• Aaron Levi

The Front Porch: Prototype Boot Camp

Updated: May 1, 2018

On Friday, April 20, I arrived at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta bright and early to join Prototype Book Camp, part of The Front Porch initiative.

According to Federation’s website, this initiative will “bring all corners of the Jewish community onto the Front Porch to help map our future,” which will “include historic community partners, Jewish thought leaders, donors, board members, and other professionals” as well as those “who might think of themselves on the fringes of the Jewish world—people of all ages, demographics, and political points of view.”

This initiative comes, of course, amidst monumental changes across Jewish Atlanta. The average Jewish Atlantan tends to look differently and seek different Jewish experiences than previous generations.

Thus, I was quite excited to hear our goal for that morning was to develop prototypes to meet the community’s evolving needs through a process known as wayfinding. I originally learned about this concept from Moana, which we’ve watched dozens of times in my home. In this story, Moana, the daughter of a village chief on a Polynesian island, sails across the sea to find the demi-god Maui and save her people. Early in their journey, Moana turns to the accomplished navigator and asks that he teach her to sail. Maui sneers, “It’s called wayfinding, princess. It’s not just sails and knots. It’s seeing where you’re going in your mind by knowing where you are, by knowing where you’ve been.”

Wayfinding is a compelling metaphor for the current era in Jewish history. Thousands of years ago, intrepid wayfinders augmented inherited skills, sensibilities, and knowledge to discover and settle almost every inhabitable island across the Pacific Ocean’s vast expanses. And just as Maui asserts, the first step in envisioning how the Jewish community traverses the 21st Century begins with an accurate accounting of where we’ve been and where we are today.

Which brings us back to the more than 100 people on 22 prototype teams working at a fevered, coffee-fueled pitch. The list of ideas and Jewish wayfinders was impressive. Each prototype attempts to strengthen Atlanta’s Jewish communal ecosystem by creating micro-niches designed for targeted demographic groups. My team, tentatively called “Unlock Shabbat,” is a counter-cultural effort encouraging young families to put down their phones and celebrate Shabbat in a personally relevant and meaningful way with friends and families. We plan to make just a few boxes with some personal artifacts relating to Shabbat: books, song sheets and lyrics, creative rituals—things that we ourselves use in our own Shabbat practices. After receiving a box, recipients will host or help organize a low-stakes Shabbat gathering however they see fit. Before passing the box along, we’ll ask recipients to add an item reflecting their own Shabbat rituals in addition to sharing a thought, anecdote, joke, or whatever they want from the Shabbat experience on our Facebook page.

Unlock Shabbat is a message in a bottle. It’s small and intimate, but it contains a boundless idea capable of stretching into the unknown. As Ahad Ha’am, one of the foremost proponents of cultural Zionism, once said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

How will Shabbat keep Atlanta’s evolving Jewish community? What message does it share to today’s Jews and the age in which we live?

One inspiring scene from Moana comes late in the movie. She realizes that the ocean’s call—the inexplicable desire to experience where the sky and sea meet, which galvanized her journey in the first place—has actually lived in her all along. Yet Moana can only discover who she truly is and, therefore, pursue her life’s purpose by going beyond the reef that encircles and protects her island, by transgressing her community’s boundaries that no longer keep her island safe.

For those who adapt the practices of Shabbat to our contemporary needs, perhaps we’re transgressing, too. But we can also imagine the Jewish people as wayfinders who are open to the unknown, who synthesize the ruach, or spirit, of Shabbat and the accumulated wisdom we’ve inherited as part of Jewish tradition, to help guide us past a reef of our own making through these uncharted waters and beyond.


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