New-time religion

On a recent Friday night, members of Ruach Torah gathered at a fellow congregant's home to usher in the Jewish Sabbath.

All day Hesha Abrams has wondered what to tell them. Now as the sun sets, she meets at her Dallas home with more than a dozen members of her fledgling congregation called Ruach Torah, the "Spirit of Torah."

On this eve of Pentecost, the Jewish holiday commemorating that ancient time when the Hebrews accepted the Ten Commandments, she takes a seat at her dining table where the others have gathered. Just then, she bursts into song. With her hand tapping out a beat, her rich voice envelops the room with Hebrew words. "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," sings Abrams, a tall, imposing woman of 42, a rabbinical student who, in the spirit of a liberal, egalitarian form of Judaism, has a yarmulke pinned to her wavy, brown hair. "Pray for the peace of all the world."

Why she decided to sing that song, she doesn't know. It just came to her on the spur of the moment. Perhaps even in prayer, she later explained.

"Yosef," she says to Joseph Schusterman, who left a Reform congregation some two years ago to help start this group, the only in Dallas representing itself as the latest segment of Judaism--Jewish Renewal. The movement bills itself as a nondenominational Jewish assemblage, one that, according to its followers, honors the role of all major denominations by not denouncing opposing theological positions, be they on gays or the ordination of women.

Looking at Schusterman, Abrams repeats an age-old declaration in Hebrew, the one that had been uttered by a tribal desert people at Mount Sinai three millennia ago. "Na-aseh V'nishma," she said. "Can you tell us what that means?"

He scrunches his bearded face, as if confronted with a trivia question to which he knows the answer, but can't recall just then. "We will..." His words falter. He can't remember.

"First you do it, then you understand it," says Abrams of those Hebrew words, which literally translate as "We will do and we will listen."

Under the guidance of a Jewish Renewal rabbinic program, which is based in Philadelphia, Abrams has been studying for the past four years to become a rabbi. She has three years to go.

Now, on this night, as spiritual leader of this Jewish Renewal congregation--one of 45 to 50 such gatherings nationwide--she wants to convey to those before her the meaning of the holiday. In an age in which thousands of American Jews are fleeing the flock, be it through intermarriage or plain apathy, she wants to fill them with awe, to let them know that Judaism is still relevant to their lives. She could have done what other Jews still observing the occasion do and ushered in the festival with a traditional meal sanctified with a prayer over wine. But like the movement to which she belongs, there's nothing predictable about Abrams' observance of Judaism.

In the 30 years since Jewish Renewal has emerged nationwide (there are also congregations in Brazil, England, Israel, Switzerland, and Canada), it has become known as a personalized, spiritualized form of Judaism, one that doesn't stress one approach to ritual and worship as much as a sense of individual connection to God. A personal God. In light of past atrocities against Jews, many practitioners of Jewish Renewal maintain that God is calling on the Jewish people to move away from old ways of connecting with God as King and Judge and see Him also as an intimate "Breath of Life," as some have put it. Jewish Renewal, they say, represents a renewed connection to God, just as this Creator is said to have guided a wandering people in ancient times. Followers have tried to pursue that encounter by going beyond the formality of most synagogues, whatever those respective denominations may be.

And so, at Jewish Renewal weekend retreats, as they're called, adherents have an array of options to choose from in order to tap into their Jewish spirituality. Along with dabbling in other mystical traditions such as Buddhism and Sufism, there's the chance to study a watered-down (English) version of the Kabbala, a 2nd-century book dealing with Jewish mysticism: the mysteries of the Cosmos, the nature of man, the purpose of creation. And there are sunrise walks. Religious services at the ocean and beach. Meditation.

Since it began more than a year ago, Ruach Torah has tried its hand at group meditation for Sabbath services, which it usually holds at a member's home because it still lacks the funds and membership to have its own building. "The meditation hasn't really caught on yet," says Schusterman, a 52-year-old engineer. Still, there are other ways in which the group, numbering about 30, tries to "push the envelope," as he puts it. Abrams, in particular, tries to break down those inhibitions that she believes keep people from realizing that vague, subjective feeling known as spirituality. She wants them to reclaim some sense of reverence for Judaism.  

The Christians, she says, wear bracelets: "WWJD [What would Jesus do?]. I think that's terrific. We should have something like WWGD."

