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Lab/Shul: Rebrand the Sacred - Upgrade your Ritual Reality

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
3 – 5 years
Target audience
Arts & Culture

Lab/Shul’s god-optional, accessible approach to liturgy, lifecycle and learning is a system of pluralism that helps Jews and Jew-adjacent people to discover ways of existing with meaning and healing in a fractured world. Rebranding the Sacred is an approach to developing new spiritual vocabulary around today’s challenge of theology, which does not mirror and often alienates large parts of the community who may actually want to to connect but find it difficult because of barriers like traditional liturgy. It's time to Upgrade your Ritual Reality.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

“The old will be renewed and the renewed will be made sacred.”
Rav. Kook, a prominent rabbinic leader of the 20th century invokes the call to continuous improvement and transformation in Jewish life - a call to examine and re-investigate how each generation will find renewed meaning in that which has been inherited. With historic rabbinic precedent moving from Torah to Mishna to Gmarrah and the upgrading of sacred rituals in each generation -- Lab/Shul picks up the mantle of crafting what came before into more accessible and relevant concepts for the current generation. Specifically, Lab/Shul is interested in how this generation may also have a relationship to that which is sacred and inviting more presence and Presence.
Rebranding the Sacred is an approach to Jewish life that Lab/Shul embodies both in thought and action. With the idea that we live in a post-denominational, individualistic, lower-brand-loyalty world where participation in many aspects of life, not just Jewish life, are episodic at best, Lab/Shul has taken hold of the “me” societal attitude and built bridges to create more “we” opportunities - whether the “we” is in person, online or connected in one’s heart. Sacred experiences must address this challenge - especially with what we see as a great challenge for Jewish participation: theology.
Jewish life needs to develop a new spiritual vocabulary around today’s challenge of theology, which alienates, offsets and does not mirror a large part of the community. Lab/Shul embraces a radical approach to creating original poetic liturgical translations for sincere believers, questioners, agnostics, atheists, and the rest of us. And, as with Storahtelling, we actively reclaim ancient sacred technologies for personal growth and collective transformation with a modern, market-savvy approach. Whether liturgy, blessings, ancient pieces of wisdom from other sources, we actively engage in rebranding the sacred to offer more meaningful opportunities of connection, moving from “me” to “we”.
Wisdom has included:
New Liturgical projections with God-Optional translations - promoting a DIY Jewish Theology for the Age of Post-Patriarchy

Shabbat blessings and ritual:
Shabbat Blessings product - and the creation of DIY Shabbat Placemats and Wine Coasters
Sabbath Queen Ritual Events
Reclaiming for 20-30s the time to slow down and be present - Slow/Down/Town

How we say Kaddish and what it means to mourn in community

The Passover Haggadah: Sayder - the New 4 Questions - both a Product and a Webinar training - inviting people to take hold of the ancient sacred ritual, step into self-narrative and “do” in community.

Tashlich - a Ritual Practice called Let It Go: A Tashlich Walk, drawing on an ancient Jewish ritual of walking toward a body of water as a way to start fresh in the new year.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Each of the aforementioned areas reflects an approach to rebranding the sacred - both in form and content.

Liturgy: Lab/Shul crafts liturgical projections at our Worship Events that, in essence, rebrand the Divine. When Lab/Shul began formulating our key messaging, we added ‘God-Optional’ in order to welcome all and be honest about the fact that people come with different assumptions about faith. The intention was to invite people to experience the sacred in their lives through the Jewish modes of contemplative practice with as little baggage as possible and as open as possible to whatever rocks their inner boat. Our liturgy is projected on screens – Lab/Shul does not use prayer books. All translated references to God have been replaced by other concepts – ‘source’ or ‘creator’ or ‘being’ or ‘mystery’ or ‘presence’. Lab/Shul maintains the Hebrew in its original form but the open-ended new translations offer participants a way to play more freely in the playgrounds of our yearnings, gratitude and awe. It is, like soul and life and all, a constant multi-layered work in process.

