(From left) Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, Rabbi Debra Orenstein and Cantor-Rabbi Monty Turner at Makom Ohr Shalom's Yom Kippur service. Photo by Mark Reden
October 1967: The "Death of Hippie" celebration. We wheeled an empty, open coffin down San Francisco's Haight Street and thousands of people threw symbolic items into it -- beads, swatches of long hair, patchouli-scented incense, tabs of LSD.
For me, the burial of the media-created concept of "hippie" -- exactly 40 years ago -- signaled the end of the "Summer of Love" and the beginning of a new phase: looking for ways to recreate, without drugs, those intense, life-changing experiences I'd had.
During the next few years, I, like many others -- including lots of Jews -- embarked on a search. I breathed deeply at yoga ashrams, meditated at Buddhist retreats and lived in communities where I hoped to be spiritually nourished. If these places had at their core a faith that was alien to me, it didn't matter. What mattered was whether or not they brought me closer to what I was looking for: wonder, mystery, connection.
In the latter part of the 1970s I lived in Israel -- two years on a kibbutz and five in Jerusalem -- still searching for the transcendental. On the occasions when it came, it was through contact with nature, or the kinds of activities popular in the 1970s: bioenergetics, psychodrama. For years I worked in Jerusalem's Old City, always a source of wonder for me.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1981. Earning a living and raising children put my spiritual search on the back burner until 1988, when a friend urged me to go to Makom Ohr Shalom ("Place of the Light of Peace").
On my first visit there, a congregant in his late 30s redid his bar mitzvah -- his first, at age 13, had left him with bitter memories. Now, among friends, tears running down his cheeks, this bar mitzvah 2.0 was a profound spiritual experience. He was finally a man.
And I'd finally found my place. I continued attending Makom until 1993, when the founding rabbi, Ted Falcon, moved to Seattle. After that I drifted away from Makom and I've rarely been to any organized service since.
I'm not affiliated with any synagogue. Hardly anyone I know is. On those rare occasions when I step inside a "typical" shul, I feel as if I've trespassed on private property, as if I've walked into an alien country that doesn't recognize my tribe: Jews who lived fully in the 1960s and have been searching for that lost Garden ever since.
For me, the itch for mystery and connection never waned. At 67, I find myself still yearning for a real-life place of stories and myths that reveal life's hidden depths; a place intent on repairing the world and repairing ourselves; a place of music and healing, of connection to others and to something larger than ourselves. A place where I would feel my soul resonate, where I could experience a current version -- a Jewish version -- of that individual and communal joy I remember from 40 years ago.
I do not expect synagogue life to change on my account. But, as my experience at Makom nearly 20 years ago showed me, many congregations have evolved over the last 40 years, and there are now places of Jewish worship that have absorbed the spirit of the 1960s. Places where I might feel comfortable and welcome.
So, this past summer, I made the rounds of alternative synagogues, minyans and chavurot in Los Angeles, to see whether any spoke to me. I visited more than a dozen places that aspire to the spiritual life I associate with the 1960s: They're egalitarian, inclusive, committed to social action and steeped in music. They seek joyful experience instead of dogma, connection to one another and the outside world rather than status, healing instead of judgment and passionate involvement rather than merely showing up and mouthing prayers.
Some of those I visited meet just once or twice a month, and most function as communities "without walls," places with no bricks-and-mortar building of their own. In some cases, they meet in a church, either in the main chapel -- where symbols of Christianity are temporarily covered -- or in a smaller study or library. Some gather in homes. Often, they put little or no stress on the look of the meeting place, depending on the zeal and devotion of the participants to provide the ambience.
Some groups are "self-led," with no rabbi or cantor. More than half have women rabbis, and all have women in positions of leadership. Many of these groups reach out to non-Jews and welcome those interested in conversion, as well as interfaith couples -- people who, according to their own accounts, do not feel comfortable in a normal synagogue.
Though these new groups are sometimes disparaged by other Jews -- too mystical, not religious enough, etc. -- Mel Gottlieb, rabbi, teacher and a dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR), sees value in that they have "reached out to people who are not traditionally based" and given them a "sense of belonging, community, family...."
Still, the growth of these groups and their practices prompts the questions: Is there a right way or a wrong way to be Jewish? And just who gets to decide?
The Web site for IKAR ("Essence") -- a community practicing passionate, egalitarian prayer and committed social action -- makes this promise: "Not your bubbe's synagogue." The same could be said about all the places I visited.
