By JAYNE JACOVA FELD
Seeking to appeal to unaffiliated Jews with a progressive approach to Jewish communal life, Rabbi Larry Sernovitz announced he is forming an “emerging Jewish community” that is expected to be operational this summer.
The congregation will be called Nafshenu, which translates in English as “our souls.” It will be a non-denominational, egalitarian, inclusive community open to new ideas about Jewish engagement, an emphasis on social justice, but also deeply rooted in the past, said Sernovitz, a rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill since 2013. Some 15 families currently not affiliated with other area synagogues are behind the venture.
“We intend to create a community based on relationships,” said Sernovitz, who will continue at Emanuel until his contract expires in June. “It will be based on the sense of Shabbat and holiness in our lives. There will be the sense that education should be bold and courageous for our kids; it should teach them how to be active, how to be involved, and to use their Judaism to transform their lives.”
Sernovitz stressed that Nafshenu does not intend to compete with the established synagogues and movements across South Jersey. On the contrary, it will complement them by appealing to those hungry for a different approach. Mirroring national trends, many South Jersey Jewish families are unaffiliated. Millennials, now at the age of starting families, are least attached to religious movements, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty percent of Jewish adults under age 30 have no denominational affiliation. The figure is 33 percent among those in their 30s and 40s.
Sernovitz contends that many of the unaffiliated would be open to a new model of Jewish engagement that already has a proven track record in cities across the nation. Among them, he looks to IKAR, a Los Angeles-based synagogue that has been recognized nationally for its success in engaging young and disaffected Jews. Founded in 2004, its 570-plus families make it one of the fastest-growing in the country. IKAR is part of the Jewish Emergent Network, composed of other similar-minded synagogues in Washington D.C., New York City (two congregations), Chicago and San Francisco.
“It’s not that South Jersey is unique,” observed Sernovitz, 44. “We are a generation of seekers in America right now, and there’s so many people who are disengaged, not because they chose to be, but because they couldn’t find anything that spoke to them as individuals, and we see that.”
Risa Podolnick, a Cherry Hill resident who will serve as the emergent congregation’s community coordinator, said the vision for Nafshenu speaks to her family. Since moving to South Jersey, they have been members of three different synagogues. Her children were completely turned off by religious school and had negative feelings about being Jewish until her older son Noah became involved through friends in NFTY, the Reform movement youth group.
She said Sernovitz’s vision was “everything I wanted out of my Jewish life,” noting that both Noah, 19, and her son Ari, 16, are proudly identifying as Jews.
At the present, Nafshenu does not have a physical home. While there is much work ahead, Sernovitz is confident the congregation will be ready to hold Shabbat services, Torah study and engage in Tikkun Olam by July 1. For more information, visit www.nafshenu.org or contact Sernovitz at RabbiLarry@nafshenu.org and Podolnick at Risa@nafshenu.org