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Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rabbi Avram Mlotek

Rabbi Avram Mlotek is a Base Hillel co-founder and the Rabbi of Base MNHTN. In May 2015, Avram was listed as one of America’s “Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Daily Forward. In 2012, The New York Jewish Week selected him as a “leading innovator in Jewish life today,” as part of their “36 Under 36” section. Prior to joining Base, Avram served as a rabbi in training at The Carlebach Shul, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, The Educational Alliance and Hunter College Hillel.  Avram’s writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Forward, Tablet, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, The Huffington Post, and Kveller, among other blogs.

 

Vennly: What is Base and what inspired its creation?

Avram: Base is a movement and model for home centered spirituality. When I was finishing rabbinical school in 2015, my partner, Yael, and I sat down with our dear friends, Faith and Jon Leener, and imagined what it might look like to empower pluralistic rabbinic couples to open their homes and have those homes serve as convening points for Jewish life. Each Base would be committed to celebrating the Jewish calendar through radical hospitality, learning and community service though every Base would reflect the personality of the couple – a rabbi and partner – who would open their home to do this work and welcome young Jewish 20s and 30s and their friends. Four years later, we’re blessed to have Bases in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Harlem, two in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston and Berlin with more to come.

 

Vennly: There’s something incredibly powerful about being welcomed into someone’s home. How do your guests typically react when they come for the first time and what do you hope they get out of the experience?

Avram: It’s usually Ravi (our six year old) or Hillel Yosl (our two and a half year old) who greet folks when they ring our doorbell ever enthusiastically. New York City can be an isolating place despite its largeness and so we feel privileged that our home can be a type of home-base and spiritual grounding point for folks after an exhausting day. Most people who first come through our doors enter for a Shabbat dinner which is usually set for 15-20 guests. We prepare the meal ourselves and everyone shares snapshots of our week over ritual and song. We hope folks will feel spiritually nourished and leave knowing they are not alone.  

 

Vennly: Who are you trying to reach through Base and how do these different groups interact and connect?

Avram: Base was designed by a group of friends for folks our age. It wasn’t thought up in an ivory tower disconnected from people’s experiences. Our target audience remains young Jews and their friends, young people who are spiritually ambitious but religiously apart, seekers searching for connection, community and learning but who don’t necessarily feel at home in a house of worship. Through this work, we engage with a pluralistic array of young people from a variety of backgrounds. Jews of color, queer Jews, spiritual and secular, from Ultra-Orthodox backgrounds to converts make their way to our table to form what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as the “beloved community.”

 

Vennly: For someone who hasn’t attended a Base event, what can they expect and what are the topics of conversation that are frequently discussed around the Base table?

Avram: It depends on the night! Base is about people, not programs, and the relationships that come from encountering the other. On a Monday night, you might experience our Jewish Questions class which is an introductory to Judaism course and also functions as a conversion path for those committed and interested. We’ll ask questions like “What’s a Jewish sexual ethic?” On Tuesdays we prepare a home cooked meal for a local homeless shelter and then come back after breaking bread with our neighbors to explore the weekly Torah portion and whatever questions may arise. On Wednesdays you might take part in Spiritual Readings, our monthly interfaith salon facilitated by a Catholic priest and myself selecting sacred texts from our respective traditions. The topics of conversation vary as the people do; regardless you’re sure to find people who are asking deep questions about themselves, each other and environments they inhabit.

 

Vennly: As we progress through a new year, what are your hopes and expectations for Base as it continues to grow?

Avram: We hope to build more Bases and more Jewish homes in all their diversity of practice. As Base continues to grow and our communities too, we hope we maintain the spirit and vision that guided us in the first place, that we maintain the close-knit nature of our communities and keep the ‘why we do what we do’ front and center.

Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Murali Balaji

Murali Balaji, Ph.D., is a journalist, author, academic, and spiritual leader with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. Balaji has served as the education director for the Hindu American Foundation, where he was recognized as a national leader in cultural competency and religious literacy. He co-founded The Voice of Philadelphia, a non-profit geared to help high school dropouts (or pushouts) develop media literacy and citizen journalism skills. He has also been a professor at Temple University and Lincoln University, where he chaired the mass communication department and engaged in multi-method research. He is a certified anti-bias trainer through the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and serves on the national advisory board of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.

Vennly: You’re vocal about “interfaith” conversations in America being mostly comprised of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, which fails to represent other traditions like Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Humanists, etc. How can we ensure that interfaith work becomes more inclusive?

Dr. Balaji: I think we need to start from the perspective of treating all groups on an equal footing. For so long, the idea of interfaith has been heavily skewed towards an Abrahamic-centric definition of dialogue. We need to work on leveling the playing field, and more importantly, address issues of pluralism in a more culturally and spiritually competent manner. We need to make sure representatives of traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Humanism, etc., are involved from the beginning of interfaith dialogues – not just added as tokens to conversations.

Vennly:  As a professor of media studies and a former journalist, what are the diversity and inclusion topics that you wish were covered more frequently in the media?  

Dr. Balaji: I wish we were able to address groups as nuanced and heterogeneous, not monoliths. We can’t rely upon a few self-appointed spokespeople for groups to be able to speak to and for experiences of diverse groups. We need to do more to examine and engaged diversity within diverse groups – this is something media organizations have consistently failed to do, because it’s hard going beyond certain tropes.

Vennly: In your current role as Hindu Chaplain at University of Pennsylvania, what are the types of spiritual and /or religious questions that are top of mind for your students?

Dr. Balaji: I think for Hindu students, their individual journeys are what present the greatest challenge and opportunity. This is the first time in their lives they are able to self-define, and the ways in which they connect with their faith in college can shape their identification with Hinduism and as Hindus for the rest of their lives. My goal is to listen first, but to also ensure they have a support system away from home as they seek to find their own answers.

Vennly: As we enter a new year, what are some of the things you’ll be working on and what are you talking about with your community?

Dr. Balaji: I think the most important things I’ll be working on will be curating platforms for social issues at some of the major temples. We need to work more on issues of mental health, domestic violence, the environment, and LGBT+ inclusiveness. These aren’t left or right issues – they are just issues that call upon Hindus to act dharmically for the common good. I’m excited by what this year has to offer.

We’re Thankful for Those that Believe in Us

A short message of gratitude to our spiritual leaders

We’ve been working on Vennly full time for a little more than a year, and the journey to this point has exposed us to ideas, beliefs, and realities that we had never considered before.

We’ve written in the past about how our journey with Vennly started. We’ve grappled with the term “spiritual” and what it might mean to be spiritual but not religious. We’ve explored what spiritual experiences could mean to people who don’t engage with organized traditions. But we haven’t taken much time yet to reflect on what the year has been like.

One year in, we’ve never been more sure of Vennly’s mission and product vision as we are today. And we’ve never felt more confident that the spiritual leaders with whom we’ve partnered will bring immense value to our Members.

We’ve met with hundreds of spiritual leaders and described to them our experiences with organized religion, and how it was a model that wasn’t working for us. We explained that we value the pastoral counseling that spiritual leaders can provide but that we found it hard to access without being part of an organized spiritual community. We explained that we suspected that we weren’t alone and that we were working on a product that aimed to distribute their pastoral work in a mobile first, on-demand way.

We asked these exceptionally talented and busy people if they would contribute content to our product when it was only a concept. We asked them if they would connect us to their colleagues who might also see the issues that we outlined. They did. We didn’t have a prototype to show them or press coverage to prove our viability. They believed in Vennly without any evidence.

Vennly’s spiritual leaders have been strategic partners, sounding boards, and product enthusiasts. They have helped us with everything from language on our website to the color palette in our logo. They have reached out to their contacts and repeatedly said, “please use my name when you reach out.”

