Fringes At Fifteen

Why We Came Into Existence

our first service, Feb 2007

Fringes: a feminist, non-zionist havurah was founded in Philadelphia in the winter of 2007. As our two-part name makes clear, our community was created around two needs no synagogues in the area could (or would) meet:

1. We wanted a space where we could mean the words we say as prayer, rather than being told how we should contort and fold our lives to fit in the boxes of the approved Rabbinic words.

read our founding document

2. We wanted a spiritual home that would treat as basic assumptions support of Palestinian human rights and opposition to Israeli military and Jewish-supremacy policies.

read our founding statement on being non-zionist

Although our community has always mainly been women, men have always been members too, and we were definitely NOT using “feminist” as code for “ladies auxiliary Judaism.” For us, feminism is an analysis of power using the framework of gender, the same way we analyze power around a framework of peace and justice and so oppose all colonialist and imperialist policies. Saying we were feminist and non-zionist was not just identity politics, but an assertion of the core values of the prayer life we were making.

We formed around this challenge from theologian Rachel Adler: if we don’t mean the words we say when we are praying, then what are we doing?

It’s also important to understand that we were founded as a spiritual home for activists, not an activist organization. For us, being anti-imperialist was not a political statement but a moral statement. We are not Jews who perform traditional prayer together in a group based around the shared identity of opposing Israeli government and military policy. We’re a group of Jews who insist upon a Jewish spiritual life that does not support empire, or white supremacy, or the very idea that safety comes through violence and power-over.

Our goal as a havurah wasn’t to be an affinity group for people who challenge Israeli policy – our goal was to forge and embody a Judaism that speaks our hearts.

And our goal was to have this new creature be Jewish, so we intended to build from the vast diversity of Jewish stories and traditions rather than from Buddhism or other people’s religious traditions.

Who We Are Today

Fringes Members during oneg on the Shabbat for Angela Davis

The members of Fringes come from all kinds of backgrounds, from growing up Orthodox or Conserva-dox through completely not-religious to no formal Jewish background to not-raised-Jewish. The majority – but never the totality – of our members over the years have identified as lesbian and/or queer, and work or volunteer in an impressive range of social justice organizations. We range in age from late-20’s through mid-70’s – we definitely have a gray-haired Jewish-feminists-with-decades-of-activist-experience vibe are proud of it. Before COVID we were based in the Philly region. Now that we’ve moved online, our membership has expanded across North America.

Prayer is the time we take to do it. The time is the gift, the sacrifice, the strength. Time, not the words we say nor how nor where we say them. Prayer is the space we allow it in our lives, the moments when we focus so intently beyond time that time flows differently, it ebbs and pools, waiting for us.

Elliott batTzedek

What We Do When We Pray

Fringes is a non-rabbinic havurah. While our services loosely follow the structural elements of the shabbat morning service, our liturgy is created afresh each month, built mainly using contemporary poetry and song. Our services function as ritual – using poetry and music, listening and reading together, our liturgy creates emotional spaces we move through together as a community. Services are themed, usually in connection to the seasons of the natural world but also in response to unfolding social and political events.

learn more about some of our special-topic services

Music and singing are essential to our prayer lives, as challenging as that has been since moving to online services in 2020. From the beginning we believed that songs should pray and prayers should sing – music was never filler for us, but at the core of the emotional power we create by praying together. As our song leader was trained in Reform songleader tradition, those tunes and songways remain strong, and we also have original music and music from the many great new sources in our communities, including Let My People Sing and Hadar: Rising Song. We use guitar and drums and are entirely pleased with both.

We pray to no kings, nor do we ever invoke the antiquated theology of “do what god-king says or bad things will happen to you / if bad things happen to you it’s your own fault.” We are a havurah of interconnectedness, of a divine that is indwelling if it exists at all, of honoring joy and grief and anger, and of collective responsibility for the future.

Our “torah study” is a time for learning and reflection, based in text or our member’s stories and interests. When Pete Seeger died, we re-enacted his testimony before HUAC. When Black Lives Matter issued their collective statement, we read and discussed it. Just before COVID vaccines were available, a member who is a pharmaceutical safety researcher taught about us about how the vaccines were built and how they work. We’ve learned about the Indian Boarding School system and its horrors, about what our society could look like if we abolish the police, about how Ukrainian history informs the war happening there, and yes, even sometimes about Torah and Talmud. No matter the topic, we learn from each other in our spirited discussions.

Oh right, our name…

Fringes takes our name from the tzitzit, or knotted cords on the corners of the tallit; while these threads are the fringes of the garment, they are responsible a turning a schmata into a prayer shawl. Those of us who founded the group are on the fringes of Judaism in many different ways, and we came together to make our experiences as outsiders the heart of this community.

The image you’ll most often see associated with us is this photo from Mel Alexenberg’s “4 Wings of America” series. It’s a tzitzit, in the traditional blue and white, tied to the border fence between California and Mexico, at a place where the fence extends into the ocean. The image – used with his permission – contains so much of who we are, existing on the edges, fully cognizant of how boundaries can help us define ourselves and can at the same time be instruments of terror and social control.

Our Wider Community

From 2013 – 2021, Fringes co-created High Holiday services with Tikkun Olam Chavurah. TOC is a Philly-based social justice activist organization led by Rabbi Linda Holtzman, and many Fringes members also helped found and run TOC.

Our Widest Community

Our original founders, and most of our members, are also Jewish activists for justice in Palestine/Israel and for Palestinian human and civil rights. Fringes is part of the Jewish Voice for Peace Havurah Network, sharing resources, ideas, music, and inspiration with other havurot across North America. Along with that network, the Jewish prayer life we’re creating challenges racism and white supremacy in Jewish community and lifts up the voices and traditions of BIJOCSM (Black, Indigenous, Jews of Color, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews).  We want a future that is full of justice and of joy, and our prayer life builds a space for that future every time we come together.