Goodbye, Hevria. I Love You.

I have trouble letting go.

Back when I got into relationships, I was never the breaker-upper.  I was the dumpee.  I just couldn’t imagine a world where I would let go, even when it was clear that it was time for us to both move on.

One time, I worked at a company even after they ran out of money, because… well, I’m not sure.  I guess I just couldn’t let go.

Something similar has been happening the last few years writing and running this beautiful site, and I hope I can express it to you so that you can understand, and so that we can grow and evolve together, even if you find me in different places, and even as Hevria, please God, grows in its own way, with its own vision.

When we started Hevria, the vision was one almost exclusively focused on nurturing and evolving the power of Jewish creatives.  Matthue and I, and soon, the writers we recruited, deeply believed in the idea that creativity is this essential power for all people, and that when it’s accessed, it can create a sort of spiritual freedom that is impossible to grasp any other way.

And so we wanted to make a home, a place for those with that desire to tap into their creative sides both to read and write.  

It evolved since then, of course.  We did music videos, a documentary series, and started a Facebook group to get people more engaged.

But then something else happened.  A number of things, actually.

First, there was the creation of Hevria Brooklyn, the local community where we got some of the people inspired by the vision of Hevria together.  We did things called creative farbrengens, a combination of open mics and the Hasidic gatherings that had inspired me deeply as a baal teshuva, and very quickly this group started to evolve into something magnificent.

The more that we started to build this community, the more invested I became in the local Crown Heights community.  In many ways, in fact, Hevria was the organic outgrowth of my attempts to lead creative events in Crown Heights for years, but which never seemed to quite take in the way that I hoped they would.

But as I became more connected to our local community, something else happened.

I experienced a traumatic and painful rupture from the community, one that I’ve written about almost incessantly since it occurred. I didn’t understand just quite how much the eruv controversy in Crown Heights would affect my life, but as the years passed, it became more and more clear.

Because what occurred was not just my disconnecting from the community that had brought me in, taught me what it meant to be an observant Jew, and empowered me in so many ways: it was a realization that things were not as I had thought them to be.  It was, in many ways, this realization about Crown Heights (and, eventually, Haredi Judaism and orthodox Jewry at large) that truly disrupted my life.  It caused a fracture in my mind, one that I wished I realized then would be impossible to reconcile with the vision Hevria had originally laid out.

Then, of course, there was the election.

When Hevria was started, and for the 2 years before the election that followed, we were staunchly anti-politics.  It was one of our most uniting philosophies: we wanted to speak to a deep part of humanity, and we believed that politics was an obstruction to that.

But as soon as Trump came on the scene, I knew that things would have to be different on my end.  I believed, deep down in my bones, that this was a situation that was about how we looked at each other, and that Trump was a voice that fostered the part of people that caused them to refuse to see the humanity in those who were different than themselves.

I believed that I had to speak out.  And we had a sort of tentative agreement among the Hevria writers that politics should now be a topic we discussed, if in our specific way.

But I didn’t realize that, underneath the changes we were undergoing as a group, there were deeper changes going on within me.  Ones that would make it harder and harder to hold Hevria together as a leader.

I was undergoing a sort of spiritual transformation without even being aware that I had chosen to.  As I delved deeper into the idea that Judaism was meant to be combined with non-Jewish wisdom, I explored and delved into different ideologies.  Along with that, the trauma of the eruv experience and the shock of seeing people voting in a way that I thought was fundamentally inhumane made me question the very sources of knowledge that I had received over the years.  Everything was up in the air, and that meant that I was going somewhere far different from where I started as a religious Jew. 

Soon, I was studying history with an eye for how America might have gotten to the place it had found itself in.  I learned about authoritarianism and its rise.  I studied the power of cults, and how their tools can be used both in politics and religious communities.

It was a process, but in a few years, I went from a relatively apolitical centrist to a radical progressive, both politically and religiously (as much as one can be while staying orthodox, at least).

Throughout that process, I was so focused on growing and changing, and doing my best to remaining true to myself, that I wasn’t aware of (or didn’t want to recognize the seriousness of) the fractures starting to form in Hevria. The more I wrote outspoken diatribes about the orthodox world, the harder it became for some of our writers, supporters, and readers.  When I wrote a piece called, “I’m Not Waiting For Halacha To Catch Up With Queer Rights,” we lost two writers and a few donors.  But the truth was that the piece was more the straw that broke the camel’s back: I had been pushing the buttons of those who were around me for a long time.  And, naively, I assumed that as long as I kept to the “Hevria style” of writing from the heart, people could adjust.

What I didn’t realize, and what has become apparent to me now, is that it is one thing to be a writer for Hevria and another to be the leader.  I deeply didn’t want that to be the case, which I suppose is why it was hard to face: I wrote on Hevria Online specifically because I wanted to show that we were, as writers, at least, on the same level.  We were all creators, and my sincere belief was that if everyone wrote regularly, we could create a diverse community of creators.

But no matter what I did, my presence kept getting in the way.