The kindness, generosity, and thoughtfulness of Vennly’s spiritual leaders have been on full display for the last year. And as we gear up to launch the Vennly app in early 2019, we are overcome by the deep desire to make good on their belief in us. We are so excited for you to benefit from the same wisdom that we’ve been exposed to.

This Thanksgiving, as you reflect on what you’re grateful for, we encourage you, too, to say thank you to the people who believe in you. There’s no motivating spirit greater than someone that thinks that you can do it. Especially, when you don’t have the evidence.

With Gratitude,

Brian and Dan

Finding Spirituality on the Sidewalk: Creating Moments of Ritual and Spiritual Practice in your Daily Routine

Finding spirituality during daily routine

It’s not an easy exercise to define spirituality, or what it means to be spiritual. As shared in a previous post, in our research we asked people to define spirituality in their own words and the dominant theme we saw is that spirituality is personal and flexible. This provided some general guardrails, but we wanted to know more.

What makes something spiritual, versus not? Could my morning walk to work be spiritual? Is that walk spiritual if I listen to a guided meditation, but not if I listen to Notorious B.I.G.? What if the Biggie song I’m listening to is talking about mental health, like his seminal “Suicidal Thoughts”?

As part of our market research, we provided a list of activities and asked people to select all of the ones that they considered to be spiritual experiences. Regardless of how people identified -religious, SBNR, spiritual and religious, neither- the same activities generally rose to the top. “Meditation” and “Spending time in nature” were cited as spiritual experiences most frequently, by about half of all people. “Spending time alone”, “Helping others/volunteering” and “Engaging with a religion” rounded out the top five.

“Yoga”, “Travel”, and “Exercise” were seen as spiritual experiences by some, but by only about half as many people as “Meditation”. Somewhat surprisingly, activities like “Reading”, “Writing”, “Learning about other cultures”, and “Spending time with family” ranked similarly to “Yoga”.

Looking at the research, there was some agreement about certain activities being more of spiritual experiences than others. Experiences with some combination of routine/ritual, discipline, or being present in the moment are more commonly seen as spiritual. But a fair number of people, whether SBNR or religious, also saw “Reading” or “Travel” as spiritual experiences. This gets back to the way people defined spirituality – it’s personal, dynamic, and not bound by dogma or theology. As Vennly contributors have shared, the way we approach an activity can defines it spirituality far more than the activity in and of itself.

Take the seemingly mundane activity of washing your hands. We asked Vennly contributor Naomi Malka, an expert in traditional Jewish water rituals, for her take on building spiritual practice into daily routine: “One of my favorite water rituals is hand-washing. I love it because it brings awareness to my hands, the same hands that type out my thoughts onto a keyboard, and that touch my sons’ sweet faces, and that put my food into my mouth. Every day, I do these things.  On days when I have engaged in a hand washing ritual, I am a little bit more conscious of my actions, and I try to remind myself a) that I am fortunate to have two hands and ten fingers, and b) that They are not independent of my will–I have choices about what to do with my hands!”

There is spirituality in your daily water routine, like hand washing or showering

We also asked Vennly contributor Julia Khan about which activities she finds spirituality in. Having served as chaplain for struggling and homeless veterans, and the Master Instructor at Do Shim Martial Arts, Julia’s spiritual practice ranges from street corners to the corner of her dojang. As Julia put it, “activities that engage all of who you are all have the potential to be spiritual. I believe this is what makes art so transformational and a deep meaningful conversation with a loved one so powerful. Spiritual experience is so much more about what you are bringing to the interaction, to the moment than what the activity is or isn’t. Of course, certain activities inherently arouse the sense of peace and calm that make a spiritual experience possible and more powerful. This is at the heart of meditation and what worship experiences are meant to do. But, we can have such experiences whenever and wherever we can open up to something greater than ourselves.”

So to answer my own question, yes, my walk to work can be spiritual. As Vennly’s contributors have shared, and backed up by our research, it’s not really the activity itself that is spiritual. It’s the way we approach the activity. So on my walk to work tomorrow, I think I’ll take the longer, more scenic, route.