A bit of history. In 1968, soon after the "Death of Hippie" celebration, in the same neighborhood where we'd wheeled the coffin, The House of Love and Prayer opened its doors as a Neo-Chasidic outreach to Haight-Ashbury's young, Jewish-born denizens.
The House of Love and Prayer was founded and led by Shlomo Carlebach, who was in his mid-40s at the time. Rabbi Zalman Schachter, a frequent visitor and fellow former Lubavitcher, was also in his 40s then. (Schachter would later add Shalomi to his last name.) The two had been Chabad's first shlichim -- emissaries -- visiting college campuses together as early as 1950, and they are arguably the two most important figures in the movements we're talking about. [SEE VIDEO BELOW]
"Someone once asked Shlomo why he called it 'The House of Love and Prayer,'" said Debra Orenstein, the current rabbi at Makom Ohr Shalom. "Shlomo said, 'If I'd called it Temple Israel, no one would have come.' What I love about Zalman and Shlomo was that their outreach was in the idiom of the day.... But what were they actually doing? They were doing Shabbos. They were singing Chasidic melodies. They were showing [young Jews] that the values they held dear ... could be found in their own culture."
Outreach, of course, works both ways. Yaakov Ariel, in his book "Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius," noted that not only did Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi influence young Jews who had sought spirituality in other religious paths; they also "became increasingly familiar with the cultural and spiritual choices of the persons they were trying to reach."
Schachter-Shalomi's visits to the House of Love and Prayer weren't his first contacts with the counterculture. His Web site mentions that in the 1960s he spent time at the Lama Foundation, an ecumenical retreat center in New Mexico, and took LSD with Timothy Leary.
In the late 1960s, during a sabbatical year in Boston, Schachter-Shalomi helped Rabbi Art Green and others develop the chavurah movement, as an alternative to what was seen as the sterile synagogue of the 1950s. He helped found the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley in the early 1970s, and he's the guiding light of the Jewish Renewal movement.
Schachter-Shalomi, now 83, is still going strong. His Web site says that he's actively dedicated to "healing the world and healing our hearts." Which is what I sought in my summer's search.
The Web site for ALEPH, the umbrella organization for Renewal communities, led me to P'nai Or ("Faces of Light") of Long Beach, led by Rabbi Micha'el Akiba.
On a Friday night, with about 20 people sitting in a circle inside a church study, Akiba -- a charismatic figure in his early 50s -- led the service. He has a strong background in music and a fine singing voice, as did some others there.
Most of those present appeared to be of my generation or older, and several had gone through similar experiences. I spoke with one couple in which the man -- born non-Jewish -- had been in Vietnam during the war, as had I. His wife, who's Jewish, said that if it weren't for P'nai Or, she and her husband wouldn't attend any service.
Akiba meditated on a Torah passage that deals with the destruction of pillars. Using evocative guided imagery, he explored how to break down the spiritual and emotional walls within us, as well as the walls between us. It affected me deeply. What are the walls that I need to break?
AJR's Gottlieb had talked to me about the Renewal penchant for exploring the "inner psychological" dimension of sacred texts: "What is Pesach? It's not just this wonderful notion of creating justice and freedom in society, but also how to seek freedom within. That touched a nerve, because that's something we're all seeking. All Chasidic texts have this element of inwardness ... and this opens up the heart to the presence of holiness."
Another Renewal community mentioned in the ALEPH Web site is B'nai Horin ("Children of Freedom"), which meets at public spaces like Brandeis-Bardin in Simi Valley or at congregants' homes. Its rabbi, Stan Levy -- an attorney deeply involved in civil rights -- said that in 1968, at the seder, they talked about the haggadah's political implications: "who Pharaoh really is and what Egypt really means.... It was important to look at our world and realize who was being oppressed.... It was clear that one of the meanings of the Seder was that everyone is entitled to certain basic human rights."
Political consciousness, combined with a thirst for spiritual transformation, led to the group's founding, and on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I went to their service in Temescal Canyon. With Rabbi Stan Levy officiating, Debbie Friedman played guitar and sang songs with layers of meaning -- some were her own compositions -- in English and Hebrew.
Most in the congregation were about my age, and some had been with B'nai Horin since its inception in 1968. Arms on each other's shoulders, we swayed to Friedman's music, and when we sang "Hineh Mah Tov" -- How good it is for kinsmen to dwell together -- we looked at one another, expressing gratitude for this moment.
