Old Roots, New Branches: Jewish Spiritual Communities and the Rise of Alt-Labor

Even as many lament the withering of three movements in the United States—Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and the labor movement—something is happening in proximity to them that just might give them new life.

Mishkan Chicago, one of the new independent spiritual communities, often convenes outside of synagogue spaces. Here, Mishkan participants take part in an Interfaith Seder. Credit: Mishkan Chicago.

A growing number of independent, unaffiliated Jewish spiritual communities are sprouting against a backdrop of declining membership in the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements. Just as the Reform, Conservative, and Renewal movements each placed themselves somewhat in contrast to older traditions so as to attract young adults back into Jewish life, the new unaffiliated outlets for the expression of Jewish faith draw nourishment from traditional values and rituals while eschewing old norms and taboos that seem less relevant for today’s realities.

Similarly, traditional labor unions have been hemorrhaging members since the 1960s. A host of factors has hastened this process, including an aging workforce, loopholes in labor law that prevent the formation of unions in certain industries, the offshoring of jobs via globalized trade, and decades of state-level assaults on workers’ rights to collectively bargain. Yet, as formalized unions wane, new independent labor organizations are emerging to champion the rights of low-wage workers in the health care, food service, food production, and retail industries, among others.

How—and to what degree—are these two parallel uprisings achieving prosperity outside of the constraints of tradition, and what does their growth portend for the continued existence of the old institutions?

The Organic Growth of Independent Jewish Spiritual Communities

According to the major Jewish federations’ own internal census, Conservative congregations’ membership is in “free fall,” having dropped by 14 percent since 2001. The Reform movement is experiencing similar drop-offs in membership, especially in the 18-34 year old age range. The labor movement’s decline in numbers has been widely documented: a January article in the New York Times announced that union membership in the U.S. workforce had fallen to 11.4 percent, its lowest point in almost a hundred years. While these movements comprised mainly of middle-aged and elders squabble internally over how to regain a foothold, it may not be a surprise that younger people—and in the case of labor, immigrant workers— are busy organizing alongside them. And, as with their predecessors, the new followers of both Judaism and organized labor are reaching out, recognizing and supporting one another.

Mishkan Chicago is one of the new independent spiritual communities; its name echoes that of a group of fellow-travelers that helped the Israelites of old keep their faith alive without the sanctuary of temples and synagogues. “Mishkan convenes in and outside of synagogue spaces—in yoga and dance spaces, living rooms, spiritual centers and backyards—where ever people are gathered in holy intention. We partner with other community groups to further that holy work,” reads a statement on its website.

Mishkan’s popularity with younger Jews seems to have staying power: now in its third year, the group has a dynamic and popular leader in Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, and an impressive menu of holiday-related and regular events designed to welcome newcomers. According to Executive Director Jare Akchin, around 500 people attended each of the group’s high holiday services last fall, and another 150-180 attend Mishkan’s Friday night Shabbat services.

Jews have built similar communities in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Toronto; others may be in development elsewhere. Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen in San Francisco estimates that the people involved in these groups number “well in the thousands. This is a movement driven by people younger than baby boomers, and is nation wide.” Because encouraging drop-ins is a core part of this movement, it is difficult to gauge the impact of these communities by counting membership rolls.

Interfaith Worker Justice Protesters

"The group Interfaith Worker Justice has posted statements of support from groups like the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations," writes Dean. Credit: Creative Commons/Carrie Sloan.

Rabbi Heydemann says that for groups like Mishkan Chicago, being unaffiliated is mainly a pragmatic choice. “Affiliation with a movement costs money,” she said. “And a lot of these groups are operating on a shoestring. Nobody has showed us a reason why we need that.” Heydemann explained that this allows the groups the freedom to tailor their mission locally: “We’re all approaching this from the particular contours of the city in which we live. I’m lovingly referring to it all as independent, homegrown, local, organic spiritual community.”

Heydemann says that despite the highly localized missions and structures of these spiritual communities, though, they have a shared commitment to social justice and progressive issues. The groups also espouse a kind of DIY Judaism that emphasizes ritual, prayer, intensive study, and discussion in equal measure. This open approach, with its appeal to a broad base of those new to Judaism and disaffected younger Jews, has also attracted rabbinical students eager to replicate and nourish the new model. “I trained at Ikar,” says Heydemann. “And we have rabbinic students learning the ethic and approach—there’s already kind of a genealogy of independent spiritual communities.”

