October 11, 2007
Shul tripping—a nostalgic hippie tours the alternative scene
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.)