During the years I attended Makom services I'd sneak away to avoid these arm-around-the-shoulder moments: They always felt too sentimental, too kumbaya-ish for me. But at B'nai Horin I went with it, and it was OK. I survived, my edgy view of life intact.
After the morning service, over a salmon lunch, Marcia Britvan told me that more than 20 years ago, while living in Northern California, she was married to a non-Jewish man. Toxic memories of her childhood shul kept her from joining a temple, though she and her daughters identified themselves culturally as Jews.
A dozen years ago, after being diagnosed with cancer, Britvan said she overheard her then-husband tell their young daughters, "After mommy dies, we'll have a Christmas tree."
It was a watershed moment. Britvan realized that she had let her childhood memories keep her from "sharing the richness of Judaism" with her children. She's since healed and moved to Los Angeles, where she and her daughters are active in B'nai Horin.
I thought about my own children. Sure, both boys had a bar mitzvah, and every year we have a seder at home and a break-the-fast. And a Chanukah latke party as well. But other than that, what "richness of Judaism" have I shared with them?
B'nai Horin wasn't the only non-traditional synagogue with a rabbi named Levy holding Rosh Hashanah services in Temescal Canyon that day. Just down the hill, Nashuva congregants were surrounded by nature as well. Nashuva is not affiliated with Renewal, but it's clearly been shaped by the same spiritual needs and values. (Full disclosure: Rabbi Naomi Levy, the founding force for Nashuva, is married to The Journal's editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman.)
Drums of Nashuva
Nashuva ("We Shall Return") draws a large, diverse crowd of all ages, including many families, children, teens and young adults. They meet for Friday night services once a month in a lovely Westwood church, and on the nights I joined them, it was packed with about 250 people. There were meditations, healing, a democratic conversation about the meaning of the parasha, as well as prayers and singing in English and Hebrew. Central to the service is a band whose traditional Jewish melodies -- electronic, hypnotic, uplifting -- mix in a dose of gospel and rock.
On Rosh Hashanah, Naomi Levy and many others gathered at Venice Beach for a drum circle as prelude to tashlich. The shofar-blowing and percussion -- loud, soft, with changes in rhythm -- were exhilarating. I joined in, banging on my thighs and swaying. A woman with pastel-colored feathers danced, waving her wings in rhythm with the drums.
The service took me back to events of 40 years ago, when a large crowd's energy would commune on a single wavelength, and the sense of individual self, of separateness, would disappear.
The Torah reader couldn't open the scroll. He tried to unroll it a couple of times, but it didn't budge. Perhaps somewhere else the embarrassed silence would have continued, but not at Shtibl Minyan. Someone started a nigun, a wordless melody. Ha-le-loo ... ha-le-loo, ha-le-loo, ha-le-loo. Quickly, the 30 or so mostly young men and women present joined in chanting the syllables.
A few people stood up and shuffled in place, keeping time. Others banged on chairs or slapped their thighs. As more voices were added, the sounds took on deeper meaning. Children ran to the middle of the room and danced. A joyous, wonderful, spontaneous moment.
The Shabbat service was self-led, passionate, all in Hebrew and egalitarian: men and women sat together, women read from the Torah and carried it. The crowd, full of zeal, had an air of thrift-shop, anti-establishment hip, combined with devotion to progressive causes. A couple of young women reminded me, in style, of those I'd seen in San Francisco 40 years ago. The difference was that at Shtibl their bare shoulders were covered with tallitot.
In this small, simple room, the Torah occupied the central place, not the prayer leader. At Shtibl, the congregation acts as a single entity, responding directly to the Torah, which carries the content of the holy. The person who leads the prayers is an ego-free conduit who helps the community experience a deeper spirituality. Maybe that's one reason why -- in all the places I visited -- so many congregants, including women, choose to wear personalized kippot and tallitot: to signal that the person leading the service isn't the only arbiter of what's holy -- we all are.
I liked the Shtibl Minyan's disdain of luxury, the nonchalance about toddlers running around, the ability to cut straight to the bone of worship. It was a place where I felt comfortable, and where I believe my two sons, 24 and 33, both unaffiliated in all senses, would also feel comfortable.
Aliyot were handed out randomly, even to me on my first visit. There were no musical instruments except table-banging and foot-stomping (a lot of both), and the niggunim bore the stamp of Shlomo Carlebach.
I had learned about Shtibl from Mel Gottlieb, who told me about how Carlebachian minyans "bring a warmth and a joy and engagement. It has really caught on. Shlomo was charismatic and very musical, and he offered a teaching that was soul-based ... so that became very powerful and people wanted more of that."