At Ruach Torah, there's the occasional group prayer, of people gathering in a circle and clasping their hands behind each other's backs. Or the times when Abrams asks members to bless each other. As a real ice-breaker, there was the time this last Passover when she and about 20 other people gathered at Schusterman's house for a ritual meal. Breaking with the rote of observance, she had bought several boxes of baby wipes. Approach a person of the opposite sex, she instructed them, and while wiping the person's hands, tell him or her why you appreciate that gender. There's nothing in Judaism that commands one to practice a ritual with baby wipes. Still, through a few giggles and some curious looks, the members obliged.

Such an informal attempt at Jewish practice appeals to many at Ruach Torah, even if Hesha Abrams sometimes asks them to do quirky things. At those times, "it can be a little uncomfortable," says 33-year-old Lori Freedman, who became a full-time member of Ruach Torah when it began last year. (Members pay an annual fee of $72. That figure was chosen because it's a multiple of a mystical number, 18. In Hebrew, letters hold numerological value. And the word "Chai," meaning "life," has a value of 18.)

For two decades, Freedman had drifted away from Judaism, her secular upbringing providing her with little understanding of the meaning behind its traditions. Last year represented a change in her life. Newly divorced, she longed for a connection, a purpose, and she decided to go on a group tour of Israel. The sights invigorated her, such as seeing a throng of Orthodox men rushing toward the Western Wall as the setting sun ushered in the Sabbath. Briefly, the group she traveled with went up north and stopped off in Tsfat, an ancient city known as the birthplace of a medieval Jewish mystic named Rabbi Isaac Luria. But after 30 minutes there, the Jews from North Dallas were ready to travel on, to attend a barbecue in another city.

"There's a North Dallas Jewish scene," says Freedman, "where who you are and what you're judged on that."

When she returned to Dallas, she wanted to learn more about her faith. But she wasn't drawn to any of the about 20 Dallas-area synagogues representing the major denominations. When Schusterman, a colleague of her then-fiancé's, told her that he was starting another congregation, her interest piqued. She has been going to Ruach Torah's monthly services ever since.

"You can be free," she says. None of the Reform temples that she previously attended has an ambience that compares. "At Emanu-El," she says, referring to one of the largest Reform congregations in America located right here in Dallas, "the services are somber, sad-sounding."

But to some Jews, such as Professor Charles Liebman, a Conservative Jew in Israel who is a leading political sociologist of American Jewry, Jewish Renewal isn't so much about Judaism, but about libertine, goosey gibberish that will do nothing to ensure Jewish continuity. Because it's a privatized, spiritualist pursuit, he charges, it weakens the bonds of the Jewish traditions of communal life and worship, the very practices that have fostered Jewish survival since the destruction of the Jews' temple 2,000 years ago.

Still, if Jewish identity in America is suffering--and it is, as evidenced by both the high intermarriage and the abysmal lack of knowledge of the religion and its traditions--the Jewish Renewal movement is more of a reaction to that loss of connection to Judaism than it is a culprit. If anything, the Renewalists, as they call themselves, see the problem: the infighting among the established denominations, which despite the lauded pluralism of American Jewry, neither recognize one another's definitions of who is a Jew nor accept one another's converts. Sadly, most American Jews, as the Jewish social commentator Michael Medved observed, are united only along the lines of what they don't believe in. Jesus Christ, that is.

In the midst of all those internal divisions, many Jews find the search for identity agonizing enough to abandon ship altogether. Many find refuge in Buddhism, which they view as a particularly alluring and exotic way of transcending the bonds of Judaism while not explicitly abandoning their birth religion. Indeed, Jews today constitute a vastly disproportionate number of non-Asian Buddhists in America.

The Renewalists have tried to forge a bond between Judaism's various denominations by dismissing those differences as little more than personal preferences. One group may decide on one form of practice, another may opt for another, and "that's fine," as Schusterman repeatedly says. Aside from his devotion to Jewish Renewal--he holds weekly Bible study classes at his home--he has coined a name for the type of Jew he is. "ReConservaDox," he calls it. Meaning he's an amalgam, a "smorgasbord" Jew who combines all three major denominations in his life. And at Ruach Torah, he has a policy of not speaking ill of any other branch.  

