Illustration by Michael Byers

Renna Khuner-Haber, a 29-year-old “somewhat observant” Jew from the Bay Area, moved to Seattle three years ago and immediately started looking for an actively engaged Jewish community. “The denominational labels don’t work for me,” says Khuner-Haber, who holds a degree in biology from Barnard College and just completed her studies in nutrition science at Bastyr University, “but I am still drawn to tradition and ritual. I wanted to do a songful, beautiful, joyous Shabbat with my people.”

When she discovered that what she was looking for did not exist in Seattle, Khuner-Haber joked about starting her own minyan, or prayer group. It turns out it wasn’t a joke. Renna’s monthly potluck Shabbat, called Selah Seattle, now has a listserv of 275 members. Turnout hovers around 30. “Selah feels spontaneous,” she says with quiet pride. “It’s not top-down. But there is definitely momentum, potential — and need.”

Need is a word that comes up frequently when young Seattle Jews discuss religion. Seattle is a prime destination for post-college transplants, and the city’s under-40 Jewish population has surged on this incoming wave. But the Jewish life of the city remains, for the most part, anchored to the 20th century. As one under-40 rabbi told me off the record, “At the larger institutions, the feeling is that the synagogue is the religion. But my cohort is experimental, and that approach doesn’t work for them.”

“For people my age, there is a sense that you don’t belong politically, socially, economically, racially, ability versus disability,” says Emily Kapor-Mater, a 30-year-old self-described radical trans-feminist rabbi and activist who runs an egalitarian minyan out of her Kirkland home every two weeks. “We don’t feel like the Jewish establishment is us.”

What does Seattle have to offer young Jews who, like Khuner-Haber and Kapor-Mater, are not drawn to the legacy institutions? What are they finding or creating? Is hip, innovative Seattle hopelessly stodgy when it comes to Jewish life?

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Joyous Judaism

Participants at Kavana’s annual camping trip last summer.

Jewish identity is so much messier than the boxes and categories,” says Rachel Nussbaum, the quietly charismatic young rabbi of a high-profile alternative Jewish community called the Kavana Cooperative. “This is especially true in a city of transplants like Seattle. Transplants want connection and a place to plug into the deepest meaning. But how do you create community in the absence of family ties?”

Nine years ago, Nussbaum, along with technology executive Suzi LeVine (currently the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland), came up with an answer: to offer “high-content Judaism” to people representing a wide spectrum of beliefs, passions, values, needs, and approaches. Some came to Kavana — which means “intention” in Hebrew — for culture and community service, others to study and/or pray, others for Hebrew immersion classes for their children, and some simply for the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat with friends and neighbors. Since Kavana is “about the people, not the space,” Shabbat services rotate through local parks, coffee shops, community centers, and members’ homes in the vicinity of Queen Anne. “Our vision,” Nussbaum says, “was to create a community in which we feel ownership of our Jewish identity — not as consumers but as producers of Jewish experience.” Currently, 105 households have made the commitment of time and money to qualify as Kavana partners and another 200 families attend occasionally.

The Kavana model will get a full workout during the High Holidays. A service in Hebrew will be held simultaneously with a guitar-led program of songs and prayers, a children’s program, and a full day of meditation. “The work of this time of year is to recenter ourselves,” Nussbaum says. “If going on a hike and reflecting on your Jewish identity works for you, great. We don’t all have to go about it identically.”

Not only is young Jewish Seattle transient and diverse, but it is also widely scattered geographically. “People are far apart, and public transportation sucks,” Kapor-Mater says. 

Kavana proposes a way to make lemonade out of the decentralization lemon. “We have a model that relies on small pocket communities,” Nussbaum says. “We’ll have 10 different Shabbat dinners in 10 different houses. We think of it as the pod mentality. Our goal is to inspire copycat efforts.”