This was not my first experience of the Carlebach myth. Thirty years ago, in Israel, I spent a weekend with Carlebach and a dozen others at Kibbutz Gezer, then a hippie commune. Carlebach strummed; we danced and sang with him. When he riffed on biblical or talmudic passages, it was poetic and free-form. Eyes closed, deep in some private communion, every few words he'd say "mamish!" (really!), as an exclamation. It was a memorable experience, but I never followed up on it, never pursued Carlebachian minyans either in Israel or in the United States.
In 1992, Sharon Brous said, she was a "disaffected, alienated" college student. "I was going down the list of shuls on the Upper West Side of New York, and I just happened to walk into BJ," -- B'nai Jeshurun. It was a transformative moment. More than 1,000 people were there, led by Rabbi Marshall Meyer.
"I was profoundly moved," Brous said. "As soon as I walked in, I recognized it as a place of vision and fire ... I was captivated by the music. The room was alive with prayer. I had never experienced anything like that before ... It was stirring."
Meyer stirred people all of his life. Born in New York, he was a direct disciple of Abraham Joshua Heschel and carried on Heschel's tradition of passionate prayer and committed social action during the 25 years Meyer lived in Buenos Aires. In the mid-1980s, Meyer came back to the United States and was rabbi at BJ until his death in 1993.
After her studies at seminary and graduate school, Brous was Marshall Meyer Fellow at BJ, learning from two Argentine-born rabbis who had been Meyer's disciples.
Inspired by her experience there, Brous said she was determined to "build a spiritual community [in L.A.] that would be rooted in a serious concern for human rights ... Social justice is the essence of the Jewish spiritual and religious life ... Davening, if it is to mean anything, should be about changing our world for the better."
Combining egalitarian, ecstatic, all-Hebrew prayer with tikkun olam, Brous founded IKAR in 2004. The group currently holds services at the Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard, in a plain room decorated with children's scrawls, or at an equally plain, but larger, community space in Roxbury Park.
At the Friday night IKAR services I attended, Brous (the same age as the mostly under-40 crowd) led an enthusiastic group of about 100 in passionate prayers and nigunim. There were children, families, babies and a few people my age. The congregants participated fully, chanting loudly, eyes closed, enraptured. When the spirit moved them, they danced in the aisles. They used no musical instruments but banged spiritedly on any handy surface.
"What I want," Brous said, "is for us, together, to touch something deep, meaningful and powerful, in a Jewish context...."
I felt that. I felt the "vision and fire" in that room. And echoes of my 1960s experiences.
My friends Merryl and Steve Weber are members of Metivta Center for Contemplative Judaism, founded by Jonathan Omer-Man, who studied in Israel for many years and was given his smicha -- ordination -- by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Jewish meditation is one of many disciplines Omer-Man taught his students when he was a rabbi in Los Angeles.
I attended two meditation sessions at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles.
"Wilshire Boulevard Temple generously provides us with a library to meditate in," Merryl said.
As we walked out, Merryl mentioned that Omer-Man said that Jewish revival is coming from four sources: women, gays and lesbians, converts and baalei teshuvah.
Merryl said that Omer-Man doesn't restrict the term baal teshuvah to Orthodox: "It refers to the change of heart that brings one back to yearning to be in alignment with the Divine, manifested for us as returning to the Covenant. That can mean a lot of different things, as you've seen from your travels in the alternative Jewish world."
At Lev Eisha ("Woman's Heart"), a once-a-month service at Adat Shalom, purple is the preferred color and the liturgy has removed words and phrases that imply that maleness is the source of power and authority. Instead, Divinity is imaged in a feminist way -- as fruitfulness -- using metaphors such as etz hayyim, "tree of life."
Men can attend the service, but its Web site makes clear that the worship is "by women for women. It is not meant to become a coed alternative Shabbat service...." I enjoyed the service. It was joyous, soulful, musical, deeply touching.
The most poignant perspective came from Ruth Belonsky, who's in her 60s and plays violin at Lev Eisha services. She grew up in South Africa, where she felt alienated by the separation between men and women in the Orthodox shul of her youth.
"When I was young, I was always upstairs looking down at the boys and the men," Belonsky said. "I felt totally excluded."
After she moved to Southern California, she went to Jewish women's retreat. It was a "revelation."
During a service, the woman rabbi asked: Who has never held a Torah? "I never had," Belonsky said. "And [the rabbi] said, 'the reason men want this is that ... they don't want to share the joy.'"
