Neshama: A new idea for Jewish community

PHOTO: Neshama PDX members at a recent gathering. (Courtesy Jathan Janove)

At a Hanukkah party in Salt Lake City in December 2000, Bert Spiegel z”l approached me and said he wanted to work with me to form a Jewish group for men in our community. 
“Jewish women do a much better job at connecting with each other,” he said, “Jewish men have to work at it.”
With Bert’s inspiration, we cobbled together a plan using in part the Junto model described by Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography. We named the group Neshama (“Soul”) and began in early 2001.
Twenty-two years later, as our initial group has flourished and been replicated in several locales, Neshama can serve as a template for those seeking more connection with the Jewish community in a way that avoids the expense, traffic and other concerns that were identified in the recent community study as obstacles to participation in Jewish life.
The initial Neshama consisted of adult males of any age who were Jews or married to Jews. We set membership at 12, thinking this would give us a “minyan” at our meetings, and convened the second Monday evening of each month. Members took turns hosting and presenting the month’s discussion topic.
After dinner was served, each member provided a brief personal check-in before the evening’s presentation began. We gave presenters broad discretion in selection of topics; our request was only that there be some Jewish connection. We also requested that the presentation be interactive, not a static lecture. We allowed and even encouraged disagreement provided civility and active listening were maintained. We insisted on confidentiality; what members shared in our meetings stayed within our group (this included not sharing confidential information with members’ spouses).
To keep our group small, intimate, and confidential, new members were admitted only after another member left and was based on unanimous selection. Borrowing from Franklin’s Junto rules, if others in the community were interested in forming a Neshama, our members agreed to assist.
The original Salt Lake Neshama is still going strong, 22 years after its founding. Over the years, numerous topics have been covered, ranging from explicitly Jewish subjects like the rise in US antisemitism and Jewish models of charitable giving to topics not explicitly Jewish but where the discussion has a Jewish connection or angle, e.g., the breakdown in civil discourse in US politics and lashon hara. (“evil tongue”)
From time to time, Neshama Salt Lake has taken on community projects, including helping fund a garden at a local synagogue, helping with tuition for a Neshama member who decided to become a rabbi, book donations and other charitable works. Participation in such projects is not a condition of Neshama membership, however. 
The idea has proven popular: three additional Neshama groups were formed in Utah and one in Israel.
In 2006, my wife Marjorie and I moved from Salt Lake City to Portland. In 2008, I started a Neshama group here, using the SLC model. Over 15 years later, it is still going strong.
“I’ve gotten to know a group of guys over many years through regular meetings,” states member Michael Volk. “I look forward to our meetings every month to see and hear from my fellow Neshama men.”
Neshama PDX has a diverse membership, ranging from people who belong to multiple shuls to those who don’t belong to any. What we share is the desire for connection as fellow men in the Jewish community. 
Dr. Charles Elder, currently president of Congregation Kesser Israel, observes that “Neshama provides a great mechanism for engaging with the community and building lasting friendships with other Jewish men.”
“It is often rare that men have an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings with other men in a trusting and respectful way, yet Neshama has provided such an opportunity for me,” Neshama PDX member Gary Martel notes.
Member Bob Liebman, who helped found the Jewish Studies program at Portland State University (and assisted with this article) notes that “Neshama has been a way to connect newcomers and outsiders with engaged members of Portland’s diverse Jewish community.”
Our newest member, longtime Portland criminal defense attorney Michael Levine, puts it simply: “How good it is to sit together with Jewish brothers!”
Given the longevity of these groups, inevitably members pass on, including Spiegel, and more recently here in Portland, longtime beloved member Dan Hurwitz z”l. 
“Without the Neshama men, I could not have gotten through caregiving for Dan during his illness, and the grief my family and I felt after his death,” Debra Brook, Hurwitz’s wife, said. “While Dan was in the hospital, each Neshama family brought us meals for a month. After Dan died, they surrounded me with care, food, and all the emotional support that anyone could ask for. I will forever be grateful to this group of brothers that my late husband has left as part of his legacy.” 
For readers who would like to learn more and perhaps create something similar, Bob, Charles, Garyb , the two Michaels, and I are happy to help. Email me at


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