But as accepting as Schusterman is of the major denominations, Orthodoxy, for its part, has not been embracing of Jewish Renewal's explicitly liberal viewpoints, of women and men participating equally in worship and of "honoring," as Jewish Renewalists put it, gay men and lesbians.

Still, those at Ruach Torah aren't harping on such differences. Hesha Abrams has said that not only is she studying under an Orthodox rabbi, but that the head of one such congregation in Dallas (one she declines to name because she doesn't want to spark controversy) gave her a blessing for her work on behalf of the Jewish people.

And the Renewalists have tried to reach out to those who, in the words of the Passover liturgy, have even forgotten how to ask, those who haven't even an elementary knowledge of Judaism with which to base questions. Many in the Jewish Renewal movement look to Zalman Schachter--a renegade Orthodox rabbi, as one critic in the Conservative denomination labeled the elder man--as the leader of Jewish Renewal. To his critics, this rabbi (ordained through a Hasidic branch of Orthodoxy known as Lubavitch, which he later left to start a Jewish Renewal congregation), has employed the dangerous practice of endorsing a Judaism without limits, a bastardized version of the faith that has encouraged syncretism at both prayer and retreat centers for decades through the embrace of other spiritual paths such as Buddhism and Sufism.

Defenders of Jewish Renewal reject that criticism--wholeheartedly. "Even people in the Conservative movement talk about how wonderful Judaism is at assimilating the best of other cultures," says Rabbi Daniel Siegel, a 53-year-old Jewish Renewal rabbi with a 130-member congregation in Boston who was the first in the movement to be ordained by Rabbi Schachter. "That has always been true about Judaism.

"There was a discussion that went on for centuries about what value Greek thinking has and what we can take from it...I think we're open to things that we can learn from other spiritual traditions, and I think that's perfectly, traditionally Jewish."

As for Hesha Abrams, ever since she walked into a Jewish Renewal congregation in Portland, Oregon, a decade ago, and saw the boisterous, unbridled energy with which the 50 or so people there--dressed in casual clothes--prayed, she knew she had found her spiritual center.

The Orthodox don't need her, she says matter-of-factly and without the slightest hint of bitterness. Let them, the pedigrees, take care of their flock, she says. Her work is needed with those who have lost their way. For them, she says, Jewish Renewal offers a "buffet" of options from which to choose.

On the eve of Pentecost, they gather in Hesha Abrams' house, right off a street called Meandering Way.

"Quiet the chatter," she says evenly, and the room comes to attention. Her husband, Jeff--who, like his wife, works as a legal mediator--and their two teenage children sit near her, listening intently.

On this night, she wants to celebrate the festival with a group Bible study, traditionally done in groups of two. Before that, though, she hopes to strike the match that would connect one person to the other.

"Shavuot," or Pentecost, "is a holiday of revelation," she says, "where if you want to know God and want God to speak to you, Shavuot is the energy of that holiday...If you want it badly enough, you can receive revelation from God."

The room becomes quiet.

"We are all created in the image of God," she says softly, her eyes scanning the faces, young and old, in the room.

"The eyes are the windows of the soul," she continues, and speaks of the phylacteries, that small box containing scriptural passages traditionally placed above the eyes during morning prayers.

"Look into each other's eyes," she says.

Slowly, each person turns to one another. If anyone is uncomfortable, no one shows it. A minute passed. "Really look and see beyond the surface. Pretend. If God wanted to talk to you and chose this person, would you accept?"

As people look at each other, there are nods and smiles, smiles of recognition and familiarity.

Tell the other person that "I met you at Sinai," she says. They oblige. Another minute passes.  

"With your eyes, bless the other person that they will receive revelation from God." The stares intensify. Only when she tells them to wish each other a "hag samayach," a "happy holiday," does the silence end.

She has accomplished what she set out to do, to stretch their comfort level. Maybe next time, she says, she would go to five minutes.

In the hours ahead, they sit at the table scattered with copies of the five books of Moses, as well as elementary-level books on Jewish literacy. There, they philosophize in between trivia questions that Abrams has compiled. The soul, the light of God, is in us all, says one young woman. And they discuss who each believes was the holiest person in the Bible. Amos, says a teenager who bears the Biblical name. Moses, says someone else. Throughout, they nibble on ice cream, a way of commemorating the dietary laws that were said to be given at Sinai. On Pentecost, Jews acknowledge the laws of kosher by having separate meals, one for meat, another for dairy.

