Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann didn’t initially think of herself as a Jewish educator in the traditional sense. Not even after she established Mishkan – the upstart Jewish spiritual community in Chicago. “I went to rabbinical school and started this community and while education is a critical part of our mission, I never considered myself an educator in the classic sense,” she said.
“It’s counterintuitive because ‘rabbi’ basically means ‘teacher,’ ” she continued. “But it took a bit of reconfiguring in my own mind to think of myself that way and to feel worthy of the title.”
The catalyst, she said, was receiving The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in 2013 for her promise and impact as a young Jewish educator. She came to fully embrace and celebrate the label due in part to the honor itself as well as professional exposures and immersions attached to it.
“There is a community of creative, out-of-the-box thinkers and practitioners across denominations, venues, academic disciplines, and modalities, all brought together within the Covenant family,” she said. “Their unique and effective and powerful ways of transmitting Judaism really opened my eyes.”
“Now I see every interaction as an ‘educator moment’ and I think much more expansively about what Jewish education is and how Jewish learning happens.”
For sure, Rabbi Heydemann is a visionary, entrepreneur, and teacher all rolled up into one. She is reshaping Jewish outreach and education, and significantly redefining the field for the 21st century.
Mishkan is one of a few unique Jewish spaces found in an increasing number of cities – IKAR in Los Angeles, Kavana in Seattle, and Lab/Shul in New York, for example – that fill a hunger for creative, alternative approaches to Jewish observance, life and community.
They operate outside of conventional institutional models and rethink basic assumptions about ritual and spiritual practice, physical space, and the religious-cultural divide. And they are attracting Jews, many of them unaffiliated or disengaged, who are looking for a spiritual and communal home.
Under Rabbi Heydemann’s leadership, Mishkan is delivering Judaism to Chicago area residents in forms that are deep and meaningful, and offering a new portal for Jewish learning, engagement and activism.
Ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2010, Rabbi Heydemann spent a year as a rabbinic fellow at IKAR in Los Angeles, and then returned to her native Chicago in search of a similar destination for next-gen Jews and those who felt they were on the margins of the Jewish community. Finding no such place, she set out to establish one.
“I felt called,” she said. “At IKAR, I was trained in a model of community that is musical and vibrant and spirited and inclusive and entrepreneurial. I knew that it was not only possible, but necessary to do this in Chicago, the city I love.”
Mishkan was born in a living room in 2011 and moved around to rented spaces in art studios, churches, and synagogues as attendance grew and programming expanded. About 200 people attend Shabbat services every week, more than double the number who did so in 2011. And in 2016, 1,700 people attended High Holiday services, a threefold surge from the first year.
It now has its own work and program space on the north side of Chicago, in a converted industrial building housing other creative and artistic enterprises, from DJ schools to theater companies to photography studios. Some programs unfold here and others in locations throughout the city, a purposeful effort, Rabbi Heydemann said, to meet Jews where they are – not only in terms of knowledge and comfort level, but literally in their neighborhoods.
Heydemann has created an environment where any level of Jewish literacy is welcomed and valued, and where channels to further immersion – and ultimately individual and community growth – are rich and accessible.
Besides its signature Shabbat and High Holiday programming, Mishkan offers myriad pathways into community that are infused with Jewish values and traditions. A social justice beit midrash provides examination of Jewish texts on pressing social issues, for example, and a meditation series is built upon weekly teachings and mindfulness practices inspired by parsha.
“It’s the secret sauce – the creation of authentic experiences, the freedom to experiment, the engagement of people where they are and leading them to a deeper place,” Rabbi Heydemann said.
“When people show up here, they are often looking for something personal – a place to reflect or to sing. The totally unintended consequence is that they end up feeling connected to community. In helping people embrace their own practice, we are un-training a passivity that may be ingrained since childhood.”
Programs continue to be established under her vision, design and leadership. For example, Mishkan’s Mensch Academy, now in its first year, is an alternative afterschool program for students in grades 3 to 5 that transitions to a b’nai mitzvah program in grades 6 and 7.
And 2017 will see the launch of Maggie’s Place, a venue for young adults seeking emotional and spiritual wellness and support services. The Mishkan program will be plugged into the broader Chicago mental health care ecosystem and reflects Rabbi Heydemann’s desire to “embrace and elevate the Jewish conversation about self-care and how we take care of each other.”
Rabbi Heydemann received the Pomegranate Prize just two years after she founded Mishkan. The resources attached to the Prize, she said, allowed her to “seek not only nourishment for myself, but to refill the well for Mishkan and those I am teaching.”
She completed a rabbinical yeshiva institute and the Singing Communities Intensive program at Mechon Hadar, a rabbinic training program at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and an 18-month meditation program with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
She also engages in one-on-one learning with Rabbi Steve Sager – to enrich herself and Mishkan programming – as part of the Sichat Rabbanim, Conversation Among Rabbis initiative of Sicha.
“My biggest platform for teaching is services – that is where my teaching is most alive and most authentic,” she said. “What I can accomplish there in inspiring Jews and creating a more powerful and robust community has been strengthened by my experience with the Pomegranate Prize and what it has allowed me to do.”
“People come up to me after services to thank me for allowing them to not know everything,” she said. “I don’t take for granted anyone’s base of knowledge or familiarity with Jewish tradition and ritual and prayer. Any place is a good one to start from, to build knowledge over time.
“I never really realized that this is the skill of a good and effective educator, but I feel that I understand that now,” Heydemann continued. “ This is what a good educator does … to help people feel safe enough and vulnerable enough to take risks so they can actively learn. That is what I try to do.”