On the first Saturday of each month, while weekly, traditional Shabbat morning services are taking place at Adat Shalom synagogue, another service transpires behind the main sanctuary that is anything but traditional. Women of all ages dance between davening, beat tambourines and sing loudly, and instead of praying silently they share with one another.
They are the women of Adat Shalom's Lev Eisha (A Woman's Heart), "a joyous community of Jewish women engaged in prayer, study, spiritual growth and friendship." Founded by a handful of women in 1999 as an outgrowth of the Wagner Women's Retreat -- an annual retreat at Camp Ramah in Ojai organized through the University of Judaism's Wagner paraprofessional program -- Lev Eisha has grown to average more than 100 women at each service and more than 400 people on its mailing list.
Lev Eisha attracts a diversity of women that ranges from young to old, unaffiliated to observant, and while most are not members of Adat Shalom, they travel from Orange County and the San Fernando Valley to attend the monthly service. While the women of Lev Eisha pride themselves on their diversity, it is a hunger for a spiritual connection that unites them.
"The women that come have a very strong spiritual need and are seeking something in a Jewish context," said Elaine Craig Segal, Lev Eisha's president. "You can get meditation and other things, but people looking to find a spiritual connection within their own religion can look to Lev Eisha."
Lev Eisha offers women an opportunity to express themselves through music.
"In a regular service I don't find a spiritual connection. The words, to me, don't go as deep," said Debbie Juster, a West Los Angeles resident. "Here, the music goes deep inside and I feel a comfort and a spirituality that is connected with music."
Led by cantor Cindy Paley, the music in the Lev Eisha prayer booklet is a collaborative effort of Paley and Lev Eisha's Rabbi Toba August, which combines "California style," a contemporary mode characterized by such musicians as Craig Taubman and Debbie Freidman, and "Jewish Renewal" music, such as musicians Hanna Tiferet and Linda Hirschhorn, which comes out of the Renewal stream of Judaism. Joy Krauthammer, a member of Sarah's Tent, also volunteers each month to accompany the women with such instruments as bongo drums, xylophones and rainmakers.
"The music cracks open your heart," said August, who directs Adat Shalom's religious school in addition to leading Lev Eisha. "It's the only time I can really pray. The music lets you go in and find God -- to find your divine within. It helps you cry and it helps you laugh. It allows people to enter into prayer."
In addition to the music, the camaraderie and the opportunity to pray with other women keeps women coming back to Lev Eisha.
"When women get together to pray the energy is different. We are not competitive. Our voices can be heard," said Mollie Wine, a cantorial soloist that helps lead the service. "I often daven with Chabad -- with a mechitzah -- but once a month I just want to be with the girls."
The women of Lev Eisha, however, realize that their approach to Judaism does not appeal to everyone.
"There are some women who wouldn't want to pray this way," Segal said. "This is not a traditional service, so if you feel you are very traditional in your observance you probably wouldn't want to do something like this. It doesn't speak to everyone."
But for women who it does speak to, it speaks loudly.
Barbara Axelrod, a two-time survivor of breast cancer told The Journal that she discovered Lev Eisha at the time when she needed spirituality the most.
"It really has had a lot to do with my inner healing," Axelrod said. "When I was laying in bed at the hospital it would give me peace when I would close my eyes and envision being here. It gives me such inner peace and joy."
Like it has done for Axelrod, August wishes that the Lev Eisha service can offer women hope.
"I want the women to walk out with a faith in God and the understanding that they're not alone in their lives and that they will be able to cope with whatever their life experience offers them," August said. "I also hope they gain a deeper appreciation of the joyful moments and a more profound ability to cope with painful illnesses and losses. I pray that they walk out feeling renewed."
For more information about Lev Eisha, contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
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