness for religion has been declining as they become independent and start making their own choices about their faith (or lack thereof). Religion isn’t popular among the highly educated, either: individuals with postgraduate degrees are often less likely to say they believe in God.

My own religious background has always been based on cynicism, skepticism and a sense of superiority. I grew up in an interfaith home. My father was a secular Israeli. My mother — a Christmas psychopath (I love you, mom) who lived to spoil her children on Dec. 25 but probably couldn’t pick ole JC out of a lineup — told us we could be whatever religion we wanted. But I didn’t grow up believing in God, or at least, what I was told God was: An all-seeing man in the sky, a bearded dude in a white robe who could bring down the wrath of judgment at any time. Hell, I still don’t believe in that version of God. That dude’s wack.

Essentially, I grew up with a lot of the information, but without any of the follow through. Honestly, that was fine by me.

Then I met my wife — whose upbringing was steeped in conservative Judaism — and we started going to Mishkan. Mishkan is a DIY semi-nomadic Jewish community that defines itself by its lack of definition. This post-denominational spiritual community is LGBTQ friendly and is founded upon the principles of social justice.

Mishkan’s founding member, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, is a wildly friendly, inspirational figure who has the singing voice of Sarah McLachlan. If you’ve seen “Transparent,” you might think she’s a lot like Rabbi Raquel and you’d be right to think that. Rabbi Lizzi was a rabbinic fellow in Los Angeles at IKAR, where “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway is a member. So, who knows — there’s a pretty good chance that Rabbi Raquel is loosely based off Lizzi.

The beginning of something new

Mishkan’s seven staff members. | mishkanchicago.org

In 2011, Rabbi Lizzi left Los Angeles to move back home to Chicago. In California, she’d seen a side of Judaism that was energetic, youthful and passionate about social justice. She began asking peers and like-minded people if Chicago had something similar, but got only bewildered looks in return.

“As a prospective 30-year-old moving back to this city, people said to me, ‘Nope, the same options exist as when you were a kid. And if that’s what you’re looking for, good luck,’” Rabbi Lizzi says. “I understood that to be a calling.”

Mishkan hit the ground running shortly thereafter. In September 2011, the first service was held in the apartment of a friend. Lizzi describes it as a small gathering (65 people) where the music poured from open windows and into the streets, where everyone knew they were starting something real. They didn’t know what it was yet, but they could feel it, Lizzi says. “People had a sense that what they were feeling was necessary. It was a sudden feeling, like, ‘How could I be Jewish without feeling the way this feels? I didn’t even know I was missing this.’”

Five years later, Mishkan has grown from that small apartment Shabbat service to an organization that offers eight weekly programs. Thousands of attendees pack their weekly Shabbat and High Holiday services.

What you first notice when you walk into a Mishkan service is how young everyone is. It almost feels like a joke. Young people independently choosing to come together for a religious purpose? Cha ra-hiiiii-ght.

A millennial following

But they’re serious, and they have been able to garner the attention of a younger generation: a generation that usually scoffs at the idea of such an earnest endeavor. According to Ellie Spitz, Mishkan’s Director of Community Engagement and Wellness, millennial interest in religion hasn’t decreased at all.

“That’s a lie,” she says. “It feels like the system is set up for millennials to fail. You walk into your traditional Jewish setting and it’s all people in their 50s and 60s, all white, all sitting there with a zoned-out look. Like you walk in, and you feel already like it’s not a place for you. So the system is designed in a way, that like, of course millennials aren’t going to show up. Why would you go to that?”

Mishkan has been able to capture a youthful following partly because of their staff of seven badass women under age 40. They’ve created an experience that they themselves would want to attend. As I sat in Mishkan’s Chicago office interviewing the staff, it struck me how rare it was to be in a religious space run by women. Rabbinic and Executive Administrative Assistant Natalie Dibo believes that the lack of female-oriented religious spaces — plus the fact that Mishkan is female-run — encourages members to be additive.

Or as Rabbi Lizzi puts it, “The patriarchal and coercive nature of many religious institutions has worn out its efficacy.” Hell yeah, down with the patriarchy.

The result: an actual religious community, which is open to the many ripples of Judaism, instead of railroading its members to a specific way of thinking.

Tearing down the walls

Rabbi Lizzi says she chose the name Mishkan (which is described in the Torah as a tent the Israelites carried through the desert so they could create holy space) because she knew they didn’t have a building. They were going to be a roving group of Jews.

Anyone who’s grown up with religion has preconceived notions about houses of worship. Whether it’s the domineering cross in a church, the hanging chandelier in a mosque, or your cousin’s shul breath, prototypical religious spaces often bring back miserable memories from childhood. That’s why Mishkan doesn’t call themselves a shul or synagogue, because as Spitz puts it, “There’s baggage there.”

You’re (not) doing it wrong

Mishkan provides a community for Jews of all different backgrounds, who might share wildly different traditions, yet all come together under one roof (a roof that regularly includes Second Unitarian Church, Anshe Emet Synagogue, and venues across the city).

In the nine months leading up to my wedding, one Sunday a month I went to Rabbi Lizzi’s home to talk religion, God, Judaism and all things ethereal. I began as a skeptic, ready to question every detail of every passage we read. Rabbi Lizzi encouraged my questions, letting me know that to question my surroundings was the most Jewish thing I could do. I was ultimately sold on the idea that, what if God isn’t the man in the sky? What if God is just the connectivity between us? What if God is community?

And boom, there you have it. I was saved. Nah just playing, I’m not a born-again or anything. But this was the first time I had heard something like this. This was the first time a religious leader allowed for open-endedness, allowed me to make my own decisions about religion and didn’t say, “No, you’re doing it wrong.”

I’m proud to be a member of Mishkan, a place that reflects my ideals and pushes me to expand my preconceived notions about religion. This is my community, this is my space and these are my people.

If you live in Chicago, you should definitely check out Mishkan, even if you aren’t Jewish as these ideals could be implanted in any religion. If you don’t live in Chicago, Mishkan is part of a national consortium of other independent post-non-denominational spiritual communities which are listed below.

Los Angeles — IKAR

Washington DC — Sixth & I

New York — Romemu

New York — Lab Shul

San Francisco — The Kitchen