Longform

New-time religion

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.

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Lisa Singh
Contact: Lisa Singh