October 11, 2007
Shul tripping—a nostalgic hippie tours the alternative scene
(Page 4 - Previous Page)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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