I began to notice that chatter around Hevria on social media and in other places confused me with Hevria itself, for example.  People wrote that it was becoming “too political” even though I was really the only one becoming more political, and mostly off of Hevria.  The writers who had left would have stayed if it wasn’t for my personal changes.  

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I tried calling people on our team to talk about it.  But the problems became more apparent. Who were we?  What were we?  This was the question I kept getting asked, as things evolved, and although I convinced myself we still had the core mission with an evolving way of living that mission evolving, I couldn’t’ help but feel I was one of the few that actually believed that.  

I still hold onto that in some part of myself: I want to believe that if I was a more effective leader, and I had been more thoughtful in my approach, we could have created a coalition of people with intensely diverse backgrounds without my presence distracting from that powerful combination.

As it stands, though, I have trouble imagining a world where my presence in Hevria does not distract from its goals. The one truth that still stands is that we are not supposed to be about one person, but about the sum of our parts.  And yet, the longer I stay here, the less it is that.

And that’s why I feel like the best thing for me to do is to step down, as both a writer and a leader.

There’s a world I imagine: one where Hevria, or some other site, has lived out what we set out to do: one where Jews from all different backgrounds are united by what’s in their neshamas as opposed to the way the world divides them up.  One where they are united by the fact that they all share what is different about them, and where the mere presence of others does not cause division.

I believe that’s possible. I believe that we have the tools to achieve it.  And I think the fastest way to achieve that is to hand the reigns over to those who can do it.

So, starting soon, this site will undergo a number of changes:

1. Matthue Roth will fully take over Hevria Online’s leadership.  He has been here from the beginning, and doing so much more work than people give him credit for.  I am really excited for him to keep the core of the mission alive while helping the site evolve into the next stage.

He’ll be aided by Lela Casey, our Assistant Editor, who has been doing amazing work with our guest pieces.

And, of course, our existing writers will stay on, helping to co-create this next stage. I’ve spoken with them all, and I think they’re excited to see where this goes.

2. I’ll be helping in the background.  I’ll be mainly handling technical things like the website design, any moderating issues, and the logistics of handling the nonprofit side of things.  I’ll also be around as an advisor for any needs Hevria will have in general.

3. The website will be changed to be focused only on the publication yet again. As I mentioned, a big part of what has changed is that the Brooklyn Hevria has very much evolved into its own identity, which means that giving it space to evolve on its own is just as important as helping Hevria Online come into its own.  I truly think that, although people often look at separation as a bad thing, with each of these organizations essentially free to do their own things, they can become the best versions of themselves.

4. Brooklyn Hevria will have some time to incubate and grow into its own identity.  Most of our things will be done with private invitation, except for a number of pre-planned events we have with some partners, but otherwise we’ll be working to prioritize a number of changes.  

First, we want to make sure that whatever comes next is not Elad-and-Rivka-centric.  We are hoping to create a broader coalition of our members that allows us to grow more from the bottom up instead of the top down. And second, we’ll be experimenting with some new events focused on our unique vision and approach. If you’d like to be in touch about that stuff, feel free to reach out to me.

5. Over time, Hevria Online, Neshamas, and Brooklyn Hevria will grow into their own separate entities: connected but distinct.  I’m very excited to see how that evolves.

6. For those who get nervous about such things, Rivka will be staying on as a writer, and fully supports all the decisions listed above 🙂

It’s funny, when I imagined writing this piece, I thought it would be emotional and painful and sad,  I thought I’d be crying as I wrote it.

And to be honest, I’ve already shed tears over this.

But writing this all out, sharing it with all of you, I feel empowered.  I feel hopeful.  I think, so often, what these things signify is simply a course correction that Hashem already intended to happen if we had only opened our eyes a bit earlier, and which, when chosen, leads us somewhere new and better.

Now, when I look back on all the times I had trouble letting go, I don’t regret that I didn’t get to stick around longer.  I regret that I didn’t let go sooner.  I regret that I held on until things got so bad that there was no recovering and no chance to grow beyond starting completely over.

I am hopeful because I hope that this choice comes from a place of learning from those moments and seeing the possibility that lies before us.

To my fellow Hevrians, those who found us online and connected with us simply because you loved the idea of creativity as a living, breathing form of spiritual truth: thank you.  You made something that was kind of a crazy idea a reality.  You helped prove there is a need for creative expression in our corner of the Jewish world and beyond.  And I am excited to see where we all go together from here.

To my fellow writers, both new and old, I wish I could express to you all how thankful I am for you.  We all started this as volunteers who just had a dream to create something special.  That is something I will never forget: the way you gave so much, even if there wasn’t as much material benefit as other places.  You helped build something new, and you did it through love for each other and for our vision.  That’s unbelievably special, and it will last forever.

To the people who are going to keep going on the journey with us in Brooklyn: I cannot even tell you how excited I am for what we will build as we move forward.

Well, that’s enough.  I want to keep writing this so that I have more time knowing I’m writing and working on something for Hevria.  I want to hold on.  To write and write, for as long as I can.  But the longer I write, the less effective I am.