Situated under a massive willow tree at North Point Park, a group of roughly 20 people sang Hebrew songs accompanied by a guitar and talked philosophy. They were participating in “Tashlich by the Charles,” one of the first official gatherings of the Asiyah Jewish Community.
Tashlich is a Jewish tradition during the High Holidays where participants have a once-a-year chance to cast off their sins. Asiyah’s founder, David Curiel, led the ceremony, accompanied by his wife and daughter. Curiel told his congregation not to think of the ritual as throwing out sins, but instead as recycling them, repurposing that energy for a more noble purpose.
Asiyah is a part of Aleph, the Jewish Renewal Movement that places special emphasis on Kabbalah, meditation, mysticism, and the power of music. Members are egalitarian and pride themselves on emphasizing gender equality. In the Asiyah community, conflicting spiritual views are welcome.
The Asiyah community gathers for pop-up events. These can happen outdoors or in indoor spots like an attendee’s living room. The services have lively elements like singing and playing guitar, food, and philosophical and open-minded discussion.
Asiyah plans to increase its monthly meetings to twice-a-month Shabbat services starting in early 2018.
“‘Asiyah’ means ‘doing,’ or ‘making,’” Curiel explains. “And it, for me, exemplifies the deepest value that I see for this community, which is a community that’s co-created. So everybody comes together … to make it happen, to make it a reality. It’s also a community of people who are active in the world, specifically in political movements or social action.”
While Curiel was raised Jewish, he went through a period when his connection with religion diminished, and he was unsure what he wanted to do with his life. He worked at Apple, earned an MBA, and even moved to California for the wine business. But all the while, he never lost his spiritual thirst.
His wife, Amberly, also craved spiritual experiences. She was not raised Jewish, but was open-minded. One year, after Curiel’s mother lovingly nagged him to get High Holiday tickets somewhere, the synagogue he and his wife chose changed their lives forever.
It was a Jewish Renewal synagogue in California called Beyt Tikkun. “I walk in, and there’s a whole klezmer band playing. People are dancing in the aisles, the rabbi’s dancing in the aisles, grabbing people, and this is before the service even starts, and I’m like ‘What did I just step into?’ It was like a Jewish tent revival.”
The rabbi encouraged multi-religious and philosophical tolerance and finding one’s own meanings in the universe. The ideas that stuck most with Curiel from the service were that “the God you don’t believe in does not exist” and that one should “connect instead with what’s spiritually real for you, what’s spiritually meaningful to you.” Curiel was moved to become a rabbi.
Curiel moved back to Boston, where he is from originally, to embark on his rabbinic studies. He studied in Israel and did an internship in New York City, but came back to Boston, where he had a vision for Somerville and Cambridge. He is now close to being ordained.
“When this idea for Asiyah was percolating, I had an intuition that Cambridge/Somerville was the place to do it. It’s an intuition that’s turned out, so far, to have some legs,” he says. “[I] found a lot of people on this side of the river in particular who are yearning for a kind of spirited view of Judaism that they haven’t found anywhere else.”
The Boston nonprofit Combined Jewish Philanthropies commissioned a Jewish population study that indicated a growing diversity in the Greater Boston area. There are more young and unaffiliated Jews, as well as Jewish/non-Jewish relationships, it found. Curiel has found these people are especially attracted to the Asiyah community.
Somerville’s Jewish community isn’t as large as those in other nearby towns, like Brookline or Newton. It has two main places of worship: Temple B’nai Brith, which was founded in 1904, and Havurat Shalom, which has volunteer-led services.
While both these places offer critical support for local Jews, Curiel has found a niche for his own congregation. He ultimately hopes to own a cafe where the community can find a permanent home.
“There are people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who their first entry point into a spiritual community is going to be singing and prayer, because that’s what they love to do,” Curiel explains. “And there are people who will never walk through that door. And so the cafe is a place to sort of open up those other places for folks. Whether it be through study, whether it be through spiritual inquiry … it will be the congregating place for the community on Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat services. And then the rest of the time we’ll be open to the public to come in, however they want to interact in that space.”
When members under the willow tree went around in a circle to say their names and a special memory of Tashlich on that fall day, they also specified their preferred pronouns. The idea that we are all each other’s people is at the forefront of the Asiyah philosophy, where gender equality plays a pivotal role.
“None of us are free until we’re all free,” Curiel says. “And that’s also a very strong message in the Torah. Be kind to the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Don’t oppress the stranger because you were once oppressed as strangers in the land of Egypt. It’s not just about our freedom, it’s about everybody’s freedom.”
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