The Alt-Labor Movement

Meanwhile, over in working-class America, low-wage workers in the domestic work, fast food, restaurant, taxi driving, and retail industries are on the move to demand better workplace safety, better wages, and better working conditions. Some have formed advocacy groups—214 of them were recently counted by Rutgers labor studies professor Janice Fine—like Domestic Workers United, Warehouse Workers United, Fast Food Forward, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers. Even without collective bargaining, these groups push for change using whatever tools are at their disposal. These tools include asking employers to sign “high road” agreements for treating workers correctly (and then publicly endorsing those that sign), shaming bad employers by picketing and calling for consumers to boycott or otherwise pressure them, and lobbying to pass new laws protecting workers in their industries. Recently, many of them have even staged small-scale strikes, walking off the job and attracting the media’s attention to exploitative conditions.

Most importantly, though, many of these “alt-labor” groups (which may receive funding and staff support from unions but are not themselves formal labor unions) are bringing workers together in industries where workers are either explicitly excluded from labor law, or exploited so badly by employers that joining a union would mean instant firing. The law as it currently stands prohibits workers who harvest crops, work for tips, or perform domestic work from bargaining collectively. Retail and fast-food workers, while not explicitly barred from bargaining, are frequently subject to a host of abuses when they attempt to do so.

Service-sector unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), SEIU, and Unite Here are supporting the alt-labor groups as a way of overcoming such legal hurdles; they stand ready to sign up these low-wage and tipped workers as the alt-labor groups agitate them. Many immigrants, people of color, and younger workers who have not been able to access many of the protections won by traditional unions see hope for their working lives to improve through their participation in these alt-labor groups.

Parallel Movements with a Shared Culture of Inclusivity

These two parallel movements share some history that is worth noting. The Jewish community that once supported the labor movement in both word and deed—“praying with our legs,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called it—remains a vital force for justice. The group Interfaith Worker Justice has posted statements of support from groups like the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations for specific workers’ rights issues like living wages and the right to bargain collectively. Given their historical relationship, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the independent Jewish communities—like Ikar in Los Angeles—vocally support, if not specific labor rights, then the rights of immigrants and solutions for poverty and inequality.

Both alt-labor and alt-congregations (or “professionally-run emerging Jewish communities,” as Akchin terms them) are explicitly welcoming of LGBT, interfaith, and immigrant groups/newcomers; this inclusivity makes their commitment to justice part of their fabric rather than an afterthought. Similarly, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers includes equity for immigrants, women, and people of color working in the restaurant industry as one of its guiding principles.

These newer groups also communicate with members and interested newcomers in a different way than the old guard did. Instead of mailing out printed newsletters to members’ homes, the Jewish spiritual communities and alt-labor groups broadcast their messages more widely. The internet allows for cheap public broadcasting about events, either two-way (as with Facebook and Twitter where people can leave messages for the group or tweet about events to their own followers) or one-way (as with a website). Jews, who become comfortable from birth with the idea of diaspora, and immigrant workers, who deal with living far from homelands and relatives, are perhaps better than ever before at communicating from afar. They—more than their forebears, who needed brick-and-mortar union halls and synagogues—may place their trust in the power of small groups acting in tandem around the country.

So, if they are so fragmented and distributed that one never knows who will show up at the next workers’ meeting or Shabbat service, what is it that ties together the participants in these emerging movements? The answer is a dual commitment to faith and justice. In both the independent Jewish communities and the alt-labor groups, newcomers are more comfortable with the languages of faith and justice than their predecessors.

One might ask where all this newness leads, and what is to become of the aging institutions. There is an age-old concern about continuity in the Jewish faith, alongside a concern about forgetting or eliding the largely unwritten history of organized labor.

Who will be the future stewards of institutional memory in the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as in the labor movement? The concern isn’t about making these institutions survive for their own sakes; it’s more about preserving the memories and the unwritten histories of local unions, local congregations. This concern seems well-founded, given the disappearance of union newspapers, for instance—papers that used to land in union members’ mailboxes filled with the stories of working Americans. But the key to preserving any movement’s history must rest with its heirs, and engaging those heirs on their own terms seems like a good exercise for the old guard. The elders should embrace, not reject, the new branches of their movements. They are the best hope for continuity, whatever form that takes.


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