How a ‘Jewish Rave’ Grew Up To Become a Synagogue

Letter from Berkeley, Calif.

Sing and Rejoice: Members of Chochmat HaLev celebrate dur- ing the High Holidays in 2008.
Charley Lerrigo
Sing and Rejoice: Members of Chochmat HaLev celebrate dur- ing the High Holidays in 2008.

By Jo Ellen Green Kaiser

Published January 19, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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The past and future of the new Jewish spirituality may be found at the intersection of two charmingly shrubby side streets in Berkeley, Calif. Here, at least two Fridays a month, more than 150 young people — bearded, kaftaned, decked in home-made tallitot, Bukharan kippot, chunky necklaces and dancing shoes — gather at Chochmat HaLev to be inspired through Jewish prayer.

Ritual: Members of Chochmat HaLev pray together at a Yizkor service in 2008.
Charley Lerrigo
Ritual: Members of Chochmat HaLev pray together at a Yizkor service in 2008.

These worshippers are part of a search for an emotionally driven, body-based mystical prayer experience and a post-denominational inclusive theology. Drawing from the Jewish meditation movement, the Renewal movement (particularly its embrace of Hasidic chant and dance), feminist liturgy, and African and Middle Eastern music, the new Jewish spirituality defines itself as an alternative to both formulaic davening and rationalist, English-based, sit-in-the-pew prayer. Worshippers seek to connect directly to God via a communal experience free from theological imperatives and unconstrained by institutional dicta.

But sometimes, institutionalism is hard to escape. Chochmat HaLev, literally, “wisdom of the heart,” began as a Jewish meditation school in the 1990s, then became what can best be described as a Jewish rave by the turn of the century, drawing several hundred unaffiliated Jews each month for hours-long ecstatic Kabbalat Shabbat services.

By 2005, Chochmat had transformed itself once more, this time into a synagogue. Its “Big Friday”

services are still raucous, inspirational and powered by thumping music and chant-filled prayer, but Chochmat now has dues-paying members, a board of directors, a part-time administrator, an ordained rabbi and all the “fixings” of a Jewish institution.

“I sometimes hear (from others) that the community is more grounded now, but that the ecstatic has been lost,” says Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, a long-time member who was hired as the congregation’s part-time rabbi in 2008. Schley doesn’t think that’s true. Instead, she believes worshippers in the past “would get high on the energy (of the service) but the energy would just get left. It needs to get grounded in spiritual practice. I don’t know where the ecstatic stuff will go. We are trying to find a balance.”

As it searches for this balance, Chochmat HaLev provides a potent illustration of the challenges facing the new Jewish spirituality. Can it be institutionalized? What happens when an antiestablishment movement establishes itself?

Chochmat HaLev came to life in the 1990s as a result of efforts by Nan Fink Gefen, the cofounder of Tikkun magazine, to bring together Jewish renewal teachers and groups in the Bay Area. One of these teachers, Rabbi Avram Davis, proposed creating a Jewish meditation center that could be a community resource. Gefen was enthusiastic, and Chochmat HaLev was launched, first as a series of classes in 1992 to 1993, and then as a nonprofit organization in 1995.

In focusing on Jewish meditation, Gefen and Davis were at the forefront of a wave of interest in training a generation of Jewish “spiritual leaders,” who could bring meditation to their own congregations and lead meditation retreats and workshops for nonaffiliated Jews. So in addition to holding its own retreats and workshops, Chochmat pioneered a year-long leadership program with an initial cohort of 40 students.

Something happened on the communal meditation cushion, however. Joined by their interest in Jewish spirituality, the initial group felt a desire to pray together — a development that took Gefen by surprise. Davis, however, had thought of offering services from the beginning, because for him, Jewish meditation could exist only as part of a larger practice.

From the start, Davis led Chochmat’s services, distinguished by the constant thrum of a six-piece band composed of guitar, bass, drum set, keyboards and vocalists, its musical direction owed in equal parts to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, American rock and Moroccan beats. During a typical service, continuing today, participants dance in the aisles, clap, stomp their feet and sway with hands in the air, in an atmosphere most reminiscent of evangelical rapture

“I went, and for the first time, I thought it was a little crazy,” Alix Wall, a board member, said of the first service she attended in 2000. “During the service, I was moved by the music, but I also felt, this is so Berkeley. It was a little much. I remember Avram saying, “Now we are going to sing a song by Rebbe Dylan,” and I thought, ‘Who was that?’ And it turned out it was Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door.’ ”

Very soon, Chochmat’s leaders realized they needed more space, as high holiday services swelled to 900 and more than 100 people began coming regularly on Friday night. In 2000, Chochmat bought a former church building and services soon grew past the fire code capacity of 280.

From 2000 to 2005, Chochmat HaLev functioned much like a cross between an institute for Jewish spirituality and an independent minyan. Like an institute, Chochmat had a building and a part-time administrator, offering classes and workshops for a fee. Like a minyan, Chochmat hosted alternative prayer services. Holding these two very different organizations together was a tight-knit, supportive community.

The year 2005 marked a crisis for Chochmat. The meditation school had essentially vanished. Aside from one year-long distance-learning program, the school was not offering more classes than an active synagogue. And because of its regular religious services, Chochmat was no longer seen as a non-denominational resource center: Its original mission was gone.

Meanwhile, the Chochmat community had grown. “A lot of young people came, met and married here. Many of them now have children. We had to offer a tot Shabbat program,” said Schley, the rabbi.

In 2009, she said, “We added a school and a b’nai mitzvah program, because people were leaving the community when their kids became school age. We just had our first death in the community, and some of our members have decided to begin a hevra kadisha (burial society).”

Members suddenly needed a range of life-cycle rituals and pastoral counseling. Some long-term members wanted to develop their religious practice beyond Kabbalat Shabbat services, and sought a mentor to learn Torah and midrash.

At the same time, the growing organization found itself short on funds but, as Gefen explained, there was a reluctance to establish membership. “The culture in the larger Bay Area is that people don’t necessarily belong to things easily, especially less conventional people. They also don’t often feel responsible for the continuation of a community or institution,” she said.

“But as we moved in the direction of a community rather than an institution, it became clearer that we needed dues. In 2005, we started to tell people they needed to be a member. It worked because there were enough people who considered Chochmat to be their home.”

In 2005, the Chochmat board decided to become a functioning synagogue, and Avram Davis chose to leave. While Davis sees a role for synagogues, he is firm that they are not the only or best way to create a Jewish practice. He now lives on a farm where he is developing what he calls “tribal Judaism.”

After Schley was hired as rabbi in 2008, Chochmat hired a part-time education director. The board is debating whether to affiliate with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Even though Chochmat is now modeled, structurally, after traditional synagogues, its services cannot be mistaken for those anywhere else. They still attract young, unaffiliated Jews. Members continue to go to morning meditation practice, and community bonds seem as strong as ever.

Can the new Jewish spirituality be institutionalized? Chochmat’s example shows that a very different kind of Judaism can exist within the four walls of a synagogue. Chochmat’s ability both to outlast the loss of its charismatic founder and to develop a core of members willing to give back regularly to their spiritual community is a sign that American Jews are ready to change the content of their worship, if not the institutional structure in which it takes place.

As Gefen said: “You start a community with a charismatic leader, but people come in that doorway and become attached to the community. You can’t underestimate the power of intensive programs where people forge connections with each other.”

Jo Ellen Green Kaiser will be writing regularly for the Forward. She is editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. For an expanded look at Jewish spirituality, read more at http://zeek.forward.com


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