Jewish Journal

Jewish Fire Circle

by Susan Esther Barnes

May 22, 2013 | 8:00 am

On the evening of Shavuot last week, congregants covering a wide range of ages gathered around a fire pit behind the Religious School of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. There, we were lucky enough to get a small taste of what the Midrasha (Hebrew High School) kids have been experiencing once a week for the last several school years.

It was Day Schildkret’s award-winning Fire Circle. Day explained that, up until recent times, it was common for people to gather around a fire in the evening. For thousands of years, the fire pit was a place for conversation, song, and shared community. With the advent of electricity, such experiences are rare, but our instincts and connection to fire have not completely faded away. It is still possible to look around the circle at the faces lit by fire and feel connected to those who have come before us.

Day spoke about the culture of the Fire Circle. It is a place for people to speak truth. And when people speak truth, it is important they know we have heard them. When someone speaks a truth and it resonates with those in the circle, they say, “Shamati,” Hebrew for “I have heard.”

It may seem like a small thing, but it is so common to feel that when we’re speaking, the next person is not really listening, but is planning how they will respond. That evening in the circle I experienced the visceral power of saying something deeply meaningful to me, after which there was a chorus of people saying, “Shamati.” Similarly, after speaking a person may add “Dibarti,” Hebrew for “I have spoken.”

Day spoke about the holiday of Shavuot, and the counting of the omer, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. He spoke about leaving slavery in Egypt, and traveling until we were ready to accept the covenant at Mt. Sinai. He asked us to think about a narrow place we had been in the past, and what commitment we had made or were now planning to make in order to leave that narrow place behind.

As each person spoke about their commitment, Day handed them a piece of yarn they could tie as a symbol of that commitment.

Somehow, in the space of only an hour, with a group of people ranging from teens to retirement age, Day and the fire were able to create an atmosphere of openness and trust. I can’t even begin to imagine the depth and meaning this group has been able to achieve with high school students meeting consistently for two hours per week.

It is a rare and beautiful thing to encounter an experience like this Fire Circle. A number of adults remarked how they wished they’d had access to such an experience when they were in high school. I am grateful that those transitioning from childhood toward adulthood in our community have the chance to experience it now, and that I was able to have a taste of it, however brief it may have been.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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