Shabbat blessings and ritual:

Sabbath Queen Ritual Events - While Lab/Shul is pop-up, we do have our Shabbat AM worship events in more consistent spaces, but for Friday evening, our approach includes both market savvy language like “Unwind + unplug + recharge at our monthly RituaLab welcoming the Sabbath Queen into our lives. Popping up at an unconventional space near you” and an approach to really relax, connect, eat, drink and move through a wind-down experience with music, meditation, and wisdom that hits highlights of the liturgy and allows for the stretching of the soul. After an open bar and dj lubricate the soul, we begin our worship experience, often with invited guest musical artists and leaders who bring their gifts as offerings. We curate each experience around both the ancient and the modern, current events of our world today. Our first Sabbath Queen attracted 75 people with little marketing. Exactly one year later, we are pushing 200. The vision is to continue to keep Sabbath Queen unconventional and pop-up - attracting about 60% of 20/30s and many unaffiliated young people.

Reclaiming the time to slow down and be present for 20-30s - Slow/Down/Town - after we saw the impact of the Sabbath Queen events, we knew that there was a hunger in our 20-30s participants for authenticity and content, but in a social atmosphere that was not laden with “musts” that the worship experience can often provide. In partnership with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a legacy institution and with micro-grant funding from UJA Federation of NY, we re-conceptualized what the entrance to a Shabbat, a weekend, a break could look and feel like for a young person living and working in the city. Hundreds of young New Yorkers entered the Museum for the first time, seeing it as gorgeous and fun destination, entering a space to slow down out of the workweek and into the weekend – “unwind:unplug:recharge” with cellphone “sleeping bags” from our partners at Reboot, chair massages, gong baths and crystal bowl sound healing in Andy Goldsworthy’s Garden of Stones, sessions on Zen-ing and learning about seducing Shabbat in the way the ancients embraced through the Zohar and Jewish poetry of the Song of Songs and coming together for the after-party, Love on the Lawn, an outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat jam session with dinner provided by OneTable.

DIY Shabbat Blessings product and Wine Coasters
Do It Yourself is not always accessible to community participants when it comes to “doing Jewish”. To support the individual who wishes to bring this spirit of Shabbat into their own personal circles, but may lack the know-how - or for those who didn’t even realize this was an opportunity available to them, we created user-friendly DIY Shabbat kits that speak to the 21st century sensibilities on relationship development and slowing down to be in the moment.
For those who have never hosted a Shabbat dinner and for those who have, Lab/Shul created placements that encourage hands-on participation, including a step by step walk through the ritual with our approach to translation, and conversation starters that encourage reflection, connections, moments of gratitude all with an eye to today’s vernacular. The idea here is to create a pause and curate meaningful conversations with others - living Shabbat.
This carried through to the sacred act of lifting and blessing the moment of bringing wine to your lips, which crosses almost every culture and is as ancient as Dionysus herself, and designed wine coasters with the end of the blessing (Borei Pri Hagafen) crafting a translation that we believe addresses the moment we have when we lift a glass, look eye to eye and shift a mundane space into a sacred moment of connection: “A Toast: In the Presence of the Infinite, we savor the blessing of transformation: vine to wine.”

The Kaddish Club - an in-person and virtual community that meets for conversation, contemplation and the recitation of the mourners’ prayer for those currently within the a year of mourning; those observing a death date of a loved one during this month; and all who stand in solidarity and sympathy with friends, family, community. Again, lifting the “musts” for how we mourn - releasing us from the yoke of “getting it right”, we looked to the tradition and the way we can help people move from me to we by crafting a part learning chavurah, part support group, part healing circle to sit together, eye to eye, heart to heart, in difficult times.

Passover Haggadah: Sayder - the New 4 Questions is both a Product and a Webinar training - inviting people to take hold of the ancient sacred ritual, step into self-narrative and “do” in community. What if the Seder was not just the world’s longest buildup to a feast? What if it were reinvented as a modern-day ritual that encouraged real conversation about what matters most to us–and still included highlights from the traditional Haggadah? Meet Sayder: A fresh spin on an ancient ceremony and a new format that celebrates the best of Good Old Passover with an abbreviated alternative Seder. Structured around a new version of the classical Four Questions, Sayder preserves the drama of storytelling, the art of retrospection, the depth of conversation, and the courage of optimism found in the traditional Seder. Sayder makes the Exodus saga meaningful to our lives, naming our modern slaveries and oppressions, and renewing our commitment to more freedom for all. In partnership with the ROI office in Jerusalem, we offered a “Better Seder” boot camp webinar where over 135 people from around the world sat with Rabbi Amichai to investigate how to bring a different level of meaning, connection, relevance and “we” to their annual seder. Many participants noted that this was the first time they were attempting to lead or contribute something to the Seder.