Belonsky held the Torah and then "for two hours I had tears streaming down my face, just this incredible feeling of holding the Torah."
As I made my journey through these non-traditional places of worship, it struck me how thoroughly women have impacted them. The current version of feminism, of course, is something that arose and developed during the 1960s.
As did gay liberation. Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC, "Home of New Life"), a gay-lesbian synagogue with its own small building/chapel, was a pioneer, but it's now one of many such synagogues throughout the world. Rabbi Lisa Edwards leads a congregation that is inclusive, friendly and welcoming. I attended a worship service that was almost all singing, with guitar and conga drum accompaniment. It was a thoroughly satisfying gathering, made more moving by the knowledge that past discrimination had forced gays and lesbians to hide their orientation if they wanted to practice Judaism.
Although the total number of people involved in Renewal and other alternative minyans is relatively small, the impact is large, as many mainstream congregations have adopted some of their practices, as well.
Marcia Cohn Spiegel, nearly 80, has worked as a teacher and counselor and sees Renewal's influence in increased "awareness of people's spiritual needs.... Nowadays the mainstream synagogues are welcoming people, making them feel comfortable, helping them sing, helping them take part. All that came out of Renewal," she said.
"These elements will continue to be integrated into normative Judaism," she predicts. "People recapturing the feeling of joy. What people are looking for is a spiritual place, not a stand-up-sit-down service. They want a real spiritual experience, really being involved.... [And] the music ... has gotten into the normative synagogues."
Judith Sommerstein, in her 60s, a graduate of AJR's chaplaincy program, acknowledges that music is not new to traditional services, but, she says, in Renewal it has been "enhanced with instruments and movement and meditation. Today, these elements have been brought into the mainline synagogues that I attend."
Makom Ohr Shalom's healing service used to be "considered very strange and taboo," Rabbi Debra Orenstein said. "And it's still unique.... But nowadays, I go to Temple Beth Am and they have a monthly healing service."
Along those lines, Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino regularly invites Beit T'Shuvah, the rehab-clinic/shul/Torah-study residential facility in Culver City, to hold services at the synagogue. A self-led, egalitarian minyan takes place in the library, and they devote evenings to Shlomo Carlebach's music. The congregation also makes a point of welcoming gays and lesbians, including same-sex couples for family memberships.
"All good Jewish movements get co-opted by the Jewish mainstream," Debra Orenstein said. "That's how it should be! That's the success."
When I met Joy Krauthammer, 60, at Lev Eisha -- where she plays percussion -- I had already heard about her. "Joy's a drummer, a musician," someone had told me, "a woman with deep soul.... She's involved in everything."
Everything and more. Joy was at B'nai Horin's Tashlich service by the Pacific, where she twirled on the sand. Wearing a rainbow-colored tie-dyed floppy cap with a big yellow sunflower, she waded into the ocean with bits of bread. Later, she invited me to a gathering of Sarah's Tent, a group that explores creative Jewish spirituality.
I saw Joy again at Makom Ohr Shalom's Yom Kippur services and once more at Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue's Sukkot Torah study. When I asked her about having run into her so many times, she wrote me in an e-mail that I could have also seen her at other places of worship, as well.
Joy goes to many places because she finds beauty and comfort in each. Full of adoration for ecstatic Judaism, brimming with love for the rabbis who dedicate themselves to the teachings she soaks up, Joy reminds me of God-drunk people I'd meet while doing the ashram-crawl in India nearly 40 years ago.
Joy did her own version of the ashram-crawl. In 1960s New York, she "hung out" with Hare Krishnas and followers of Swami Satchidananda: "G-d came to me in the mid-1980s and revealed something I had never known, the Divine Presence," she wrote me. "Yes, I recognize it when it happens. Every moment in my garden. Surely in shul when I am playing for the congregations to bring them to praise the source of all blessings. G-d gave this gift to me. I had asked for it and I received it ... I have been danced. I have been sung. I have been drummed ... I have asked to be able to hear and listen more carefully."
I suspect that Joy has a faith gene I don't have. While her soul resonates with the beauty in all the places she goes to, I go to the same places and focus on what jars my soul.
Still, there was one more place to go, and it would put me in the presence of the man who started the Renewal movement.
Marking the end of my summer-long search, my wife and I attended Makom Ohr Shalom's Kol Nidre service, held at a country club in Granada Hills. I went there largely becauase Renewal's founder, Schachter-Shalomi -- Reb Zalman -- was there, co-officiating with Debra Orenstein and Monty Turner, the cantor (who's also a rabbi).
