On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Amy Joy Small sat at Rockin’ Joe’s Cafe in Millburn, nursing a cup of tea and uncertain expectations.
On her new website and Twitter feed, she invited anyone who cared to to “share your stories, your questions, and your challenges. I’ll share stories and Jewish wisdom along the way.”
At two similar sessions, she had attracted one barista searching for a way into Judaism, and four individuals drawn to her focus on how to lead a virtuous life.
On this particular day, other than a visitor she was expecting, no one approached. No matter. Small is realistic about the challenges of starting something new.
The “shmooze” at a neighborhood cafe is just one of an array of experiments Small is trying as the founder of Deborah’s Palm, her quest to serve Jewish wisdom to seekers of all stripes.
Small, former religious leader of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, launched the organization at the beginning of March. It is meant to be a flexible Jewish “center” with no center, but rather a roaming array of free public events and fee-for-service study sessions, to take place at venues around Morris and Essex counties, including synagogues, bookstores, libraries, and even grocery stores.
The name is a reference to the tree under which Deborah, the biblical prophet and judge, sat and offered her wisdom.
“The Jewish world is abuzz with the Pew Study released last fall,” Small said, referring to a sobering survey of Jewish affiliation and identity by the Pew Research Center. “There’s a decline in membership, and people see themselves in the Jewish community more often as consumers than as community members. They are looking for services or meaning-making that suits their lives.
“We’re all trying to figure out how best to serve the Jewish people — how to offer the kind of religious, educational, spiritual, and communal experiences that meet the needs of this time.”
Small said she would eventually like to offer two major public programs every year: one educational, featuring a panel of prominent experts on a specific issue, and one cultural, perhaps a concert, art exhibition, or multimedia event.
She envisions a monthly women’s study group, weekly lunchtime study groups in professional offices, meetings in people’s homes, and continuing classes on Sunday mornings and during the week in cafes.
Trained by the New York-based Storahtelling collective, she is planning to use her expertise in incorporating story and Jewish text in a program for Shavuot, and she hopes to get a healing service off the ground.
Measuring interest is tricky; she’s had a handful of people join the two programs she’s started, and she has 300 likes on her Facebook page.
While she does not think the traditional synagogue is on its way out, Small said she does believe it cannot be the only portal into Jewish life.
“This is a moment to try a bold experiment. My primary target is unaffiliated people — and not just Jews. I think there are plenty of people out there who could very well see this as their path. There are also many marginally affiliated people who are not very engaged. I would love to find a way to help them be more engaged.”
She’s especially focused on adults who have not been able to access “the treasure chest” of Jewish wisdom, as she put it.
“There’s a need to show people how Judaism can help in their everyday lives. Things stress us and pull us down and confuse us. Children, relationships, parents, significant others, and divorce all consume people’s lives, and Judaism has a lot to offer to help people cope and find meaning in those moments,” she said.
Small has a board of advisers that includes an array of nationally known out-of-the-box rabbis, including Irwin Kula, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Sid Schwarz, who directs CLAL’s Clergy Leadership Incubator; and Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
Deborah’s Palm is being incubated at CLAL, a result of Small’s close involvement with the organization and her participation in its Rabbis without Borders initiative.
Small, a Reconstructionist rabbi and past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, acknowledges that her consumer-driven, fee-for-service, informal approach to Judaism can seem at odds with the essentially communal orientation of Judaism.
“This issue reverberates in my mind constantly,” she said. However, “to hope, wish, or demand that people join [Jewish communities] is not working. The vast majority of Jews locally are unaffiliated. What we are doing needs an upgrade.”
According to Pew, only 31 percent of Jewish adults say they belong to a congregation.
“I value the centrality of community” in Jewish life, she said, adding that she hopes to create “a microcosm of community through my different groups and create points of connection where people feel comfortable participating in more of the Jewish community activities that are available, whether at the JCC or wherever.”
“I’d like to be a portal for them.”
On Sunday mornings, Small leads a $20-per-session class for adult seekers, Your Jewish GPS and You, at the space where the Kol Rina minyan meets in South Orange.
At a recent session, two men joined Small, Russ Janiger of Boonton, a member of the independent Chavurat Lamdeinu, based in Chatham, and Ralph Buchalter of South Orange, a member of the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet in Montclair. Together, the three examined quotes about living Jewishly today, mostly by contemporary Jewish thinkers like the late Rabbi David Hartman, the Jewish philosopher who founded the Shalom Hartman Center in Israel, and Rabbi Ira Schiffer, associate chaplain at Middlebury College.
“I’ve had a lot of frustration about what the point is of all the quaint stories about biblical people — how does that affect my day-to-day life?” Janiger said at one point in the conversation.
Small responded, “There’s some incredible wisdom right in those stories but it’s not always obvious. We have to take it apart piece by piece to unpack it.”
She added, “It’s when the childhood idea of these stories starts to fall away — that’s when we can extract the values and lessons that are all about our lives — and that’s where the fun is.”