Base as a Spiritual Home
My mom, Debra Cohen, was my first rebbe. When I was a child, when we would pass neighbors experiencing homelessness in the Bronx, she would remind me: “Everyone has a mom.” She always made space for unexpected guests at our Shabbat table. Recently, my mom was honored at her synagogue, the Jewish Center of Teaneck, for her own chesed work during covid-19.
Chesed, acts of living kindness.
Among other projects, my mom ensured that isolated seniors had calls and people checking in on them right when lockdown went into effect. My mom and I connected over this service as our community members at Base MNHTN were engaging in similar chesed work we helped organize back in March. (Base is a project I co-founded with my wife, Yael Kornfeld, and our dear friends Faith and Jon Leener, in July 2015. Using the home as a gathering place, Base works with unaffiliated Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s around celebrating the Jewish calendar, learning, and service).
In these ways and more, my mom has been an inspiration for much of my Base work.
On the last night of Chanukah, Base hosted a virtual L’chayim for five couples in our community who were engaged during covid-19, community members from varying walks of Jewish life but each invested in our community and lovers of chesed in their own way. (A L’chayim is like an engagement party with words of Torah and blessings offered to the newly engaged.)
While we weren’t able to gather safely in person, we turned to the Zoom screen to come together. (Ironically, this was shortly before my mom’s synagogue had its own virtual event where she was honored.) As I reflect on who those couples were, I realize they are a powerful window into who comes to Base and calls Base their spiritual home.
Naomi and Eliot used a pipe cleaner for a makeshift ring since the jewelers were closed in March as they waited around Prospect Heights Park for the perfect sunset. Two teachers and lovers of learning, Eliot first joined Base (after his sister recommended us) for our weekly service cooking, where we would prepare a home-cooked meal for a local homeless shelter. When they started dating, Naomi quickly became part of the Base family too. Shelters now have closed due to covid restrictions, but we’re still distributing pre-packaged soup to our neighbors experiencing homelessness.
In Eliot and Naomi’s own words: “Base is a soul fountain from which people of all walks of Jewish life can come and drink from and be rejuvenated with the warmth and kindness of the rabbis and rebbetzins who open their hearts and homes.”
Shlomo noticed Melody at the Prospect Heights Synagogue where Base co-founder and Rabbi of Base BKLYN Rabbi Jon Leener serves, but Melody was the one who first asked Shlomo for his hand in marriage. Shlomo came from a charedi background and a first marriage, but was seeking a Judaism that spoke to him and his values. Melody first joined Base after a shmooze with me in Bryant Park when she discovered our Jewish Questions class online. Jewish Questions is an introduction to Judaism course offered through Base now in two locations, both online.
In Melody’s words: “As for Base, what can I say? When I joined I was a wanderer, looking for a home, and I’ve found that in more ways than one.”
In Shlomo’s words: “As part of a cohort of men who learned Talmud all day from the age of 11 until 30 years of age, the longing for yeshiva is intense. Somehow, only Base fills that niche. Base is my yeshiva away from yeshiva. Rabbi Jon is my mentor.”
Ally and Jacob came to us from Base Chicago. After a year of becoming part of the Base Chicago community, Ally moved to Manhattan and started joining us for weekly events downtown. Jacob came from a religious Christian home and attended Jewish Questions with Ally as they began to build a Jewish home in Harlem. Since starting Base in 2015, there’s now an exceptional couple spearheading Base Harlem, in the very building where Ally and Jacob live.
In Ally and Jacob’s own words: “Base is a home to us, a community of friends, family, mentors, and filled with Jewish education.”
Faby co-illustrated my introduction to Judaism book, “Why Jews Do That or 30 Questions Your Rabbi Never Answered,” but before that she was a fellow in our arts fellowship. She first discovered Base through Jewish Questions too. Faby was in Mexico for half the year but she and David made it work and celebrated their engagement this fall. Faby gives back to Base as a volunteer, helping run our social media on Instagram and Facebook, where we post weekly Torah videos.
In Faby’s words: “Base didn’t just open the gates to Judaism but to a whole life, I’ve found family, friends and inspiration through this amazing place. My now fiancé has also become a Base regular, joining for chagim, Torah and Shabbat dinners, he’s found in Base a welcoming and open community that allows all levels of observance and makes you feel comfortable regardless where you stand.”
Natalie and Kara used to live a few blocks from us when Base first opened in Chelsea, though now they live in Bloomfield, New Jersey. I first met Natalie when she had just undergone a difficult divorce and was in the process of coming out as gay.
“I first came to Base when I was pretty broken,” Natalie said. “Over time, I learned I could be my full self.”
In Natalie’s words: “Base is a place where you can get all your questions answered about Judaism yet feel so safe to explore and feel absolutely no judgement. All different kinds of people are part of Base, and it’s one big family.”
Kara is a school counselor and Natalie comes from a conservative Persian home in Long Island. Natalie used to work as a recruiter on Wall Street and is now pursuing an economics degree. Her mother and sister and brother-in-law joined the Zoom call to support the newly engaged couple. It was especially touching having Natalie’s mom be there, given her affiliation with a different type of religious community; still, she was able to be present for her daughter’s celebration and her daughter’s communal belonging.
I was filled with tremendous nachat, prideful joy, over that gathering, in our Zoom room. Here were young Jews: queer, straight, Jews of color, Jews by choice, passionate and committed, each in their own way, excited about building Jewish homes. These couples and their peers defy Pew studies and pundits who claim that the religious community is unappealing to younger generations. They are thirsty for a rich, inclusive Jewish life that celebrates their differences.
When I first started working as a rabbi for Base, we were entering into a bit of an unknown. What would our work look like? Who would come? What would our community feel like? Nearly six years later, I have an answer.
And it is a mosaic of an answer, as Base lives now in nine cities, with more to come. And though it’s not a community in the traditional synagogue sense, it’s still very much a community, even in the virtual world.
Just a few weeks ago, I was on a Zoom call with nearly 30 rabbis-in-training and their partners, who came to learn a bit more about Base work as they look to start their rabbinates. Their curiosity and eagerness reminded me of my own when we first started this work. (While this is my final year serving as a rabbi for Base MNHTN with Yael, I will continue my work as director of spiritual life for Base).
On Christmas eve — Nitlnakht in Yiddish — our Base family returned to the streets. We had prepared a vegetable soup and packaged containers to share with our neighbors experiencing homelessness, along with care packages prepared by two Basers. (That day, Faby and David prepared their own menu to deliver to their homeless neighbors in Brooklyn.)
And I called my mom thanking her for that reminder all those years ago. More than any certificate, it is these couples, students, Basers who have made me a rabbi, and for that I am eternally grateful. For all the terrible news out there in the world, these Jewish couples building Jewish homes and their commitment to chesed, felt worthy of celebrating.