Aharon Ariel Lavi, recently in Toronto as part of the Limmud Toronto programming, is an Israeli “serial social entrepreneur” and an established community development professional, who believes that networks are the key to shaping the next generation of Jewish community life in Israel and the Diaspora. He is founder of Garin Shuva – a “Jewish eco-mission-driven community” on the Gaza border, upon which the organization Hakhel – Jewish Intentional Communities is based.
He spoke to The CJN about the organization, which he sees as a new method for engaging millennials and young families in Jewish life.
When did the concept of Jewish intentional communities, or urban kibbutzim, start gaining ground?
About 25 years ago, this started from the kibbutzim who realized that the kibbutzim are not relevant anymore, so they started urban kibbutzim. They’d move into a neighbourhood, buy a whole street, or a few houses, and start a kibbutz, where, instead of doing farming and agriculture, they started doing education and social projects and stuff like that.
Then came the religious Zionists, then came the Ethiopians… All kinds of sub-sectors of Israeli society started producing what we call “intentional communities,” meaning these are not only communities that you live in and have your own happy life, but as a community, you also do something for its larger surrounding.
In Shuva, where I live, it is a village that has about 80 or 90 households. It’s a small place. And our team of young people who moved in is not only helping the place demographically. We also started educational projects, formal education for the entire area. We started a new school, a new kindergarten. Other teams in other parts of the country have projects for anything from community gardens to employment to social businesses – it depends on the specific areas they are living in.
A Jewish intentional community has three components: group, life and mission. Group means that it has some sort of internal culture and discourse – like, you do holidays together, you learn together, you create social bonds that keep the group together.
Life means that this is a lifelong project. We deal with people who are older – in their 20s, early 30s – who have young families who are willing to settle down and do something for the long term.
The third component is mission, which is that the community as a group is doing something for the larger society. It can be education, welfare or social benefits.
There is a way of managing shared life and we know how to do it. Not 100 per cent. We’re still people. There is a saying in Israel, in the professional community-building world, that the toughest part or the worst part about communities is the people. That’s a big problem, dealing with human beings in a community.
Are there communities like these in Toronto or other big cities in North America?
I was living in New York City two years ago. I was there for one year as a fellow for the Tikvah Fund fellowship program. I had a conversation with a UJA federation head in New York and I was telling him about what we do in Israel, and he said, ‘Why don’t you write us a proposal and we’ll see if we can do something like this in America?’
We just started Hakhel a couple of years ago, and we are basically inventing this concept of Jewish intentional community in America, so in the United States now, we have 10 communities officially in the program. There are a few more that are not officially in the program, so I would count 15. Those communities are in California, Colorado, New York City, Washington, D.C., etc.
In Toronto, there are some early beginnings. There is a small interested group around the Kiever Shul downtown. There are a few things going on. There is a conversation about doing this in Canada, but we still haven’t done it.
How can the Hakhel concept benefit North America Jewry?
The second most important thing in sustaining Jewish identity after a nuclear family, the thing that ties you to something bigger than yourself, to a nation, to a religion, to something that is beyond yourself, is your community.
The problem, as far as I see it in North America, is with the younger generation – I’m 33, I’m an older millennial. One of the things that characterizes millenials is that we don’t buy into the traditional hierarchical structures for the most part. For the most part, millenials don’t find themselves in those big synagogues with the president and a board and Jewish politics.
Those institutions were great in their time and for the Jewish people in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and after the ’90s, but history moves on – it’s not good or bad, it’s just that things change. People change, culture changes, so here’s the problem. If, on the one hand, we know that communities are one of the key components in keeping young Jews connected to their identity, to Jewish peoplehood and all that, but on the other hand, the existing communities don’t resonate with them anymore, we need to come up with a sort of new model for the community that will resonate with millennials and young people.
Are Jewish intentional communities the answer to the issue of millennials being disconnected from traditional Jewish community life?
It’s an answer. I wouldn’t go so far to say that this is the answer, because I might have lots of enemies after saying that. But I think it is a key part of the answer. From the age of zero to 22, Jewish institutions have everything in place. They have Jewish kindergartens, day schools, Jewish organizations on campus, and Chabad houses.
There is an assumption that if you invest in a boy or girl from the age of zero to 22, hundreds of thousands of dollars per person, by the time they’re 32, 10 years later, they’ll get married and join the Jewish institutions, the shuls you have in place and that is it, problem solved. The problem is that it is not solved. There is a lost decade between 22 and 32 and they may not come back.
I don’t see a huge wave of aliyah from North America in the foreseeable future. Jews in North America want to stay there for the moment. Anything can change at any moment, but as far as we can see, the vast majority of millions of Jews who live in Canada and the United States are going to stay there.
With this project, Hakhel, besides the benefit of having these communities in North America, which are great in and of themselves, there is an added value of connecting emerging Jewish community leaders in North America with emerging Jewish community leaders in Israel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.