In 1918 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the future founder of the Reconstructionist Jewish movement, took a position as the first rabbi at the Jewish Center at 131 West 86th St. in Manhattan. It was in describing this synagogue that Kaplan used the phrase “a shul with a pool and a school,” a string of words that many recite to illustrate Jewish communities at large, and assert that Judaism doesn’t end upon leaving synagogue.
A century later, on a rainy August afternoon in a coffee shop in Charles Village, Rabbi Ariana Katz, a 2018 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, evoked Kaplan’s phrase to describe her aspirations for the Jewish community she is building here in Baltimore.
“It’s the idea that when services are over, half of our kids are playing a soccer game down the street. ‘You grab that hunk of challah, I’ll load up the van and we’ll all meet at the soccer field and root for our kids and heckle them with love.’ I’ll know we’ve really arrived when that is happening,” she said.
The brand new congregation is called Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebel, “a synagogue-meets-community center-meets-beit midrash-meets-workers co-op,” as its own website describes.
At its core, the shtiebel, a Yiddish word that denotes a place for communal prayer, promotes radical inclusivity. The website also says “We strive to become for one another a mishpacha, one in which queer and trans identities are rejoiced, converts are welcomed, interfaith families are cherished and Jews of color are honored.”
While it is true that many synagogues and Jewish institutions have put forth concerted efforts to make LGBTQ congregants feel welcomed, Hinenu, simply by being founded by Katz — she calls herself “a queer femme” — has taken it a step farther.
“A lot of people, queer Jews for example, don’t feel like there was a place for them. I’ve spoken to a lot of people, and it really saddens me that people don’t feel comfortable,” said Evan Serpick, a Hinenu congregant who serves as its communications chair. “Those people who are typically marginalized are the people that are founding Hinenu.”
Katz grew up in Rydal, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, in a Conservative Jewish family. She described herself as “the kid dancing in the pews” at nearby Congregation Adath Jeshurun. Just like the “shul with a pool and a school” sentiment, her family brought Judaism home, specifically, as Katz remembers, around the kitchen table.
“At home at the kitchen table was where I learned Judaism. It’s where we argued about politics, it’s where I got my sex ed and where we talked about food and food ethics, and it was all Jewish,” said Katz. “That table is where I learned about the weight and comfort that came from when Judaism is ingrained in every part of your life.”
Although enamored with her faith and fond of her suburban Jewish community, when it was time to leave for college, Katz intentionally sought diversity in the people she surrounded herself with. She decided to branch out and move north to attend Boston University, where she majored in sociology. Her time in Massachusetts was not without Judaism.
“I always say that the only thing I was doing that was Jewish was teaching religious school. But that meant every Tuesday and early Sunday morning I was going to teach children Hebrew,” said Katz. “That’s where I learned to teach. So it was a lot considering, but when my entire life was shaped by the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, for that to be the only thing I was involved in didn’t seem like so much.”
It wasn’t until after Katz graduated that the idea of becoming a rabbi came into play. In order to “figure out what I want to be when I grow up,” she reviewed her resume, recognizing her love for social justice organizing, teaching people of every age and studying Torah.
“It was around that time that I realized that’s what a rabbi does,” she said.
Her rabbinical studies took her back to suburban Philadelphia at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The campus in Wyncote is only minutes from where her family lives. She credits being Jewishly educated in such a tight radius as one of the reasons her move to Baltimore’s Jewish community felt so seamless.
Katz spent much of her time studying at RRC working with the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia, a volunteer organization that performs the ritual cleansing and purification on a body shortly after death.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman founded the RCKP in 1991 and is also a faculty member at RRC, where she worked with Katz on a number of projects while Katz was a student.
“She’s interested in such a range of fascinating things, and I had the pleasure of working with her on those,” said Holtzman. “She is particularly interested in the issues of death and mourning and how to better support people in those times.”
For Holtzman, the connection with Katz had a lot to do with their shared interest in stepping up and bursting through the status quo of what a rabbi can do. Holtzman said she would expect nothing less than for Katz to start a radical mission for change.
“I would be surprised if she didn’t take on such a large and exciting task. She is a visionary. She is someone who I think will really change the Jewish world in significant ways,” said Holtzman.
In addition to performing burial rituals with RCKP, Katz received a grant through the RRC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford to develop and host a podcast called “Kaddish” while she was a rabbinical student. The show focused on death and bereavement through the lenses of both Jewish mourning rituals and queer identity.
For Baltimore-based author and public speaker Tyler Vile, “Kaddish” hit on a number of themes pertinent in her own life. “I wanted everything to do with that,” said Vile of the podcast.
Vile reached out Katz to tell her how much she loved the show. During their conversation Katz told Vile she was in the process of making a series of trips down to Baltimore to speak with people about their feeings toward their own Jewish communities. The idea of Katz starting a congregation in Baltimore excited Vile greatly.
“This is what we need,” Vile recalled thinking. “This is what I need. A queer woman rabbi who believes a lot of the same things I believe was just an incredible prospect. From that moment forward I was like, ‘We’re going to make this happen.’”
100 Coffee Dates
Vile and Evan Serpick were two of approximately 100 coffee dates that Katz made with Jews in Baltimore between January and August 2017.
“I would hit I-95 at seven in the morning, get here and do back-to-back coffee dates from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and drive back to Philadelphia,” said Katz. “I’d ask, ‘What do you need in a spiritual community?’”
During her trips, Katz was sensitive to the notion that Baltimore has seen a lot of “do-gooder types” come in, plant an idea and go back to where they came from. She also recognized that there is already powerful leadership in Baltimore’s Jewish community, which led her to ask, “Do we really need a new rabbi?”
As it turns out, many thought Baltimore did.