Throughout the service, a number of congregants -- most were over 50, with a sprinkling of younger members and families -- gave drashot or led the group in several kinds of meditation. It was highly democratic. The choir sang beautifully, percussion players kept the rhythm of atonement, and the songs were inspiring. The service was partly in English, partly in Hebrew, and user-friendly. No prayer was said by rote. Members welcomed all strangers. It felt like an extended family.
My feeling was that Makom had changed since the last time I was there, and not just because it was a smaller, older group than 15 years ago. Before, it was about transcendent experience. Transformation. Reaching for that moment of mystical oneness, what Falcon called "at-one-ment." Now, even with Reb Zalman's once-a-year presence, it was more about family and familiarity. A close-knit community.
During the evening, besides the davening, Zalman and Orenstein read questions that had been submitted. Zalman's answers to these questions were rarely direct, and were usually punctuated with personal or Chasidic tales.
In answer to one question, Zalman reminded us of the gap between the person that we present to the world and the person we really are, deep inside. He said that Yom Kippur is our chance to think about who the person inside really is.
Before finishing that evening, Zalman said that, as we go to sleep that night, we should think of a sin we want to get rid of. His blessing was this: in the morning we would wake up and that sin would be gone, replaced by something positive.
Later, as my eyes closed that night, I couldn't focus on just one sin. There was a whole army: pride, ego, anger, resentment, being judgmental ... you name it.
In the morning, my wife and I had the same idea at the same time. We hadn't planned on going back to the rest of Makom's Yom Kippur service -- we'd made other arrangements -- but we were both feeling atonement interruptus. So we returned.
During that day, there were times when Zalman spoke from a place of mysticism: angels, reincarnation, life-after-death. I felt I couldn't enter that space. It didn't matter. Being there was enough, even with my rational mind.
In response to a question about Jews and death, Zalman told this story: He was asked to visit a family of a young woman who was anorexic and had taken her own life. When he sat shiva with the family, he told them that in some traditions, there are those who speak for the dead, and that's what he, Zalman, would do.
Expressing the words of the young woman who had died, Zalman told the family: I am sorry, deeply sorry that you've gone through so much pain. So much suffering. I ask you to forgive me. Please forgive me. But I want you to know that I too felt a great deal of pain. I too went through a lot of suffering. I know it wasn't intentional on your part, but I felt pain. So I forgive you for any suffering that I went through.
Well, Zalman told us, you can imagine the crying. The sobbing. It was a profound cleansing moment of forgiveness that helped the living go on with their lives.
Memories flooded in: people I'd known, those who had passed away, or passed out of my life, before I had the chance to be forgiven. So much unfinished business.
There was more davening, chanting, music and breast-beating atonement. At one point, to wake us up, Zalman grabbed the microphone and shouted: "Oh-MAIN!"
And finally, the healing service.
While New Age music played in the background and a soothing voice guided us, we sat in chairs arranged in groups of five -- one in the middle surrounded by the other four. Very lightly, the four sitting on the outside put their hands on the one in the middle -- just the gentlest of touches, barely perceptible. There were moments when someone would suddenly gasp or sob long heaving cries of released pain.
When it was my turn to be in the middle and four people laid hands on me, the teachings of the last 24 hours ran through my head: most of all what Zalman had said about the gap between the face we present to the world and the person we really are inside.
And I thought, "Well, who am I, deep inside? Who am I really? So much of my adult life I've held on to an image of myself as a lost refugee from the 1960s, searching for the potion that would magically take me back to that era. But is that who I am now?"
I had noted that Makom had changed in the years since I'd last been there ... but hadn't I too changed? And in a similar way? Hadn't I gone from seeking transcendent experience to seeking comfort in the dependable and familiar?
Of course I still want to be at one with the universe. Who wouldn't? But what I am isn't the search for ecstatic spiritual expression; it's family and connection and the joy of small repeated rituals, like my morning coffee while reading the paper. I still tell myself (and others) that I want transcendence. But who I really am is the person who's content with the comfort of a family meal, good friends, a good book, quiet meditation.
As my wife and I went home after Yom Kippur, I looked up: The sky had cleared and the rain had stopped. I was grateful for both the rain and what had come after.
You could say that I felt comforted by the planet's small, dependable rituals.
Reb Zalman talks about the early days with Reb Shlomo Carlebach
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