With gratitude,

 

Dan

Does Religiously Unaffiliated Also Mean Spiritually Unsupported?

As part of the Vennly team’s search to better understand how people express their spirituality, we found ourselves facing some interesting questions. We started to wonder about the impacts of feeling spiritually engaged, but not expressing it by identifying with organized religion. Personally, I started to think more about what it meant to identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR).

I wondered if I was missing out. Was I missing out on opportunities to volunteer? To give back and be a better ally for those who need support? Was I cutting myself off from the support and wisdom of leaders in my community? Would I be better equipped to face life’s challenges with a greater sense of community behind me?

I didn’t know for sure, but at a minimum it seemed like my friends who are also SBNR didn’t know where to turn when facing big questions or challenges in life. Sure, there’s family and friends, and that super inspirational instructor from spin class always had an encouraging word…but something felt missing.

I dug into proprietary research Vennly conducted to better understand how people seek guidance and support along religious and spiritual lines. Our research backed up what I was hearing from friends and family, that us SBNRs have less access to support. We found that less than 28% of SBNRs feel that it’s easy to find support and guidance when facing big life decisions, compared to nearly 40% of religious people.

Our research also found that people that identify as either religious, or spiritual and religious, are nearly 60% more likely to have a personal relationship with a religious or spiritual leader – including life coaches, yoga instructors, and the like – than people who identify as SBNR. Overall, the research seems to indicate that it’s harder for SBNR people to find meaningful spiritual support and guidance than it is for their religious peers.

For me, the beauty of being SBNR was that I could choose my own adventure, spiritually. It was like the RL Stine books I grew up on – instead of one, strict path, I could explore and try different ones. Dope, right? I could draw on elements of Taoism and Judaism one day, then Humanism and Islam the next. But as I grew older, and the challenges that I faced in life grew as well, that “something missing” kept creeping up. Choosing my own adventure didn’t help me cope with losing my mom to a tough battle with cancer just after my 27th birthday. It didn’t help me resolve conflicts between once-inseparable friends. And it didn’t help me find purpose in my career.

So the findings of our research jived with how I felt personally. But as I reviewed the data that confirmed my feelings, I was a little down. Even if there was something missing for us SBNRs, there had to be a way to fill that void. There had to be a way to ensure that I was as spiritually healthy as possible while still doing it in a way that’s authentic to me.

This is a big reason why we’re building Vennly. To help fill that gap and create a platform that can help provide some of the support, guidance, and wisdom that at times can feel missing. To ensure there’s a safe, inclusive space for people to turn to when seeking perspective on their challenges, big and small. And to provide that experience wherever you are, whenever you need it. There’s still work ahead to make this goal a reality, but we at Vennly are determined to make it happen. And we couldn’t be more grateful for your support along this journey.

With gratitude,

Dan

What does it mean to be spiritual?

One of the most interesting questions we’ve tried to answer since starting Vennly is how to clearly and succinctly define “spirituality”. Formal definitions of “spiritual” tend to be connected to sacred, ecclesiastical, and religious matters, yet in contemporary culture, the word is being used quite differently (you’ve seen those “Spiritual Gangster” shirts, right?).

Of course, for many, spirituality and religion go hand in hand. But it’s also true that more and more Americans are defining themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. With religion, there are markers of observance. Do you attend religious services at a place of worship? Do you pray? Are there dietary restrictions that you observe? But spirituality doesn’t have universal markers in the same way.

To better understand what it means to be spiritual, we conducted a survey on the topic. Overwhelmingly we heard that spirituality is a highly personal and individualized experience, to be defined for oneself. From there, we began to think about, “How do you become spiritual?”

For Rabbi Joshua Stanton, a Vennly contributor, becoming spiritual requires a willingness to be curious about yourself and the world around you. “People should first examine for themselves why they want to explore their spirituality. Usually, the underlying motivation itself yields a meaningful path to pursue.”