“It was a ‘where have you been all my life?’ conversation, but strictly platonic, rabbi/congregant kind of stuff,” said Vile. “She was saying she was looking for her Jews. I said, ‘Well, you found one!’”
“I heard an amount of want, and an amount of fear, and a lot of, ‘Well I already have XYZ.’ But there was a real hunger for a continuous community,” said Katz. “There’s been a need for a synagogue that is a little more haimish, that’s very grassroots that shares a vision for radically inclusive Judaism.”
Katz said that she is often met with a question from individuals who aren’t Jews of color or who identify as queer or transgender: “Am I welcome at Hinenu?”
“If you want to be in a community where we’re espousing values of justice interwoven with our Torah and valuing interconnectedness, yes,” she said.
On the other side of the country is an example of a thriving Jewish community that was created under similar circumstances to exist as a spiritual home for disaffected, unaffiliated young Jews fleeing traditional Jewish settings. Ikar, a Los Angeles Jewish community that was founded in 2004 by a group of a dozen people, one of whom was Rabbi Sharon Brous, remains unaffiliated and counts 630 families as members.
“It has taken too long for the established Jewish community to catch up to the reality of where the Jewish community really is,” Brous said. “What we’re seeing is that a lot of these new emerging communities are really starting with a mission of being inclusive of all different kinds of Jews and non-Jewish partners.”
At Hinenu that inclusivity does indeed extend to non-Jews. Katz estimated that around half of the members are part of interfaith families. Someone who is not Jewish can be a member and serve on Hinenu’s board.
“What we offer to non-Jews is a place to explore their own relationship to faith and culture and their understanding of who we are as a people, and we try to extend that understanding to who they are,” said Vile. “Having non-Jews as potential board members and members of this community is integral to who we are. If you want to have only Jews, what is your litmus test?”
While the need for a radically inclusive synagogue was clear to Katz, she is hesitant to accept accolades as the congregation’s catalyst. While many of her coffee dates revealed a longing for a more structured community, those who felt disconnected had already been making attempts to connect.
“My involvement with the Jewish community in Baltimore City was a casual one. Kind of collecting from people who felt disconnected from the Jewish community at large, either for their identity or their politics,” said Vile, who grew up in Pikesville and had a bat mitzvah. “We’d get together and celebrate the holidays.”
Informal gatherings helped Vile feel connected, but the built-in strength in numbers that comes along with being a member of a congregation was something she longed for. Hinenu, she believes, has provided that deeper connection.
“I’m Jewish. I’m queer. I’m trans. I’m very, very left-wing. Who am I going to get together with? Who are my Jews?” Vile asked. “Hinenu answered that question.”
Hinenu’s First Year
In August 2017 after Katz had concluded her 100 coffee dates, a group of 40, comprised heavily of individuals Katz met for coffee, gathered on the porch of a future Hinenu congregant’s porch in Govans.
“The sweetest part is that I’ve watched this turn from story to myth,” said Katz. “Myth is really important when new groups are forming. When someone says ‘Ah yes, on the porch when it all began …’ it becomes a really important story.”
Though the group was still only called the Baltimore Justice Shtiebel, the values and terms of inclusivity that are part of Hinenu’s tenets began to develop that evening. There was also a lot of food.
“It was my first experience with Baltimore potlucks, which are hardcore,” said Katz.
Lena Amick is a Baltimore County Public Schools teacher who recently relocated to Baltimore from Michigan. Upon arriving to the city, she began searching for a Jewish community to be a part of. When a friend suggested she check out Hinenu, she found the congregation’s overlapping tenets of faith, learning and social justice refreshing.
“I really like that it’s a community that has social justice as one of the core values that drives the decision making process. It’s not an explicit political action organization,” said Amick. “Certainly anyone saying ‘we’re in favor of justice’ is making a political statement. But it is primarily a community of people who want to practice together, who want to study together, who want to hold some kind of spiritual grounding for the municipal actions.”
Examples of Hinenu’s justice advocacy include a gathering at Baltimore’s Penn Station before riding the train to Washington, D.C., on August 12 to counterprotest the Unite the Right 2 rally, and the screening of “Pride,” a film about a coal miners’ strike in U.K. during the 1980s where members of the LGBTQ community aided the miner’s in their efforts.
Although the congregation had informal celebrations during the High Holidays in 2017, 2018 will be the first celebration since Katz became ordained and the congregation has begun traditional memberships. The RRC has also awarded Katz a grant to study Hinenu’s experience using a voluntary dues structure and work with other oganizations doing the same.
Hinenu services are held at Homewood Friends Meeting, a Quaker community in Charles Village, directly across Charles Street from Johns Hopkins University. Although the plan is to eventually find a permanent home for Hinenu, Katz is more than happy to call Homewood Friends Meeting home.
“It’s a huge gorgeous room. The first time I walked into the meeting room I got chills,” said Katz. “The power of how Friends meet is really tangible there.”
‘A Sweet Anchor’
Katz’s quest to become a rabbi and then create Hinenu has been a series of moments returning her to the very places she learned Judaism. Not only did she go back to Pennsylvania to receive her education, but Kol Tzedek, the synagogue where Katz worked for three years while studying to become a rabbi, has donated 230 of its old High Holiday prayer books for Hinenu to use.
“It’s a really sweet anchor for me. I love so many people who have used those prayer books and I’m about to watch people who I love here use those prayer books,” said Katz.
In addition, Adath Jeshurun, the synagogue where Katz was bat mitzvahed, is donating a Torah scroll to Hinenu for 10 years.
“I’m literally bringing Torah from Philadelphia to Baltimore to a community of people who have yearned for Jewish community but felt there was too much in the way to access it or have been pushed out,” Katz said.
“They’ll have the opportunity to hold and sway and dance with the body of Torah. It’s a weight unlike any other I have ever felt.”