"Jeff is doing a lot of Buddhist study," says Abrams, as her husband goes into the kitchen, "which is really flipping his parents out."

But ever since he attended that first Jewish Renewal service with his wife in Oregon, he has joined her in becoming more entrenched in Jewish practice, says Abrams, who grew up in a secular Jewish home. It took him longer, she acknowledges, but he came around and was supportive of her decision to uproot the family to California for a year to study at the University of Judaism, a seminary in Los Angeles affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

"Jeff had a whole lot of difficulty accepting my rabbinate," she says. "For one, I'm a woman. Another is, his wife's in the spotlight."

But, she adds, "Now, it's fine."

When she talks about Judaism, Hesha Abrams--like the movement to which she belongs--doesn't like to sound exclusionary. And she loves to use computer analogies to convey her point. All people can connect to God, she says, be they Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, you name it. Jews just have a different Internet portal, and they have to use it to access their connection to the above.

As fate would have it, Joe Schusterman was surfing the Web about two years ago, looking for information on the Jewish Renewal movement. At the time, he had recently ended his term as the president of a Reform congregation, one that he declines to name. In the years since he'd moved to Dallas (he is originally from Egypt), he strove to maintain a connection to local synagogues, and as a college freshman he taught Sunday school at a local Reform temple.

But years later, as president of a Reform congregation, he found people more interested in promoting social and political agendas--feminism and ecology, for example--than in spiritual issues. He looked elsewhere. He looked to Jewish Renewal. About two years ago, he attended his first such service at a temple in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Impressed by the fervency with which the group worshiped--along with singing, they used drums, something the Orthodox don't do--Schusterman thought of starting a congregation in Dallas. Soon, a member of the Jewish Renewal's main office in Philadelphia told him there was a woman in Dallas affiliated with the movement. Eventually, he convinced that woman--Hesha Abrams--to start a group with him.

Their first meeting together attracted more than a dozen people, among them Susan Harris, who followed Schusterman from that unnamed Reform temple.

She herself had become disillusioned with the temple, particularly because they had wanted to hold a garage sale on a Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. Harris, a 48-year-old accountant, decided she had to look elsewhere for spiritual respite.

In March of 1999, on Purim, a holiday that commemorates the Jews' redemption from death in ancient Persia, she showed up at Schusterman's home with a brass menorah in hand. Everyone invited had been told to bring a religious object that was dear to him or her. One person brought Sabbath candle sticks. Another brought a prayer shawl. While sharing memories, Harris began to sense that she belonged among these people. She has been a member ever since.

"I spend so much of my day with people who judge so much of what you do," she says. "This is a quiet place."

The Day of Rest was coming. And on a recent night, they gathered to usher it in at Joe Schusterman's house. On this Friday evening, this Sabbath eve, Hesha Abrams places a colorful prayer shawl with maroon trim around her shoulders. Everyone gathers around her, taking a seat in one of several chairs placed in a circle.  

Her voice rises. The others soon follow. "How pleasant," they all sing in Hebrew, "to sit among one's brothers."

She extends her arms to those beside her and sways back and forth. Soon, everyone does the same, moving back and forth as if they were at a camp site, gathered around a fire.

Place your worries into the fire, she says. One by one, they briefly name their worries. For one, an HMO. For another, a broken car. The songs begin.

Later, as the music dies down, an older woman leaves the room for a second. When she returns, she holds a large, heavy Torah scroll encased in multicolored velvet. On this night, Ruach Torah gets its first-ever Torah, this one donated by an Irving Conservative congregation that is folding because its rabbi had accepted a post in another city.

"Thank you for planting your tree here," says Abrams about this Torah, this Tree of Life, as the Jews call it.

A teary Schusterman stands silently to the side, his arm wrapped around his wife, Sherry. A Mormon by birth, she converted to Judaism through the Reform movement more than 20 years ago.

In the minutes ahead, they dance around the room. They sing. And later, they place the scroll on the table in the dining room, where Abrams speaks in a soft, enthusiastic voice of the precision with which a scribe must have labored for more than a year to write each and every Hebrew word of the five Books of Moses. As several members unroll the parchment, the room quiets. They are at the beginning, the start of the Torah.

"In the beginning..." Haltingly, slowly, they read the words in Hebrew.

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