Noam Pianko, the director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington (and Nussbaum’s husband), feels that the question of start-up or alternative community versus institution can be especially fraught in Seattle. “For transplants,” he says, “it can be difficult to fit into legacy institutions, because those are so much about a cradle-to-grave commitment.” Alternative communities often have different limitations. Despite their homegrown appeal, they tend to be unstable, often dissolving when the leader moves on, and they can be less suited to the celebration of life-cycle events like bar mitzvahs and weddings.

Yet alternative communities have the potential to create lifelong relationships. Avi and Rachel Rosenfeld, the husband-and-wife founders of Mercaz, have started their own Modern Orthodox community in North Seattle. Avi, who was ordained as a rabbi at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is bearded, soft-spoken, and reflective; Rachel is dynamic, outgoing, and fast-talking. Different as they are temperamentally, the Rosenfelds, both 39, are so much on the same wavelength that they finish each other’s sentences. 

“We found nothing in the north end between Chabad and [Conservative] Congregation Beth Shalom,” Avi started; “and we saw the need for something more,” Rachel continued, “more learning, more davening.” 

From that need was born Mercaz (“center” in Hebrew), which caters to people looking for an open, individualized community within an Orthodox framework. With about 20 to 45 in attendance at once- or twice-monthly Shabbat services, Mercaz is small, nimble, itinerant, and fluid. It is also deliberately open to multiple, even clashing points of view. “Unity through differentiation,” Avi calls it. “It’s not about bridging over every barrier, but respecting that we are all made in the image of God and there is something I can learn from every person. When someone wants to join us, our question is, ‘What makes you joyous in your practice of Judaism?’”

Mercaz will celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year by going on a retreat to the Treacy-Levine Center in Mount Vernon, but there is more than davening on the agenda for the expected group of 50. Avi and Rachel plan to use the High Holidays to explore the possibility of setting up a more permanent structure with a Torah, a regular space, and a budget. The nimble community may just be transitioning to institution.

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Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen leads Rosh Hashanah services at Sole Repair on Capitol Hill last year.

Image: Joshua Cohen

Will Seattle rise to the opportunities presented (and demanded) by a young, diverse Jewish population the way, say, Berkeley has? Rachel Rosenfeld, who has lived in Berkeley, points to that city’s Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, Kehilla Community Synagogue, and the JCC as inspiring models. She says there is “a fluidity in these communities that is lacking here — maybe because of lower numbers or geographical obstacles.”

“Let’s face it, Seattle is not one of the hubs of innovative Jewish life,” Khuner-Haber says. “But there is definitely potential. I do see a movement here of young people taking Judaism into their own hands and creating meaning for themselves. There are definitely things abrewing.”

But come fall, Selah will be brewing without Khuner-Haber. For professional reasons, she’s moving back to the Bay Area. Whether Selah will continue to flourish without its founder remains to be seen. But there is no question that other groups — independent minyans, unaffiliated communities, pods, youthful offshoots of legacy institutions — will continue to spring up. 

Moishe House, an international program that provides low- or no-rent communal housing to committed young Jews on the condition they provide home-based programming, is opening a residence in Seattle. And for the second year, Temple De Hirsch Sinai will be offering its hugely popular Refresh! Rosh Hashanah program — an off-synagogue celebration combining reflection, prayer, food, wine, music, reading, discussion, schmoozing, and dancing. TDHS’s 31-year-old Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen, who came to Seattle a year ago to manage the synagogue’s young-adult program the Tribe, was stunned by the turnout and energy for Refresh! 5775 last year. “We were expecting 50, and 90 to 100 showed up,” she says. “There was an intentional effort to reach out to people in their 20s and 30s. Most who attended were not members. 

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all religion,” Cohen adds. “Our approach is, let’s figure out together how to enrich your life through Judaism.”

“There are more Jews in Seattle than you might think,”  Khuner-Haber says. “People who know me might laugh to hear me use the word, but I am optimistic that we will change and adapt.”

Seattle’s Young-Adult and Out-of-the-Box Communities 

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