Rabbi’s Journey Leads to ‘Ecstatic’ Minyan

By Jennifer Bleyer

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Lev Gorn knew that Kehilat Romemu wasn’t a regular minyan when the Torah service began.

Rising from their chairs and meditation cushions, the roughly 100 people in attendance last month sang a lilting melody. There was guitar and Middle Eastern tabla drumming. The Torah was passed around from one cradling embrace to the next. When it was returned to the front of the room, Rabbi David Ingber announced that the first aliyah, or blessing on the Torah reading, was for all those who wanted to further their spiritual commitments. At least half the congregation, identifying with this, stood up to partake in the honor.

“I’ve tried Buddhism, which I like very much,” said Gorn, a 35-year-old photographer, after the service. “But I wanted something that feels more like home. And I feel Jewish, but reading from the Torah in a rigid way doesn’t work for me. This is closer to what I’m about — celebration.”

The monthly Romemu minyan had its inaugural Sabbath runs in March and April at Makor, the Manhattan cultural center aimed at twenty- and thirty-somethings, attracting standing-room-only crowds for what Ingber, its charismatic founder, called “fully embodied, ecstatic and contemplative prayer.”

“One reason people don’t go to shul is because it’s antiquated,” said Ingber, 37, broad chested and goateed. “Young people are asking themselves, ‘What does this all mean?’ A service is like a restaurant. We’re not trying to give people a book about eating; we’re trying to give them a meal to eat. You know when you’ve had a great meal, and you know when you’ve been to a great prayer service. I want people to walk into this and feel alive.”

Romemu’s gestation reflects Ingber’s own journey to find his place within Judaism —- the type of epic spiritual journey on which many young Jews embark, full of unexpected detours and serendipitous forks in the road.

For Ingber, it began in the Modern Orthodox stronghold of Great Neck, Long Island. His family attended Great Neck Synagogue and sent him to the Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was intensely inquisitive and philosophical. But by 14, he found Orthodoxy uncompelling and rejected it. He immersed himself in hockey and bodybuilding.

“I was huge,” he recalled. “I was going to go out for Mr. Long Island.”

Then he went to Israel for his senior year, as is customary within the yeshiva world, bringing along kegs of protein powder and two duffel bags full of white tuna to ensure that his strict bodybuilding diet would not be interrupted. In Jerusalem, the first thing on his agenda was to join a gym.

Soon, however, Ingber’s athletic extremism was subsumed by religion. While studying at the Beit Midrash L’Torah, he stopped lifting weights, grew sidelocks down to his shoulders, and developed nearsightedness from fervently studying texts.

“I was learning 18 hours a day, memorizing Mishna, praying at sunrise at the [Western Wall],” he said. “I became hyper-religious. At the yeshiva, we were all competing with each other to see who could learn more.”

When he returned to the United States, Ingber spent two years learning at the regal, storied Rabbi Chaim Berlin yeshiva in Brooklyn. By then, he was increasingly drawn to meditation and mysticism, practices scorned within the Litvak yeshiva world of strictly cerebral pursuits.

He began to feel that certain forms of Orthodoxy contained patterns of dysfunction. “Unhappy sibling models and unhappy parental relationships are hardwired into the very nature of certain approaches to Judaism,” he explained, “which leads to unhappy relationships to God and ourselves. It’s a Judaism of ‘never good enough-ness.’” At the age of 23, he left Judaism again.

Ingber spent most of the next decade pursuing practices that read like a menu of the contemporary holistic movement: yoga, tai chi, shiatsu, Reiki, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, gyrotonics, Zen meditation, martial arts, integrative body psychotherapy and postural integration. Inasmuch as his yeshiva education had taught Ingber that spiritual ascendance happened only in the mind, he came to believe that it happened also, if not more so, in the body.

Eventually, while working as a Pilates instructor and astrologer in Israel, Ingber was again pulled toward Judaism. Given his background, he “felt that the only valid expression was Orthodoxy,” and so he enrolled in the Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He studied there for two years before meeting Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.

Ingber’s eyes begin to well up when he speaks of his teacher, known to followers as Reb Zalman. “He’s deeply Jewish and deeply universal,” Ingber said. “I’ve never met someone who loves God so much in my life.”

It was from Reb Zalman that Ingber received his rabbinic ordination. Then came his own germinating vision for Romemu.

“It didn’t make sense to me that out of 30 or so shuls on the Upper West Side, there was no Renewal-style synagogue,” Ingber said.

The Romemu minyan is part of Ingber’s dream for a center devoted to Jewish transformation in four areas: the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It would be a place for prayer, he explained, as well as for meditation, the healing arts, dance, art, physical wellness, and learning.

The center is perhaps far off, but Ingber believes that the time is already ripe for Romemu in New York — and for him personally.

“I had to wait until I could teach a Judaism that was transformative and exciting and healing and courageous,” he said. “A Judaism that isn’t fear based. A Judaism that is unabashedly devoted to spirit.”

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