Missed Encounter
A day with ICAHD

Coming home: a Jewish Renewal erev Shabbat

A lot of people told me that as soon as I set foot in Israel, I would feel like I'd come home. That wasn't my experience with arriving in the country writ large, but it's how I felt when I stepped into Nava Tehila, the monthly Friday night Jewish Renewal service led by Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.

One reason I felt at-home was that I ran into almost everyone I know in Jerusalem there. Friends from ALEPH, acquaintances from Ohalah, folks I met last Shabbat morning at the Leader Minyan, folks I've met at school, someone I met at the initial briefing session for the Encounter program last week, even someone I knew from the PANIM transdenominational rabbinic student retreat last year. What an amazing intersection of my various Jewish lives!

Beyond that, I feel at home wherever the music is really good, and the music at Nava Tehilah was great. An excellent drummer, two guitarists, a violinist, three song-leaders, and about 200 people singing with intention and heart. That's pretty much exactly my idea of a good time.

But maybe the deepest reason I felt at home was how the minyan dovetails with my ecumenical sensibilities. I first read about Reb Ruth's minyan in a Jerusalem Post article, Keeping the Faiths, which begins, "A rabbi, a monk, and a Sufi walk into a minyan. It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke circulating by email. But it's a reality every month at Nava Tehilla, Jerusalem's first - and only - 'multi-faith' Jewish renewal gathering." (It's a good article, worth reading.)

To be clear: the service is entirely a Jewish service. The davenen (and extra-liturgical conversation) is in Hebrew (with English translations of the teachings so no one feels left out.) But the doors are intentionally open to members of other faith traditions. I mentioned that there was a violinist? He was a monk in brown and white robes (a member of a French Catholic order called the Beatitudes.) I saw a few of his fellows there, and a nun, and an Indian couple in traditional dress, and someone I could swear is Ghanaian (Ga, if I had to guess, though he vanished after the service before I had a chance to go say hello and see if my Ghana-dar was working right.)

After our opening chant, Reb Ruth offered words of welcome, and reminded us that we are all participants here, welcome to sit or stand, daven full-text or join in the extended chanting of brief pearls from the psalms, meditate in silence or dance with abandon... as long as whatever we choose to do, we do wholly. She treated each psalm during kabbalat Shabbat as a gate into the service, and before each offered a brief teaching from this week's Torah portion (in Hebrew and then in English) which was sealed and sweetened by the singing.

During "Lecha Dodi," when our singing and dancing and bouncing reached a fever pitch, a new bride and groom came into the middle of the circle, and we sang to the Shekhinah manifest in the literal bride as well as to the Sabbath Bride. And then we sang the last verse and my heart cracked right open, and I covered my face and wept. From that moment on, I felt luminous.

Looking around the room at this joyful immersion in kabbalat Shabbat and maariv services, I thought, this is what Isaiah meant when he voiced God as saying, "My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." In that basement room at Kol Haneshamah, where two hundred people of various faith traditions gathered to welcome Shabbat together, I think that statement came true.

Afterwards most of us walked (beneath the darkening sky and the most amazing sliver of new moon) to Ruth and Michael's (beautiful) home for a potluck supper which began with blessings and schmoozing, and continued after dinner with song and a kind of Torah-teaching open-mike. Meanwhile, other people helped put out and clear up the potluck supper while Ruth and Michael circulated -- which reminded me of our New Year's gathering, actually, the sense that this is a community of friends which feels ownership of the regular gathering so that the hosts don't have to run things.

I didn't stay long -- only until about 10:30 -- because it's been an awfully long first week of class for me, and my Friday was particularly emotionally challenging. (Rewarding in proportion to its difficulty, but difficult nonetheless. More about that soon.) But I'm so grateful to have found my way to this monthly Renewal minyan -- and, in a bigger-picture sense, to have found my way to Jewish Renewal, a home I can carry with me wherever I go.

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