For me, a negative professional experience helped to provide clarity on what I really wanted out of my career and forced me to look inward and take stock of my spiritual health. But as Rabbi Stanton notes, arriving at this realization was a gradual process and it required that I be introspective in a way I hadn’t done in the past in my professional life.

Vennly contributor Rev. Malik Hokyu Walker, a Zen Buddhist monk, tells us that “spirituality requires a certain self-discipline associated with the ongoing practice of self-knowledge and cultivating intuitive wisdom. In other words, spirituality involves a conscious choice to pursue a path, no matter how varied or unclear it may be.”

So whether you’ve chosen a path or want to take steps to begin to explore your spirituality, there are a few things that Vennly contributor Reverend Doctor Chris Davies wants you to consider: “Draw from what draws you…Lean into the edge between what you know you know, and what makes you a touch uncomfortable. Discomfort is where the learning lives.”

As we’ve set out to build Vennly, I’ve found that the advice from Rabbi Stanton, Reverend Malik Hokyu Walker, and Reverend Davies has been prescient and in so many ways, symbiotic even though they bring a different spiritual backgrounds and perspectives to bear. For me, creating Vennly has been a spiritual experience — one that has required me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and channel that emotion into learning and productivity.

Ultimately, whether you consider yourself to be religious, spiritual, both, or nothing at all, our hope is that our amazing network of Vennly contributors will help you take a step back, think, and reflect in a way you haven’t before. They have already done this for me and we hope they can serve as a powerful source of wisdom, guidance, and perspective for you too.

With gratitude,

Brian

Do I Look Like a “None” to You? Seeking spirituality in the age of the religiously unaffiliated

What does spirituality mean to you? It’s a question we’ve been thinking a lot about since we began our work on Vennly, an audio-focused spiritual health app that aims to create a safe space for users to seek inspiration and guidance from spiritual and community leaders on a variety of life topics.

Like millions of young adults across the U.S., we had not formally engaged with a place of worship, or its leadership, in a really long time. According to Pew Research, we were a part of a growing cohort – the “nones” – the 35% of American Millennials who consider themselves to be unaffiliated religiously. With our new label now in hand, we realized that “none” really didn’t describe us at all. Just because we’re unaffiliated did not mean we didn’t still crave perspective, guidance, and wisdom. Discussions among our friends, many of whom had grown up with exposure to multiple cultures, traditions, and orientations – and who now found themselves in interfaith relationships, multicultural relationships, or non-normative relationships – revealed that a better word for us is the “multis.” Formal and consistent participation in a congregation wasn’t right for us for many different reasons. But as we experienced critical moments in our lives, such as marriage, parenting, dealing with the loss of a loved one, divorce, non-fulfilling jobs, it became clear that we still needed help making sense of the world around us.  

Our conversations with faith leaders only further confirmed the “spirituality gap.”  As congregants age out or simply don’t show up, too many places of worship are struggling to keep the lights on. Yet, one of the most illuminating insights for us since we started Vennly is that, according to our spiritual leaders, they have done more pastoral counseling in the past 18 months than they have over their career due to the unrelenting news cycle and political climate. So while many congregations fight to keep the lights on, our spiritual leaders’ wisdom and guidance have never been in more demand.

Later this year, we will be launching the Vennly app, which brings together some of the most dynamic spiritual and community leaders across traditions and backgrounds in a vetted and safe environment. As paradigms that have been truths for centuries are changing right in front of us, we understand that the world of spirituality is evolving too.  However you choose to define your spirituality, our mission is simply to provide wisdom and guidance to those who are seeking, in an inclusive and judgment-free way.

The name Vennly is inspired by the Venn diagram, and it represents different perspectives coming together in one place. Our members will be able to follow spiritual leaders or search by topic area, and our audio based “Perspectives” will focus on actionable, universal themes.

Our promise to you is to be thoughtful, intentional, and purposeful in the content and product that we create and to stay committed to the tenet that we are better together.  

All are welcome.

With gratitude,

Brian and Dan