Tashlich - Ritual Practice: Let It Go: A Tashlich Walk,” drew on an ancient Jewish ritual of walking toward a body of water as a way to start fresh in the new year. Branded a Judeo-Pagan walk in Manhattan during the first week of the Jewish New Year, participants radically revised Tashlich, the annual Jewish shedding ceremony, in which breadcrumbs are substituted for transgressions and thrown into a living body of water. Lab/Shul partnered with Elastic City, an organization that curates city walks through poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit. Lab/Shul created our participatory walks for the public, using sensory-based techniques, reinvented folk rituals and other exercises to investigate and intervene in the daily life of the city, its variously defined communities, and the politics of individual and group identity. The group walked from Hell's Kitchen down to the river, pausing to cast away our private and public histories: discarding assumptions, handing over possessions and making room for change. The walk capacity of 50 sold out within a day with to Jews, Jew-adjacents and those just curious. Participants cast off an item or clothing or utensil, physically and mentally clearing minds, hearts and even pockets to make space for the new.

This year alone, we are developing two to three ideas that will be tangible objects to be used in daily or seasonal life - to continue this spirit of rebranding the sacred:
The Blesser - our approach to the “bencher” or a guide to living consciously - perhaps as an app. Our plan is to unveil a couple of pages this year.
The Psalms Project - approaching this ancient Jewish wisdom in the form of a daily tarot - a blessing a day - quotes to live - daily intentionalities that help people make making in their lives.
The Lab/Shul Haggadah in development
Lab/Shul Angel Cards - another tool for lifting a mundane moment to that of sacred intentionality when folks gather for Shabbat or other important moments of pause.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

The best evidence we have are the anecdotes from users, participants and community members - who write us thanking us for the tools, the empowerment, the confidence building to craft sacred moments in their lives - as well as those who engage in the sacred act of copying. This past year we had two organizations that we know of who asked permission to revamp the DIY shabbat materials for their organizations - Repair the World and Pico Union Project. We know that there are more and we’re honored that the ideas we are crafting are resonating at that level. Hundreds of people have downloaded SAYDER. The growth of our Sabbath Queen and Slow/Down/Town programs quantifiably demonstrates that we are striking a chord in the hearts and sensibilities of young people. We experimented with “pay what you can” for Slow/Down/Town and had nearly 100% participation.

We are touched and also motivated when we hear from community participants who say “Thank you for the opportunity to feel alive and excited about spirituality and Judaism.”

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

We don’t have a pop-up synagogue community to just have a pop-up synagogue community. Lab/Shul was founded by radical artists who troubled the waters, dissatisfied with participating in the Jewish life that was offered to them by the institutional Jewish community - who found the traditional liturgy and approaches off-putting, alienating, disconnected to our artistic souls and forms of expression of that which is greater than us. We started from a “for us/by us” approach to liturgy and ritual – that if it’s not a continuous mirror reflection back and forth between Judaism and our lives and struggles and challenges, then it’s not worth pursuing. From that place of dissent, we demanded for ourselves a more relevant, active, empowered, accessible approach to Jewish life – our first step was to reinvestigate the Jewish wisdom of our inherited narrative legacy – the Torah but even within the Torah work, we encountered ritual and blessing - in the Torah Service.
Over and over, we challenge ourselves through the tutelage of Rav Kook and other trail blazers and are challenged, as facilitators of ritual and worship experiences, to renew the old - to not lose the essence of what the prayers and blessings are driving us to consider, but releasing the hierarchical and often patriarchal notions of how we connect to spirit, to the ineffable and to our deepest inner selves.

It would stand to reason that the application of this approach, this philosophy, this methodology, to an entire community of practice – with worship, lifecycles, study, activism, daily opportunities for blessing, noticing and pausing, would uncover a more empowered, hungry group of people who demand a higher level of relevance, access and nuance in the way they choose to express Judaism. We believe that this level of sophistication with Jewish wisdom has contributed to the success of Lab/Shul.