It’s a drizzly Sunday night, and the social hall of the Church of Hope in Columbia City is bumping. A multi-generational line of hora dancers snakes through the room to live klezmer music, children dart in and out of the crowd, and families sidle up to tables with plates of food from a potluck buffet. On a table in one corner, hanukkiot glow.
“We were hoping for a good turnout, but we weren’t expecting double the amount,” said Rainer Waldman Adkins, the organizer behind Mitriyah, a new progressive Jewish community serving South Seattle residents. “I think people were intrigued by the idea of something new.”
Mitriyah is one of three new Jewish initiatives taking place in Seattle’s South End. Seward Park, home to a substantial Orthodox community, is experiencing the birth of a new synagogue, while a monthly women’s Kabbalat Shabbat davening (prayer) group is gaining momentum. Vastly different, each group is providing an outlet for spiritual life previously not met.
The party on December 9 marked Mitriyah’s launch. According to Adkins, the goal of Mitriyah — which means “umbrella” in Hebrew — is to “provide a Jewish neighborhood for progressive Jews in the South End.” Adkins envisions Columbia City as the central hub, but hopes to branch out to other neighborhoods like Georgetown, Beacon Hill and Rainier Beach.
“We believe there has been a vacant space in the landscape of Jewish life in South Seattle,” Adkins said. “For those of us who are not Orthodox in practice, we have to travel a distance to have active Jewish community…and it really makes sense on so many levels you shouldn’t have to travel to your community.”
The concept of Mitriyah is true to its meaning: A large, protective canopy upheld by spokes supporting arts, culture, spirituality, Jewish learning, politics, Israel, tikkun olam, and social activities. The root of mitriyah, “matar,” means “rain” — or, as Adkins puts it more accurately — “refreshing showers,” as opposed to a downpour.
Participation in Mitriyah is not mutually exclusive with synagogue membership or involvement elsewhere.
“There is a trend within the Jewish community in general with people getting their needs met in more than one place and in a decentralized manner,” Adkins said. “We see ourselves as being part of that general trend.”
Mitriyah is open to both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. The hope, said Adkins, is that it will provide “an increased sense of rootedness that will help them in their exploration of their Jewish identity.”
Up over the hill, in Seward Park, a growing group of women are fortifying their spiritual identities in a different context.
It started this past January, when a handful of women gathered to quietly sing and daven Kabbalat Shabbat in Karen Treiger’s living room.
Over the year, the group has grown and the voices have gotten louder.
“As women have come on a consistent basis…people have learned the tunes and found their voice a little bit,” said Treiger. Now, “you can hear everyone’s voices. It’s ruach.”
Treiger began hosting the women’s Kabbalat Shabbat prayer group in the melodic style of Shlomo Carlebach, the late rabbi known for revolutionizing Jewish liturgical music, every first Friday of the month.
“When we sing Friday night in the Carlebach style, it’s very spiritual,” she said. “It brings you into Shabbat in a way that doesn’t otherwise happen.”
The group gives “women opportunities to learn the davening and lead the davening they don’t get to do in the regular [Orthodox] shuls,” said Treiger. “Women from all over the neighborhood are welcome. This is not affiliated with any synagogue.”
“Karen’s Carlebach tefillah group really helps us busy women make a break from the weekday world and connect with other women, sharing our voices and remembering the Jewish focus of our lives,” said Ruthie Voss, a participant. “It’s refreshing.”
This is not Treiger’s first foray into women’s spiritual empowerment within the Orthodox tradition. About 15 years ago, she began a women’s megillah reading at Purim, a tradition that continues to this day. A mother of three girls and one boy, Treiger says she has watched her children grow up in the Orthodox community, where synagogue leadership opportunities abound for men and boys, but are limited for women and girls.
Treiger says she hopes the group will become a place for girls to become Bat Mitzvah, a goal that will be attainable if the idea of women-led prayer will become “cool.”
It may just be starting: The young girls who attend the group with their mothers lead the final tune, “Yigdal.”
“It was so darling,” said Treiger. “And they were so proud of themselves.”
Early last spring, Treiger realized that more women wanted to attend, but putting dinner on the table prohibited them from getting out the door.
“In many families, it’s the women who do most of the work,” she said. So she asked: “If you don’t have to make dinner, wouldn’t it be easier to come?”
Now Treiger’s home, which she shares with her husband, Shlomo Goldberg, and their youngest daughter, fill with the women, their husbands, and families for a potluck after services.
“We have this fabulous delicious meal,” she said. “We sing and we laugh and we have good wine and good food and good company.”
Down the street, another gathering is happening on Shabbat. Known for the time being as the “kehilla” (community), this minyan is led by Rabbi Shmuel Brody.
“We’re all similar in the sense that we’re all seeking a sincere Judaism that is halachically correct and spiritually meaningful,” said participant Chanan Simon. The minyan began eight years ago in Simon’s living room before being incorporated into Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath some five years ago. The group met in a portable structure behind the synagogue and practiced its own style of davening.
This fall, the minyan announced it would leave BCMH to go out on its own, with Brody at the helm.
“We decided that we wanted to have a rabbi that was focused on our small group,” said Simon. “Rabbi Brody was a longtime participant, had great leadership qualities, [and] was a very inspiring person. We decided that he was a natural fit for the rebbe to help us all grow in our spirituality.”
Simon said the kehilla hopes to create an individualist atmosphere of prayer in which participants follow their spiritual paths based upon traditional rabbinical sources.
Simon cites the Hassidic masters of Europe as some of those rabbinic guides. If you pass a man in a shtreimel, a large, black fur head covering, on Seward Park Avenue, chances are he is a part of the kehilla.
With a strong contingent of ba’alei teshuvah — those who became religious as adults — Simon describes the group as “mevakshei Hashem,” seekers of God.
“We’re looking to build a community of people who are like-minded,” he said, one that “relates to our ancient tradition of Judaism.”
While the split from BCMH has not proceeded without some pain, most kehilla members will remain members of the shul, says Simon.
“It had nothing to do with not having our needs met elsewhere,” he said. “We’re very grateful for having that as a resource in the community.”
Like the kehilla, Mitriyah’s Adkins says he doesn’t know what direction this new venture will take. The young, volunteer-led organization is still being sketched out, he said, and it’s too soon to tell how it will evolve, or even if it will create a membership or dues structure. Mitriyah received its certificate of incorporation from the state on November 8, and now “we need to burrow into the nitty-gritty of the organization,” he said.
Treiger makes clear that she has no intention of growing the women’s davening into anything more than a resource and community for any and all women.
“It’s one of these miracle things,” she said. “I had this idea, and I did it.”