By Andrew Adler
The High Holidays are approaching, which for many Jews will be the only time of the year they attend a synagogue service. Parking lots will fill up, and extra chairs may be needed to accommodate congregants as they observe the traditional rites of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But what if that same tradition-bound service context is quite what they’re looking for? Or perhaps they don’t even know how to look in the first place? And not simply during the High Holidays – but on any given week of the year?
One answer – or more accurately, a set of answers – is the approach of what’s broadly called Jewish Renewal.
“It’s really one of the youngest movements of Judaism,” explains Rabbi N Siritsky, bound up in “about bringing people to see their ancient tradition from a new light and to be able to find themselves and to reconnect on a deeply spiritual level. One that has both traditional elements of Judaism and progressive spiritual values.”
Call it the biggest of big tents, where the defining rule is that there are no rules, and where everyone is welcome to participate. “That commitment to inclusion is one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Siritsky, a former rabbi at The Temple and a longtime proponent of alternative pathways to Jewish observance.
Siritsky also serves on the board of Kol Israel Community of Kentucky. Affiliated with ALEPH – the Alliance for Jewish Renewal – KICK is a prime energy center for the area’s other-than-traditional Jewish practice.
Twice a month via Zoom, KICK joins with a congregation in Bloomington, Ind. in Shabbat morning services geared toward those who prefer a less formal, less dogmatic approach. On once-monthly Monday evenings at 9 p.m., KICK hosts a 40-minute meditative service that includes, among other components, 15 minutes of guided “deep silence.”
“It’s a ‘congregation in the cloud,’” KICK’s Avram Khan, says of the nationwide participation in these online meetings, “for people to get a taste of the renewal experience.”
Locally, KICK will mark the first day of Rosh Hashanah with a Cherokee Park tashlich ceremony – in which Jews expunge their year’s worth of sins by tossing pieces of bread into a body of flowing water (here, typically at Big Rock). For Sukkot, “we have the ‘Shakin’ Sukkah Shabbat, sharing space with the Trager Family JCC,” Kahn says. And on Oct. 21, KICK members will travel to Bloomington for a Shabbat service, followed by an afternoon where “we’re going to experience the fall foliage in Brown County.”
“One of the things I’m most proud of about Kol Israel,” Siritsky says, “is (its) creative approach – revisioning a community that is about building bridges. Wherever there have been obstacles for Jews seeking their way into the Jewish community, they can find an easy, low threshold, low barrier way in.
“For instance, some of the things Avram was mentioning: those kind of fellowship opportunities to connect over food in nature, as a way of helping people reconnect with their tradition – but to do it with a different lens. I think that’s a really important part of the Jewish Renewal movement, one that’s deeply grounded in spirituality and connecting with people.”
Jewish Renewal offshoot is a comparatively recent offshoot of normative Judaism. The movement is closely tied to the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), who envisioned a kind of pan-spiritual Judaism, embracing meditative dynamics of Eastern religions and the outward joy exemplified by Hassidic sects such as Chabad-Lubavatich.
Melanie Hughes, a librarian at Indiana University Southeast who is a Jew-by-choice, recalls reading Rodger Kamenetz’s 1994 book “The Jew and the Lotus” – about dialogues between rabbis and the Dali Lama. Encountering that book in 1997 (while teaching English in Japan) became an impetus for her to eventually meet Schachter-Shalomi, and to become “enchanted” with the foundational spiritualism of Jewish Renewal.
By no means has Hughes rejected traditional Jewish practice – she’s a member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun. She embraces the ideal of eclectic spiritual inclusion (preferring the term “interreligious” to “interfaith”), what she describes as “a much more democratic approach (where) you can come in at whatever your level of Jewishness, whatever your level of observance, whatever your level of curiosity.”
Covid shifted participation from in-person to online worship. In the post-pandemic environment, the digital domain continues to be a prime gateway for Jewish Renewal devotees and neophytes alike.
On a recent Monday evening, Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks led about 30 Zoom participants in what was dubbed an Inner Peace for Challenging Times Jewish Meditation Gathering. Schachter-Brooks, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., leads Torah of Awakening, “a Jewish meditation community, featuring transformational teachings, heart-opening chanting and deep silence.”
The chanting – typically Hebrew blessings taken from the standard morning service – amounted to a collective, spoken affirmation (I am listening. I am patient. I am patience); and finally, 15-minutes of silent meditation. “Just a friendly suggestion to make sure your devices won’t disturb you,” Schachter advised. “We’re not trying to achieve anything in particular, but rather giving the intention of consciousness of presence.”
All of this, regardless of context, reflects an inwardly driven imperative to connect with something greater than oneself. Deliberately set apart from the bricks-and-mortar of traditional synagogues – and the bureaucracies that accompany them – Jewish Renewal cares less about dogma than it does about spiritual diversity.
“My husband is a Theravada Buddhist,” Hughes said, “and there are certain institutions within the Conservative movement that are shut out to me. Eventually, when I retire from being a librarian and archivist, I intend to pursue some kind of ordination.” Meeting online, outdoors, or in someone’s home is itself a kind of spiritual independence, freed from potentially confining strictures of formal organization.
“The rabbis in Eastern Europe didn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order and have board meetings with secretaries writing notes,” Siritsky says “That is not what Judaism is about. That is North American Judaism, and it is causing harm.” Siritisky, who identifies as non-binary
and now lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, emphasizes how Jewish Renewal is relationship-agnostic – everyone, unpartnered or partnered in whatever fashion – is encouraged to participate.
“I identify as transgender; Melanie is in an interfaith relationship,” Siritsky says. “We don’t feel comfortable or welcome, or fully included in an Orthodox community. We don’t feel like that aligns with our values. But we still have that Jewishness neshamah” (soul) — “a thirst for God.”
“We’re not a congregation,” Siritsky says. “We are a community, revisioning what it means to be Jewish in Louisville. This is a very different way of thinking, but it’s still early, and it’s countercultural. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of hope and a lot of faith.”
“The beauty of Kol Israel is that we’re looking for everybody to contribute to build this community,” Kahn says. “What would you like to see done? How would you like to be involved?”
Meanwhile, the Days of Awe are beckoning.
“I think that for many people, we approach the High Holy Days with this sense of guilt: ‘I should be here; I should do that,” Siritsky acknowledges. “Sometimes our inner kid is caught up in these old symbols of God weighing our sins, and sometimes we have a lot of fear about existential angst. That can cause many people to be ambivalent. What’s exciting about this community is that it’s a place to talk about our ambivalence, as we envision what could actually nourish our soul for the coming year.”
Fundamentally, “it’s about being part of building something for the next generation,” Siritsky says. “So when I think about the turn of the years, and I think about mortality, I think: ‘What kind of Judaism do I want to be around for the next generation?’” The answer, it seems, may lie in “taking the best of tradition and translating it to a new era and a new set of ethics. It’s about grounding ourselves in spirit.”