In Marin, unaffiliated families find Judaism in novel ways

The tagline is irreverent and curious: Do Jewish stuff.

The catchy phrase is the slogan of Nita, an emerging Jewish community in Marin created by Congregation Rodef Sholom and directed by Rabbi Noa Kushner that encourages participants to “get your Jewish on.”

Nita has invited hundreds of unaffiliated young families back to Judaism since its inception in 2009.

“This sort of novel initiative is probably the only context in which I’d feel comfortable getting my feet wet with a little bit of Judaism, or any kind of religion,” said Evan Marquit, a Nita participant.

Congregation Rodef Sholom’s Nita program offers families creative ways to explore Jewish life in nontraditional settings. photo/stefanie atkinson

Marquit fits the profile of many Nita devotees — the unaffiliated or disaffected young Jewish parent.

The San Anselmo father of two grew up in a Jewish family, and while he is “strongly and passionately” attached to and proud of his Jewish heritage and culture, he feels zero connection to the religious side. Which means he’s usually so uncomfortable in a synagogue that he can barely muster the motivation to go.

“All the organization and structure that is associated with a congregation seems a little contrived and almost off-putting to me, but when I heard about Nita … it felt like a safe harbor in which to explore this Jewishness thing,” Marquit said.

Nita is Hebrew for “we will plant, we will grow.” Its target audience is Gen X and Y parents and their children. No fee is required to participate, but donations are gladly accepted.

Started by Rodef Sholom with seed money from Synagogue 3000, a New York nonprofit that seeks to make synagogues more compelling moral and spiritual centers, Nita seeks to harness the energy and creativity of the independent minyan movement in the context of a synagogue. The Reform shul in San Rafael is one of five synagogues in the country selected to create satellite communities.

The hope is that Nita will enrich Jewish communal life, inspire Jewish home life, foster new ideas and create a vehicle for synagogue transformation, Kushner said.

Nita’s Shabbat and education programs happen in community centers, museums, cafés, private homes and the woods.

“I really believe doing Jewish stuff is powerful — but I don’t think someone has to be in a certain room in order to experience that,” Kushner said.

Nita announced its presence with High Holy Day services last fall. With no advertising other than a website and word of mouth, the services at

the Mill Valley Community Center drew 350 people.

Since then, Nita has introduced Pop Up Shabbat, family-friendly monthly Shabbat services held either at the Mill Valley Community Center or outdoor sites in Marin. Pop Up Shabbat services are short, musical and always followed by a communal meal.

Nita also organizes afternoon Shabbat hikes, weekly Torah study groups and Havdallah house parties, in which “you get all your friends together, and we come with wine, candle and music,” Kushner said. “You work out the food and people, and we do the rest.”

Upcoming programs include Storahtelling sessions (think theater meets Torah), tefillah “swim lessons” (think Jewish Prayer 101) and Jewish “takeout.” This last concept is what Kushner likes to call guerrilla Judaism, meaning that “it’s going to come to you,” she said.

So for instance, if a Nita participant is going to the beach with her family and wants to infuse the outing with Jewish flavor but doesn’t know how, Kushner would either join the family or provide the guidance so they could create their own Jewish outdoor venture.

“The concept is: What would happen if we empowered people to design their own Jewish experiences? How can we help them to do that, and what would that look like?” Kushner said.

Some Nita participants have joined Rodef Sholom, though that is not the explicit goal of the initiative. More important, Nita is giving Rodef Sholom a petri dish with which to test innovative Jewish programming and outreach.

For Marquit, Nita appeared on his radar only because his wife, Laura, was adamant about wanting to provide their children with some sort of connection to religion. Even though she didn’t grow up Jewish, it’s the faith that feels most comfortable and enriching to her.

And lucky for her, being involved with Nita is not only tolerable for her husband but even somewhat enjoyable.

“We are in at the ground floor and nobody knows what Nita is supposed to look like in future, including Rabbi Kushner, so it’s up to us to invent it,” Evan Marquit said. “I feel as though I’m really exercising my voice and that I’m shaping this grand experiment.”

For information, visit www.nitamarin.org.

 

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.