Growing up, Avi and Rachel Rosenfeld were anything but mainstream. Avi was raised in Telluride, among a motley mix of hippies, Vietnam War Vets and local mining families, trying to create an organic community in the small Colorado town, long before it was rebranded as a posh ski resort. Rachel loved being in nature as well; after college, she moved to a farm in New Hampshire and dreamed of a world based on sustainable agriculture.
So it’s not entirely surprising that when the couple, who met on Israel’s Livnot U’Lehibanot work study program, moved to Seattle in 2011, they would wind up setting up their own alternative Jewish community.
The religious world in Seattle is very split, Rachel explains. To wit: there are three separate eruvs (the ritual enclosure that allows Jews to carry objects from one place to another on Shabbat) and they’re not connected to each other. “The Jewish communities in Seattle don’t mix as much as I’d like,” she says. “There is a tendency to be insular.”
Moreover, the religious congregations in the city are very traditional, as Rachel puts it. Women don’t participate in synagogue rituals and “you never know when you go to someone’s house if it will be OK for a woman to sing zemirot,” Rachel adds. Other issues that are important to Rachel, “like social justice, things that I had always taken for granted, are just not on the radar here in Seattle’s Orthodox community.”
Rachel and Avi had come to Seattle for a job: Avi had just received rabbinical ordination from the Modern Orthodox Chovevei Torah program in New York and had found employment as the Jewish chaplain at a Seattle hospital. Rather than try to fit in to the existing Seattle framework, they decided to create their own. And so was born “Mercaz,”
“Mercaz [the name means ‘center’ in Hebrew] offers a variety of programs with the guiding principle that ‘everyone has a place,’” Rachel says. Those programs include regular melave malkas – after-Shabbat gatherings with Avi on guitar and mandolin and filled with lots of singing…by both men and women, Rachel is quick to point out – and monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services followed by a meal.
The most recent melave malka attracted 45 participants of all ages, including young couples in their mid-20s along with their parents. 24 people came to Friday night services last month, which are conducted in the style fashioned by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and include a mechitza (dividing men and women). Fifteen stayed for the meal, which Rachel nearly single-handedly prepared.
At every Mercaz event, the Rosenfelds strive to cultivate a spirit of intellectual openness and a space for non-judgmental questioning. Above all, they espouse an uncompromising dedication to diversity and inclusiveness. Those are guidelines the Rosenfelds say they learned from Livnot.
Livnot U’Lehibanot has been running programs headquartered in the Old City of Tzfat (Safed) for 33 years now. Since 1980, over 6,000 alumni have dug, volunteered and studied in one of the program’s many configurations, from one-week post-Birthright Israel extensions to intensive three-month group experiences. Livnot estimates that over the past three decades, some 25,000 challahs have been baked, 230 bomb shelters in the north of Israel have been renovated, and participants have hiked close to 200,000 kilometers. Rachel is happy that some of Mercaz’s regulars in Seattle are former Livnoters as well, bringing their enthusiasm for Judaism to the Pacific Northwest.
Livnot U’Lehibanot is geared towards young Jews, ages 21-30, with no real Jewish background. Avi Rosenfeld certainly fit that bill. He was 19-years-old, from a completely secular home, and on his way to work in England when a last minute visa problem sent him to Israel instead. With no intention to visit the country, at least not at that point in his travels, he opted to spend a few months on a moshav and specifically says he didn’t want to do anything too “Jewish.”
But while visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, he got briefly turned on to Jewish study and wound up at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva instead of the moshav. It wasn’t for him, though. But his interest was now piqued. Livnot, with its welcoming and pluralistic approach, was the obvious next step. After Livnot, Avi returned to the States, but eventually came back to Israel serving as a madrich (counselor) for the program, which is where he met Rachel in 2000. They married four years later and today have three children, ages 7, 5, and 2.
Rachel had slightly more of a Jewish background: her mother’s family was aligned with the Conservative movement and Rachel had majored in Jewish Women’s Studies at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley. Livnot helped her put the Jewish pieces together, she says, and she quickly became the quintessential Jewish hostess she still is today.
Before she and Avi were married, Rachel lived in Berkeley where she received a grant to host large groups of young people for Shabbat meals. “Everyone was welcome,” she says. “That was part of what I got from Livnot, too. Livnot planted the seeds for everything for us.”
Going forward, the Rosenfelds have received a matching grant to expand Mercaz. They hope to open an inclusive beit midrash for Jewish learning as part of the organization’s activities in Seattle, and to create “social action opportunities connected to Torah learning. We’re looking to build an old style ‘salon’ environment, but on Torah topics,” Rachel explains.
The results are encouraging. “The feedback we’re getting is that we’re bringing a new energy to the Seattle area. And that we’re bringing people together who normally don’t interact. That’s what gets me most excited. Our goal, like Livnot’s, is to let people be where they are; to support them on their journey to being more Jewish, wherever that may lead.”
For Avi and Rachel, that may someday lead back to Israel – they were married there and their first child was born in Jerusalem. But in the meantime, there’s much to be done in Seattle. And Avi and Rachel Rosenfeld are clearly at the “center” of things.
-written by Brian Blum, Livnot past chevre